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Gestalt Psychology and Laws of Perception

Apr 22,2009 Scott Mitchell

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Gestalt theorists believed that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, the perception of a car is an entirely different experience than the atomic perception of tires, bumpers, glass, metal and headlights. Gestalt psychologists codified a number of key concepts and “laws” of human perception. These concepts and laws were refinements of an overarching notion of “Pragnanz” (German for precision, conciseness, succinctness or pithiness) which says that “we tend to order our experiences in a manner that is regular, orderly, symmetric and simple”. The Gestalt school of psychology was founded by Max Wertheimer as a rebellion against the molecularism of Wundt. The original observation was Wertheimer’s, when he noted that we perceive motion where there is nothing more than a rapid sequence of individual sensory events. This is what he saw in the toy stroboscope he bought at the Frankfurt train station, and what he saw in his laboratory when he experimented with lights flashing in rapid succession (like the Christmas lights that appear to course around the tree, or the fancy neon signs in Los Vegas that seem to move).

Here is some quoted text just to try things out Frankfurt train station, and what he saw in his laboratory when he experimented with lights flashing in rapid succession (like the Christmas lights that appear to course around the tree, or the fancy neon signs in Los Vegas that seem to move).Frankfurt train station, and what he saw in his laboratory when he experimented with lights flashing in rapid succession (like the Christmas lights that appear to course around the tree, or the fancy neon signs in Los Vegas that seem to move).

Key Concepts

Gestalt psychologists initially identified a number of broad observations about human perception.

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These observations led to the codification of a number of “laws” about how humans perceive groups of related information — visual or audible information.

Laws of Grouping or “Unit Forming Factors”

Wertheimer and his early colleagues originally defined four laws of perceptual grouping. These laws resulted from a number of “biotic experiments” or real-world experiments that displayed sets of dots to subjects. Common themes emerged:

  1. Law of Closure. Elements that are perceived to form a closed contour are treated as a group; and, in order to complete an element, the mind will “fill in” missing information and perceive a whole rather than an incomplete part. A special case called the Law of Symmetry says, holding all other things equal, the mind will see and group symmetry before accepting asymmetry.
  2. Law of Similarity. Elements that are similar (based on size, color, texture, orientation) are perceived as a group.
  3. Law of Proximity. Elements that share spatial or temporal proximity are perceived as a group.
  4. Law of Continuity. Elements that move in the same direction are perceived as a group. A special case called the Law of Common Fate says elements that move in the same time and in the same space are perceived as a group.

Two added by Palmer and Rock in the 1990’s:

  1. Law of Common Region. Elements that are enclosed by a defined boundary (a line or contrasting element) are perceived as a group.
  2. Law of Connectedness. Elements that are connected are perceived as a group.

NOTE: These ideas should not be confused with Gestalt therapy which is only peripherally linked to Gestalt psychology.

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