The Gestalt Principles

The word “Gestalt” means “figure”, “form” or “shape”. For the Gestaltist school of thinkers, an organised whole was more than the sum of its parts.

In other words, the Gestaltists believed that human perceivers search for whole forms in any perceptual endeavour. We seek coherence, order and meaning. We look for the complete entity that can be discerned in a stimulus, rather than focusing on the fragmentary elements that make up the visual scene.

Notice my teacup, for instance: you perceive it as a whole, connected object, not as a number of disjointed parts; yet the main component, the bowl shape, does not actually exist at the sensory level. There is nothing there for your sensory receptors to detect, yet your brain still manages to perceive it.

The Gestalts believed that our brains apply certain rules or principles in order to organise the elements from any visual scene or stimulus into a cohesive whole. 

Revision quiz on eye structures and their functions

Quiz on the Gestaltists and their main principles

♦ Kahoot on sensation and perception: Preview Mode | Class Mode

To go further:

An absorbing account of the Gestalt principles and their applications in art, advertising and design

Perceptive students…

So far the outcomes on visual perception that I have corrected have been eye-catching. Below are some of the year eleven students’ clever visual illusions or ambiguous stimuli. Test your own visual tendencies or leave an admiring comment.

Here is the first stimulus, a painting by Emma, whose work also appears in an earlier post.

Part of Emma's comment on her work: "The ambiguous stimulus I have created can be interpreted in two main ways...Notice that when you focus upon the couple, what used to be part of the figure becomes part of the ground." A remarkably effective and slightly spooky artwork, Emma - brilliant!

took quite a different course in developing his visual stimulus. You can view it below:
Jamie’s Visual Stimulus

Bridey and Steven, meanwhile, applied some Gestalt principles to an icon in the history of psychology. I was impressed by their ingenuity as well as by Steven’s description, which is shown below the picture. The only thing missing from the stimulus is the ubiquitous cigar…

An old man, a famous psychologist or some lines of text? - A visual stimulus created by Bridey and Steven

Steven’s description:

“The Gestalt principles play a huge role when observing this picture, as the brain has a tendency to organise and group many small objects (words or letters) into one larger object (a man’s face). The figure-ground principle is vital in determining what an observer sees in this image.

“If the figure (the focus point) is the image as a whole, the observer will most likely see a face. If the observer looks more closely and makes the figure a small section of the image, they are more likely to see lines of text. Humans also group visually similar objects together. This is why we can differentiate between the lighter areas of the text (for example the beard) and the darker areas (for example the glasses). Here the observer groups the elements of visual similarity (lighter text or darker text) together to form recognisable objects. The proximity of the letters and words is also key in the perception of this image. If the letters and words were further apart the observer would be far less likely to see a face…”

Finally, the photo below shows Lizzie’s version of the hallway illusion. Although a tall girl, Lizzie looks somehow not quite so tall in one part of the picture. The reasons include our use of depth principles such as relative size and linear perspective, as well as other pictorial cues.

In my mind, of course, wherever she stands and whatever she does, Lizzie will always be tall…

In every picture you see, the monocular cues to depth help you to interpret the picture as a 3D scene. Sometimes these cues can lead you astray, especially if someone doctors what you see.