Gestalt psychology Essay
Gestalt psychology came to America when Hitler took over Germany and destroyed the intellectual atmosphere of its universities (Ash, 1998). The German psychologists fled Germany and were employed in different schools where they espoused their theoretical paradigms. Gestalt psychology was a controversial and revolutionary school of thought since it basically rejected the atomism and positivism of the earlier systems of thought; structuralism, functionalism and behaviorism (Ellis, 1950). The previous theories have argued that human behavior can be understood by breaking down the behavior into its different parts, although functionalism stressed the function of the parts and behaviorism emphasized how the parts are responses to stimuli, they all agreed that the parts are the key to the understanding of the whole. On the other hand, Gestalt was of a completely different orientation, Gestalt psychology argued that the whole is more than the sum of its parts (Murray, 1995).
They believed that behavior appear as a whole and not as different parts and that these parts interact together to form the whole and at the same time, the individual is as much involved in the process as opposed to the behaviorists position that behavior is a product of the stimulus-response paradigm. Gestalt psychology also stressed that instead of presenting behavior or consciousness in abstract terms, it should be defined in terms of what it is, for example the experience of tasting food should be analyzed as such and not as a complex picture of the taste buds coming in contact with the food. This approach was called phenomenology (Ash, 1998), where objects appear and are perceived as they are and not reduced into its elements. Moreover, the Gestalts supported the idea that many of our psychological processes are genetically based and have been programmed into the human brain since birth (Murray, 1995). This view indicate that the Gestalts did not give much credence to environmental influences like the behaviorists did, for them psychological processes and capacities occur because it is inherently found in each individual. In essence, Gestalt psychology revolted against the psychology of the times and they had voiced their views through a presentation of their studies on perception which demonstrated their arguments on holism and phenomenology.
Most of the work of the Gestalt school had been on perception of which they have proposed several principles of perception which included the phi phenomenon (Steinman, Pizlo & Pizlo, 2000) which was an attempt of explaining apparent motion wherein the perceiver processes and perceives the two lines as a moving single line when the necessary conditions are met. They also hypothesized that the human mind normally perceives objects or stimuli as a whole and not as composed of separate elements. Thus, figure and ground, laws of perceptual grouping and constancies was developed from the experiments on perception of color and degree of brightness (Ellis, 1950). The initial explanations for perceptual processes were translated into the study of behavior by investigating how animals and human beings learn. Kohler demonstrated the occurrence of transposition as a form of learning by training pigeons to discriminate dark from light. He is also credited to have formulated the theory of insightful problem solving and learning through studying the behavior of apes. He said that insightful problem solving occurs when after being presented with a problem, the organism is able to recognize the whole and can then see the solution to the problem based on that whole (Murray, 1995). Insightful learning was said to occur as a product of the restructuring of the external environment of the individual wherein he/she reconfigures his/her perception of the environment and then can identify the important information needed to complete the learning process. Not all of the Gestalt principles was integrated into psychological teachings, rather some of the more useful assumptions were used and adhered to since the theory did not really offer a comprehensive analysis of the human mind and behavior.
Gestalt psychology was seen at that time as a reaction against behaviorism for it rejected the extreme reliance of behaviorism to stimulus-response associations (Murray, 1995). Gestalt psychology did not reject consciousness as the legitimate study of psychology and was able to demonstrate that the individual or even the animal is as much a part of the behavior and not separate from the stimuli and his/her reaction to the stimuli, in short, the perceiver has something to do with how he/she reacts to a stimuli. This was difficult for the behaviorists for it undermined one of their fundamental assumptions and the Gestalt theorists were able to demonstrate their arguments convincingly. Almost akin to behaviorism in its role as a revolutionary system, it however competed with behaviorism in terms of their concentration on similar fields of study like learning, methodological approach and the use of animals to explain human psychological processes and behavior. It was inevitable that Gestalt psychology was preferred by some of the psychologists who did not agree with the radical behaviorism of that period as it provided an alternative solution and explanation of learning and behavior as well as adopting a truly different method of study (Murray, 1995). On the other hand, contemporary psychology have utilized the different assumptions of Gestalt in different specializations, phenomenology has become an accepted form of study of which qualitative research is based, the emphasis on the holistic development of man have found its way to counseling and psychotherapy and to learning. The principles of perceptual organizations are used in the study of cognition and attention, optical illusions are used by biological psychologists to demonstrate how the brain processes visual stimuli and insightful learning have become an integral part of the study of learning and thinking processes.
Gestalt psychology did not establish itself in American psychology as strongly as it should have been (Steinman, Pizlo & Pizlo, 2000) because of the language barrier, it was basically written in German and translations did not always communicated the tenets of the system, then most of the Gestalt proponents were employed in smaller schools and colleges that did not offer any graduate programs that limited their influence over the younger students of psychology, and lastly their research was intended as demonstrations and not as rigorously controlled as most experimental psychologists adhered to, that their findings were not given scientific credence. However, Gestalt psychology has still made its mark in psychology and many have supported their assumptions as a way of thinking and will continue to do so in the future.
Ash, M. (1998). Gestalt Psychology in German Culture, 1890-1967. Cambridge: Cambridge
Ellis W. (1950) A Sourcebook of Gestalt Psychology. New York: The Humanities Press.
Murray D. (1995) Gestalt Psychology and the Cognitive Revolution. New York: Prentice-Hall.
Steinman R.., Pizlo Z. & Pizlo F. (2000). Phi is not Beta, and why Wertheimer’s discovery
launched the Gestalt Revolution: A minireview. Vision Research 40, 2257-2264.