Gestaltism, a theory of mind and brain

Hey guys, I was studying for my university course and one of my lecture notes on Stimulus Perception mentioned something called Gestaltism or Gestalt Psychology. Not really by choice, I decided to look it up, and I am very glad that I did. It’s actually quite interesting. It’s pretty extensive, so I’ll use headlines, paragraphs and whatnot.


So gestaltism is a concept that I personally found a little challenging to wrap my head around. Its philosophy, when boiled down to the bones of it, is that ‘the whole is other than the sum of the parts’. So basically, getting some stuff, and arranging it in such a way that it is perceived as something else without the viewer realising. Examples work really well here, they helped me understand what the heck they were talking about.

This is a vase. But it’s actually not. It’s 2 faces staring at each other. From my understanding, the gestalt effect for this would be that the whole (vase) is other than the sum of its parts (faces).  Here’s another example:

You see a panda? That’s what it’s meant to be. But the idea of gestalt is that they didn’t draw a panda. they drew a very pointy M shape, four bobbles and an upside down dumpling. They put the shapes somewhat close to each other and you immediately deduced that this image is a panda. The whole point is that you didn’t notice ears, then eyes, then a nose, then all the other constituent parts and put them together logically to make a panda. Rather, your brain looked at the whole thing and immediately said, ‘Panda’.

Ok so down the meat of it. First introduced in contemporary philosophy and psychology by Christian von Ehrenfels. The ‘gestalt’ approach was an attempt at defining principles of perception, which were apparently innate laws that determined how things were perceived. It plays around with how you view things and what you see when you focus on different aspects of an image – foreground, background etc.


There are a couple of principles that were made to kind of organise the concept; it’s always nice to break things down.

Principle of Totality: Basically, the thing being viewed must be considered in its entirety. You have to look at the whole thing because the mind demands that each constituent part be considered as an ingredient in a recipe of dynamic relationships.

Principle of Psychophysical isomorphism: Yeah. This theoretical principle theorises that there’s a correlation between what you experience consciously and your brains activity.


Fun time. Key properties of gestalt systems are emergence, reification, multistability and invariance.

Emergence is the process of making a complex pattern using simple rules. Wiki describes this principle using the example of the Dog Picture.

Very common example. Essentially, a Dalmatian dog is sniffing the ground in the shade of some trees. You look at the picture, and similarly to the above panda picture, you wouldn’t recognise first the ears, nose, tail and feet etc. and then think ok its a dog because of all those parts. You would look at the picture and perceive a dog as a whole.

Reification is the constructive or generative aspect of perception. This is where the thing you perceive contains ‘more spatial information than the sensory stimulus on which it is based’. I’ll again use wiki’s example, because it’s nice and convenient.


Ok, so A, you can see a triangle, but no triangles were drawn, only Pacmans. In B and D, you’ll perceive one shape (I see an S for B and a serpent in the water for D) but it’s actually made of many shapes. In C, you’ll see a 3D object (sphere) but nothing 3D was drawn. Just pizza shapes and triangles!

Multistability refers to images that has your mind jumping back and forth on alternative interpretations of what the image could be. Wiki describes it as ‘ambiguous perceptual experiences’. For example, M.C.Escher’s three legged blivet, shown below.

Invariance is when you’ll recognise things even if they appear distorted, rotated or scaled.

The fundamental principle of gestalt perception is the law of pragnanz, which means we tend to order our experience in a manner that is regular, organised, symmetric and simple.

Couple of laws relating to that principle:

  • The law of closure – The mind may experience elements it does not perceive through sensation, in order to complete a regular figure (that is, to increase regularity). Basically, a dotted line in the shape of a square appears, you will see a square.
  • The law of similarity – The mind groups similar elements into collective entities or totalities. This similarity might depend on relationships of form, color, size, or brightness.
  • The law of proximity – Spatial or temporal proximity of elements may induce the mind to perceive a collective or totality.
  • The law of symmetry (figure–ground relationships) – Symmetrical images are perceived collectively, even in spite of distance.
  • The law of continuity – The mind continues visual, auditory, and kinetic patterns.
  • The law of common fate – Elements with the same moving direction are perceived as a collective or unit.

One of the more indepth posts because I think it’s one of my more interesting topics! Hope you learnt as I learnt and enjoyed as I enjoyed.




4 responses to “Gestaltism, a theory of mind and brain

  1. Very interesting stuff, thanks for posting. I find the concept of emergence especially fascinating. I recently listened to a course on Complex Systems and emergence figures prominently in that field. As for some of these optical “illusions”, I just posted some on my blog the other day, my favorite being an image that tires out certain color receptors and enhances others so that when a black and white image is shown after 20 seconds, the human perception is of a brilliant color image until your color receptors finally regain their balance.

  2. Pingback: Stimulus Perception «·

  3. Pingback: Emergence | djberryh·

  4. Pingback: Gestalt – reification | tangibleorgans·

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