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Gestalt Psychology

Illusions were very important forms of evidence for the gestalt psychologists of the early 20th Century. The word gestalt (pronounced ge-STALT with a hard "g" as in "get") is German for form or whole. It refers to a pattern, thing, form, shape, or object: something whole. The word percept means about the same thing as gestalt : an object of perception.

In the early 20th Century, many psychologists were behaviorists who took the position that all psychological phenomena could be explained with observable phenomena, namely, stimuli and responses. The Gestalt psychologists bristled at this idea, because to them it seemed obvious that hidden processes within the brain were crucial to explaining perception.

What does the word gestalt mean? Why did ambiguous figures fascinate the Gestalt psychologists?

To prove their point, Gestalt psychologists liked to show ambiguous figures. A famous example is the Peter/Paul Vase or Rubin Goblet, publicized by Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin in 1915. The picture can be seen as a vase-like object or as two faces. Because two different perceptions can result from the same stimulus, the gestalt psychologists argued, clearly there was something going on inside the head to determine which figure was seen. Perception involved more than just the stimuli that entered the eye. Central processes (brain processes) were involved.

The gestalt psychologists of the 1930s and 1940s did not have the tools to develop this basic and valid insight. They had no way to define or discuss brain processes other than by vague reference to fields in the brain that (they said) were isomorphic (equivalent in form) to the gestalts. So a switching Rubin's Goblet would correspond in some way to switching energy fields in the brain. Today we are aware that data inside computing machinery does not physically resemble the thing being computed, so we would not expect isomorphism of a crude kind, such as goblet-shaped energy fields in the brain. A modern neuroscientist would expect a switching perception to be accompanied by switching neural circuits, not switching isomorphic energy fields.


The Rubin goblet

What is the difference between "figure" and "ground"?

The Rubin Goblet illustrates a basic concept from Gestalt psychology: the figure-ground distinction. When a gestalt is formed (perceived) it becomes a figure (a thing apart, an entity or object). A figure is always backed up by a surrounding ground. With Rubin's goblet, the goblet and faces take turns being figure and ground. When you see the goblet, the faces disappear into a black background. When you see the faces, the goblet disappears into a white background. A pattern cannot be seen as figure and ground at the same time. Yet the pattern in the external world—the stimulus—does not change. Only the perception of it changes. To the gestalt psychologists, this proved that stimulus/response theories were inadequate to account for perception, and that seemed to them like vindication of their own perspective.


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