Gestalt Psychology


Gestalt psychology (sometimes also “gestaltism”) is a theory of mind created by the Berlin School of Experimental Psychology in the first decades of the 20th century. The German word “Gestalt” means shape, or form. Gestalt psychology tries to understand the laws that govern the human ability to acquire and maintain perceptions of meaning in a chaotic world. Gestalt psychologists believe that the mind actively shapes perceptions, and aims to form units, or “gestalts.” For example, when we hear a melody we can remember it, and recognize it even if it is not played at the same pitch, speed, or instrument. We remember the melody as a gestalt that can appear in different materials, or with different backgrounds.

The mind’s tendency to organize perceptions into gestalts is itself the expression of a self-organizing principle which structures the operation of the mental apparatus. Gestalt theorists argue that when the perceptual system of the human mind forms a gestalt, the whole has a reality of its own, independent of the parts. The Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka said:  “The whole is other than the sum of the parts,” he did not mean that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The Gestalt principle is not a principle of addition, it is a theory about the independent existence of the units of meaning that we call a “gestalt.” From a strictly scientific point of view, this is hard to prove. But in terms of lived experience, we know that an entire visual field may appear to be clear or chaotic. Faces of some people may seem relaxed, others seem tense, tired, or absent-minded. A purely behavioral approach based on hard evidence and objectifiable traits has no “language” for such qualities, other than the verbal reports themselves.

There is a gap between the physical world and the world we perceive. Gestalt theory tries to investigate this gap, and it points out that many experiments show that organisms have a tendency to organize perceptions in a way that leads to a perceptual or psychological environment which is very different from the physical reality.

Gestalt theorists argue that introspection and behavior are both part of the phenomenal world and thus suitable for scientific study. A strictly empirical approach to psychology will focus on complex interactions between stimuli, reflexes,  sensations, and reactions, but this leaves out the larger patterns of behavior and consciousness that are the essence of mental life and that can only be described as genuinely “psychological.”

The gestalt phenomenon can be found not only in perceptions, but also in memory, learning, decision-making, and other areas of human life. Qualities of perception include curvatures. movements. groupings. shapes of all kinds, contours, chords, melodies, rhythm, etc. All these phenomena have gestalt qualities, they are not just sensations, which would allow scientific investigations appropriate to them. A fundamental gestalt principle says that over time, human perceptions tend to change in the direction of greater simplicity or regularity.

Gestalt qualities can survive long after the actual experience has faded from memory. (These are so-called tertiary qualities.) The friendliness of a face is remembered more easily than the width of the nose, or the color of the eyes. The quality of a voice can stay with us, even if we forget what the voice said. In a 1954 experiment,  Harold Kelley 1954 demonstrated the effect of bias in person perception. A guest lecturer came in and gave a presentation. The class was given a prior brief introduction, with the single difference that half the class was told that the guest was a rather “warm” person and the other half was told that he was a rather “cold” person. The former group gave the lecture significantly more positive ratings than the latter. Gradually, psychologists started to realize that these gestalt effects cannot be neglected or explained away. The properties of local facts are affected by conditions present in their environment, as well as by the process of perception itself. There are complex interactions in the perceptual field between the elements as well as between the observer and the scene, and Gestalt theory took on the monumental task of trying to find the laws that describes these  interactions.

The following summary of the development of Gestalt psychology is not very systematic. I want to give a short summary of the history, and I want to demonstrate how Gestalt psychology grew from 19th century philosophical debates about the relation between reality and the human mind. Gestalt theory is closely linked to phenomenology, and opposes structuralism as well as psychological theories that are solely based on an empirical approach to the mind.


IMMANUEL KANT, (1724-1804)

Kant’s philosophy implies an emphasis on the unity of the perceptual act. When we perceive, we encounter mental states which might seem composed of bits and pieces (the associationists’ and empiricists’ sensory elements), but the mind forms or creates a unitary experience, rather than fashioning a perception through the mechanical process of association. This is a position contrary to the very heart of associationism.


While not a precursor of Gestalt psychology itself, with his work more in the psychophysical tradition, Ebbinghaus was the first person to study memory experimentally. He developed the method of studying nonsense syllables with the apparatus called the “memory drum.” Most of his findings were not surprising — better learning comes from a greater number of original learning trials, from a smaller interval between learning and relearning, from a smaller list of syllables, etc. He investigated the effects of spaced versus massed learning, finding that in general, active learning of spaced material is most effective. Meaningful material was much easier to learn than nonsense syllables. This was the first time a higher mental function was studied experimentally.

ERNST MACH (1838-1916)

In his writings of that time, the physicist Ernst Mach, whose name is memorialized in the speed of sound, considered spatial patterns and temporal patterns (like melodies) as sensations. In his view, we could consider these sensations as independent of their elements. He pointed out that all science is based on experience. When natural scientists observe and record natural events, they do so through their sensory experiences.

In “Analysis of Sensations” (1886), Mach described properties of spatial and auditory forms. He concluded that sensations are organized in consciousness to create qualities of the form that may be novel. A table has a ” form quality” that persists even when the sensations change. We look at a table from the side or top, but we still see it as a table.

Similarly. shapes may be reduced in size or enlarged. shown in one part of field or another, their color changed, and they are still perceived as the same shape. German word “Gestalt” means shape. (Also implications of pattern, whole, configuration)

FRANZ BRENTANO (1828-1919)

He was the grandson of an Italian merchant. Did his dissertation in philosophy at the University of Tubingen, “On the Manifold Meaning of Being According to Aristotle.” Became a priest but published a scholarly critique of the doctrine of Papal infallibility, criticized scholasticism, held a favorable attitude toward Auguste Comte’s positivism,. and desired to marry. In 1870 the Church reaffirmed the doctrine of infallibility. Brentano had concluded that based on historical evidence the doctrine was impossible to accept.

Later, he became professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna. He disagreed with Wundt’s view that psychology should study the content of conscious experience. Argued that psychology should study mental activity, for instance the act of seeing rather than the content. The process or act of experiencing is the focus of study. His system was called “act psychology” due to his belief that mental processes were aimed at performing some function (in this he was similar to the Functionalists.) The mental acts he wished to study included judging, recalling, expecting, inferring, doubting, loving, and hoping. He considered Wundt’s method of introspection forced and highly artificial, and favored less rigid, more direct observation of experience as it occurred. Brentano hoped to use experience to construct a core of generally accepted truths. He also described the effect of observation as a limit to psychological research: observation itself can change what is being observed.

Brentano was very influential in the history of psychology, because some of his students  shaped later developments: Christian Von Ehrenfels, Carl Stumpf, Edmund Husserl, and Sigmund Freud took classes from him.


Ehrenfels extended Mach’s work in Austria. He was a philosopher, musical composer and performer. In the 1890’s, he wrote a paper on “form qualities.” “Gestalt Qualitäten.” A melody or a musical chord is still easily recognized when shifted into another key,  even though every note is different. Music consists of organized wholes that are almost disembodied from specific physical tones. Wertheimer attended Ehrenfels’ lectures,

CARL STUMPF (1848-1936).

He was born in Bavaria, and studied with Brentano, Von Helmholtz, and Weber. He had a strong background in music. He became a department chair and a central figure at the University of Berlin. The focus of his studies was space perception, as well as the perception of music. Stumpf coined the term phenomenology. He argued that the primary data of psychology are phenomena. Phenomenology is based on a method of introspection, and it refers to the study of experience as it occurs. Phenomena, like the experience of tones, colors, or images, are either sensory or imaginary. He also studied auditory attention, analysis, and comparison. His major work is entitled “Tone Psychology.”

  • He observed speech development in his own children as well as others and studied the origins of childhood fears. He stressed the importance of directly observing children.
  • Stumpf was also the first since the ancient Greeks to point out that the whole is different from the sum of its parts.
  • A bitter controversy raged between Wundt and Stumpf. Stumpf maintained that to break experience down into elements is to render it artificial and abstract. Wundt was angry that Stumpf challenged his approach.
OSWALD KÜLPE. (1862-1915)

He was a student of Müller and Wundt, and later founded the Würzburg School. Müller had drawn attention to the effects of what later came to be called “proactive interference”–old learning interfering with the effects of new learning. Külpe aimed to develop a scientific psychology that would include complex phenomena such as thinking, judging, remembering, and doubting. Wundt argued that these phenomena were beyond the reach of experimental methods. At Würzburg, in 1901, Külpe’s students A. Mayer and J. Orth questioned subjects about the associations that came freely into their mind during thinking. They reported complex, detailed associations. Their subjects reported many different patterns and types of associations.

  • Can we think without Images? Külpe refuted the idea that thought must have images.
  • Predispositions: Is it a perceptual set or a mental set? Kulpe identified this as the tendency that determines what we perceive.
  • Max Wertheimer wrote his dissertation under Kulpe, on using word association techniques in the determination of guilt in criminal cases.
  • Külpe’s student Marbe noticed that in the act of making judgments, various mental states occurred such as doubt, hesitation, and searching. Marbe called these “conscious attitudes.” Wundt’s description of three basic elements of consciousness–sensations, images, and feelings, were insufficient to describe these complex experiences. They concluded that another dimension, meaning, was equally important.
  • Külpe and Bryan found that when subjects were shown a series of numbers or letters, they were better at remembering when they had been told to what they should pay attention. The instructions caused the letters to be “apprehended”. This was actually similar to Wundt’s observation that recall is better when the subjects actively pay attention to something.
  • Another researcher in Würzburg, Narziss Ach, analysed the mental processes by which people make decisions and classified his subjects into different “decision types.” He found that people use markedly different, but consistent strategies for decision making.
EDGAR RUBIN (1886-1951)

Rubin was a Danish phenomenologist and contemporary of Wertheimer. He investigated the dynamic between “figure” and “background.” The figure is the substantial appearance of an object, and the ground is the general environment against which the object appears. In 1819, he presented for the first time these ambiguous figures that can now be found in almost every introductory psychology book, for instance the white vase on a black background that can equally well be seen as two black heads looking at each other against a white background.

We learn from these ambiguous images that perception is selective. We don’t just “see,” we “look for” that which is related to our interests. He showed for instance that when an object is perfectly flat and lies in the same physical plane as its environment, we perceive it as located in front of its environment.

EDMUND HUSSERL (1859-1938)

Husserl is sometimes called the father of phenomenology, even though Stumpf actually coined the term. Husserl studied with Brentano and later worked with Stumpf. He pointed out that Brentano’s concept of intentionality deals only with mental acts directed at something outside themselves. But there is also the knowledge that comes through turning our attention inward. Husserl used introspection to examine subjective experience, without relating it to anything else. He called it pure phenomenology. “Phenomenon” refers to a mental event, a whole, intact, and meaningful experience, rather than fragments of conscious experience.

Husserl claimed that the methods of the natural sciences are inappropriate for studying mental phenomena. This philosophy solidifies the methodological separation between human and natural sciences that characterizes many academic institutions today. He did not deny that an experimental psychology was possible, but he said it must be preceded by careful phenomenological analysis. Phenomenology could help psychology clarify the implicit assumptions and preconceptions that guide its investigations.

Brentano, Stumpf, and Husserl all assumed that the subject matter of psychology is meaningful and integrated or holistic psychological experience on a human level. They want objectivity in conjunction with a holistic approach to human science. This sets the stage for the development of Gestalt psychology. Husserl was also the teacher of Heidegger, who created his own version of a phenomenological method in philosophy. Another student of Husserl is Emmanuel Levinas.


Three of Carl Stumpf’s students led the way to the development of the school of Gestalt psychology: Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka.  They believed that people do not experience life in isolated pieces, but rather in a holistic fashion, where everything fits together. The German word for the perception of whole configurations is “gestalt,” accordingly, the study of these wholes became known as Gestalt psychology. Gestalt theory emerges from phenomenology, because these early Gestalt psychologists studied mental experience as it naturally occurred to the observer, without further analysis or interpretation. In the German language, “gestalt” is not only a noun but also a verb. The verb “gestalten” means to actively structure something, to turn random material into a pattern or form.

MAX WERTHEIMER. (1880-1943)

Max Wertheimer was born in Prague on April 15, 1880.  His father was a teacher and the director of a school.  Max started to study law, but after  two years he decided to switch to philosophy.  He went to Berlin, where he took classes from Stumpf, then got his doctoral degree from Külpe and the University of Würzburg in 1904. In 1910, he went to the University of Frankfurt’s Psychological Institute. At Frankfurt, he began to study the effects that blend a series of pictures into the perception of motion.  He also encountered Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, who would become his lifelong partners. The collaboration between these three men created the Gestalt school.

In 1912 he published his seminal paper:  “Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement.”  and he became a lecturer at the University of Frankfurt.  In 1916, he moved to Berlin, and in 1922 was made an assistant professor there.  In 1925, he came back to Frankfurt as a professor, and in 1933, he moved to the United States to escape Hitler. He began teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York, and wrote his best known book, “Productive Thinking,” which was published posthumously. He died October 12, 1943 in New York.

Wertheimer had attended the lectures of Von Ehrenfels’ at the University of Vienna. He noted that the qualities of which von Ehrenfels spoke were the characteristics of whole entities, or “gestalts.” For instance “major” and “minor” in music are characteristics of melodies rather than of individual tones. Wertheimer asked: What are these entities, why do we experience them as wholes, even though they extend through space and time? Max Wertheimer explains the theory like this: “There are wholes, the behavior of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole. It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes.

Wertheimer was more of a philosopher than a psychologist. As a philosopher, he was also committed to science, and he wanted to apply the scientific method to the study of behavior. Behaviorists were somewhat naive for him, because they think in terms of stimulus and response, without enough reflection for these terms. What exactly is a “stimulus” for a complex creature like the human being? Wertheimer demonstrated these issues with an experiment that gave rise to what he later called the “phi phenomenon.” The experiment exemplifies how the perception of motion results not from physical facts, but from the operation of the eye itself:

Take a box with 2 slits, and put a light behind each slit. If the light is shown behind first one and then the other slit, we perceive a moving light, even though physically there was actually no movement. This works in the same fashion whether the lines are vertical or horizontal.

The experiment demonstrates that the physical and the experiential aspect of the stimulus are different, so how should we define the stimulus or the response? To the observer, the apparent movement exists as perception, and cannot be reduced to something simpler. The sensory experience itself creates the perception of movement; it does not originate from an underlying reality.

What makes behaviorists naive is their lack of reflection of the differences between physical and perceived stimulus. Wertheimer asked: What is the relationship between the physical aspect of a stimulus and its perceptual aspect? What we see are not the physical aspects of the form, but the form itself. The whole is different from the sum of its parts. (Not “greater than.”). These observations generate a theory which has as its central ideas concepts like wholeness, interdependence, context, and field.

Gestalt theorists argue that there is a connection between physical and perceptual aspects if we take relationships and patterns into account. For instance: take four dots, and arrange them in a square. Why is each dot perceived as the corner of a square? The perception of a square results only from the relationship the dots have with each other, not from any individual dot, or even from two dots together. If you add four more dots around the perimeter of the square to make it look more like a circle, an individual dot begins to change its function, without ever changing its position.

When we perceive details, we perceive them in contexts, patterns, or in relationships to other details. There is something dynamic in the pattern of interrelationships. This dynamism emerges from the patterns itself, not from the details. In real life we see not just some details, or isolated stimuli, but also meaningful configurations – hallways, market places, streets, etc. We act in relation to these gestalt configurations, rather than in relation to the elements. Wertheimer’s approach does not require that the entire visual field must be organized into a single pattern. It is possible for there to be a chaotic gestalt, in which things do not fit together.


Wolfgang Köhler was born January 21, 1887, in Reval, Estonia.  He received his PhD in 1908 from the University of Berlin.  He then became an assistant at the Psychological Institute in Frankfurt, where he met and worked with Max Wertheimer. In 1913, he was assigned to study at the Anthropoid Station at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and stayed there till 1920.  In 1917, he wrote his most famous book, Mentality of Apes.

In 1922, he became the chair and director of the psychology lab at the University of Berlin, where he stayed until 1935.  During that time, in 1929, he wrote Gestalt Psychology.  In 1935, he moved to the U.S., where he taught at Swarthmore until he retired.  He died June 11, 1967 in New Hampshire.

KURT KOFFKA (1886-1941)

Kurt Koffka was born March 18, 1886, in Berlin.  He received his PhD from the University of Berlin in 1909, and, just like Köhler, became an assistant at Frankfurt. In 1911, he moved to the University of Giessen, where he taught until 1927. While there, he wrote Growth of the Mind:  An Introduction to Child Psychology (1921).  In 1922, he wrote an article for Psychological Bulletin which introduced the Gestalt program to readers in the U.S. In 1927, he left for the U.S. to teach at Smith College.  He published Principles of Gestalt Psychology in 1935.  He died in 1941.


Gestalt psychology is based on the observation that we often experience things that are not a part of simple sensations.  The original observation came from Wertheimer, when he noted that we perceive motion where there is nothing more than a rapid sequence of individual sensory events (like the Christmas lights that appear to circulate around the tree). The effect is called apparent motion, and it is actually the basic principle of motion pictures.

If we see something that is not there, what is it that we are seeing?  It is maybe an illusion, but not an hallucination. Wertheimer argued that you are seeing an effect of the whole event, not contained in the sum of the parts.  We see a coursing string of lights, even though only one light lights at a time, because the whole event contains relationships among the individual lights that we experience as well. Furthermore, we are experiencing the structured whole as well as the individual sensations.  We have the ability to see more, and we have a tendency to do this Gestalt enhancement of the sensory perceptions. We even add structure to events which do not have gestalt qualities.


The organizing principles that lead to gestalt perception are called gestalt laws.  The most general version is called the law of “pragnanz”. ‘Prägnanz’ is the German word for ‘pithiness’, which means ‘concise and meaningful’. This law says that we are innately driven to experience things in as good a gestalt as possible. “Good” can mean many things here, such a regular, orderly, simplicity, symmetry, and so on. For example, a set of dots outlining the shape of a face is likely to be perceived as a face, not as a set of dots.  We tend to complete the figure, see  it as it “should” be, and then consider the perception to be complete.

Law of Simplicity: Another fundamental gestalt principle says that over time,  human perceptions tends to change in the direction of greater simplicity or regularity.

The law of closure says that, if something is missing in an otherwise complete figure, we will tend to add it.  A triangle, with one corner missing, will still be seen as a triangle.

The law of similarity says that we tend to group similar items together, to see them as a gestalt, within a larger field.  Here is a simple example:


It is natural for us to see the o’s as a line within a field of x’s.

The law of proximity.  Things that are close together are seen as belonging together.  For example…


You are much more likely to see three lines of close-together *’s than 14 vertical collections of 3 *’s each.

The law of symmetry.  Take a look at this example:         [    ][    ][    ]

Despite the pressure of proximity to group the brackets nearest each other together, symmetry laws overwhelm the perception and we see three pairs of open/close brackets.

The law of continuity.  When we can see a line, for example, as continuing through another line, rather than stopping and starting, we will do so, as in this example, which we see as composed of two lines, not as a combination of two angles…:

Figure-ground is another Gestalt psychology principle.  It was first introduced by the Danish phenomenologist Edgar Rubin (1886-1951).  The classic example is this one:

We seem to have an innate tendency to perceive one aspect of an event as the figure or foreground and the other as the background.  There is only one image here, and yet, by changing nothing but our attitude, we can see two different things.  It doesn’t seem to be possible to see them both at the same time!


Gestalt principles are by not restricted to perception – that’s just where they were first discovered.  Take the example of memory, which also seems to work by these laws.  If you see a washed-out photo of someone, your mind will try to identify it based on your memories. Or, when we recall dreams, we try to find a meaning in them, even if the dream memory in some ways resists our attempts to explain it.

The process of learning held particular interest for the Gestalt psychologists. They noticed that we often learn not the literal things in front of us, but the relations between them. For example, experiments show that animals learn the relative difference between lightness and darkness, not the color shade itself. Here is an interesting experiment to confirm this: Chickens can be trained to peck at the lighter of two gray buttons to get food. When they are then presented with a second set of buttons, one of which is the lighter of the two preceding buttons, and the other button is even lighter, they will peck not at the one they pecked at before, but at the lighter one.

Gestalt theory is well known for its concept of insight learning. This does not refer to flashes of intuition, but to solving problems by means of the recognition of a gestalt or organizing principle. The most famous examples of insight learning were described by Köhler and involved a chimpanzee named Sultan. Köhler set up many different practical problems for Sultan, mostly about hard-to-reach bananas. For instance, when Sultan had been playing with sticks that could be put together like a fishing pole, he appeared to consider in a very human fashion the situation of the out-of-reach banana thoughtfully, and then he seemed to have an insight: he suddenly jumped up, assembled the poles, and reached the banana.

A similar example involved a five year old girl, presented with a geometry problem:  How do you calculate the area of a parallelogram?  She considered the problem, then excitedly asked for a pair of scissors.  She cut off a triangle from one end, and moved it around to the other side, turning the parallelogram into a simple rectangle.  Wertheimer called this productive thinking.

These examples demonstrate what is typical for the gestalt explanation: The world we experience is already to a certain degree meaningfully organized. When we learn or solve problems, we are essentially recognizing the meaning that is already in the experience. Therefore learning is based on “insight.”

The Gestalt approach to learning differs strongly from behavioral approaches:

  1. Köhler observed that the solution of problems often appears suddenly, when we are not actively thinking about it. It is as if some other mental mechanism outside the sphere of consciousness works on finding the solution.
  2. In gestalt psychology, the concept of thinking itself is defined as looking for and grasping relationships.
  3. Organisms will engage in random, diffused, and meaningless behavior only if their relationships to the environment are obscured, if there is some sort of “disconnect”
  4. Psychologists who experimented with problem-solving behavior in rats found that these animals primarily try to solve problems, not follow a rigid sequence of learned behavior to get to the solution. If the rat learned how to get the food in a maze because it learned the way through trial and error, it will skip this process if it can see the maze from above, and it will then go straight to the food. Thus trial and error learning occurs only if the rat is not allowed to see the whole field.
  5. Teaching should focus on self-discovery. Gestalt psychologists emphasize the problem-solving aspect of behavior. Give the learner all the data, not just a small portion of it. They learn best when they “discover” the solution themselves, or the relevant relationships within the data that leads to conclusions.
  6. From a behaviorist perspective, the organism responds to stimuli in a particular way, based on prior learning experience. From a gestalt point of view, the organism is always “problem solving” by trying to identify patterns and relationships within the environment.
  7. Behaviorism is a “historical” school in the sense that it emphasizes past experience. It has this trait in common with psychoanalysis, which is also a “historical” school, because it looks at past experience. On the other hand, Gestalt theory has something in common with existentialism. Gestalt psychology looks at the principles and laws of gestalt formation, and in this regard it is a-historical, or, as in Lewin’s approach, a theory of fields (“life-space.”) Existentialism, in a similar way,  focuses on the existential  qualities of life, which are somewhat independent from situational or historical conditions.
  8. Gestalt theorists accept that conditioning and behavior modification works, because it is seen as a function of the larger field to which the individual belongs.
  9. Learning should not focus on mechanical repetition, but on opening up fields of perception and modes of thinking. Problem-solving is intrinsically satisfying, therefore it does not depend on external rewards. One can observe monkeys who disassemble or reassemble objects or puzzles with no external reward  – the activity itself is satisfying.

Köhler tried to combine Gestalt psychology with physiology. In order to understand perceptual processes. we must study neurophysiological processes in the brain. Our own internal functioning, as well as external stimuli, is organized in a meaningful way. This leads to the gestalt principle of isomorphism suggests that there is a similarity between the gestalt patterning of stimuli and the activity in the brain while we are perceiving the stimuli.  There is a “map” of the experience with the same structural traits as the experience itself, even though the two sides (experience and mental representation) are  “constructed” very differently. We are still in the very early stages of research that aims to discover how an experience “looks” like in the experiencing brain.

Most of the insights and experiments of Gestalt theory have now been absorbed into mainstream psychology. Gestalt Psychology did not survive as a separate discipline, but it had an enormous impact on later developments in psychology and cognitive theories.


Several people merged gestalt psychology with other aspects of psychology. Within academic psychology credits belong to Kurt Goldstein and Kurt Lewin. Steven Lehar is a contemporary researcher who updated the theory to 21st century version. We should also mention Fritz Perls, who created an application called “Gestalt Therapy.” However, Gestalt psychology should be distinguished from Gestalt therapy, even though there are many connections.

KURT LEWIN (1890-1947)

Kurt Lewin was born September 9, 1890, in Mogilno, Germany. He received his doctorate from the University of Berlin under Stumpf.  After his military service, he returned to Berlin where he worked with Wertheimer, Koffka, and Köhler. He went to the U.S. as a guest lecturer at Stanford and Cornell, and took a position at the University of Iowa in 1935.  In 1944, he created and directed the Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT.  He died in 1947, shortly after he began to work there.

Lewin created a topological theory that expressed human dynamics in the form of a map representing a person’s life space. The map is patterned with one’s needs, desires, and goal, and vectors or arrows indicated the directions and strengths of these forces — all operating as a Gestalt within the larger social space.

This theory has inspired a number of psychologists in the U.S., most particularly in social psychology. Among the people he influenced were Muzafer Sherif, Solomon Asch, and Leon Festinger.

KURT GOLDSTEIN (1878-1965)

The other person who helped to transform gestalt psychology was Kurt Goldstein.  He was born in 1878, and received his MD from the University of Breslau in 1903.  He went to teach at the Neurological Institute of the University of Frankfurt, where he met the founders of gestalt psychology. He became a professor in Berlin, and then went on to New York City in 1935. There, he wrote The Organism in 1939, and later Human Nature in the Light of Pathology in 1963.  He died in 1965.

Goldstein developed a holistic view of brain function, based on research that showed that people with brain damage learn to use other parts of their brains in compensation.  He extended his holism to the entire organism, and postulated that there was only one drive in human functioning, and coined the term self-actualization.  Self-preservation, the usual postulated central motive, he said, is actually pathological!

Goldstein and his idea of self-actualization influenced many younger theorists and therapists.  Among them were Gordon Allport, Carl Rogers, and Abraham Maslow, who were the founders of the American humanistic psychology movement.

FRITZ PERLS (1893-1970)

He was a research assistant for Goldstein when he was a young. He was also a  psychoanalytically trained psychiatrist. Together with his wife Lorie, who studied gestalt psychology in Frankfurt, he later founded a branch of psychotherapy called “Gestalt Therapy.” This movement popularized the Gestalt perspective, but it is doubtful whether there is a strong connection between the earlier gestalt psychology and Fritz Perls’ gestalt therapy. (See Mary Henle’s article from 1975.)


He wrote a book in 2003 which updates Gestalt psychology from an academic perspective: The World in Your Head: A Gestalt View of the Mechanism of Conscious Experience. It brings together Gestalt theory, phenomenology, physiological psychology, and experimental procedures in a model of visual perception and conscious experience. It shows how the mind constructs a view of the world based on the laws that shape our perception.