Gestalt psychology (also: Gestalt theory of the Berlin School) is a psychological theory which provides a framework for a wide variety of psychological phenomena, processes, and applications. Human beings are viewed as open systems in active interaction with their environment. It is especially suited for the understanding of order and structure in psychological events. According to Gestalt psychology, people naturally organize their perceptions according to certain patterns. It is also related to cognitive distortions in psychiatry.


Although Max Wertheimer is to be credited as the founder of the movement, the concept of Gestalt was first introduced in contemporary philosophy and psychology by Christian von Ehrenfels (a member of the School of Brentano). The idea of Gestalt has its roots in theories by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant, and Ernst Mach.

Both von Ehrenfels and Edmund Husserl seem to have been inspired by Mach's work Beiträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen (Contributions to the Analysis of the Sensations, 1886), in formulating their very similar concepts of Gestalt and Figural Moment, respectively.

Early 20th century theorists, such as Kurt Koffka, Max Wertheimer, and Wolfgang Köhler (students of Carl Stumpf) saw objects as perceived within an environment according to all of their elements taken together as a global construct. This 'gestalt', or 'whole form' approach sought to isolate principles of perception; seemingly innate mental 'laws', which determined the way in which objects were perceived.

These laws took several forms, such as the grouping of similar, or proximate objects together, within this global process. Although it has been criticised for being merely descriptive, it has formed the basis of much further research into the perception of patterns and objects (ref: Carlson, Buskist & Martin, 2000) and of research into behavior, thinking, problem solving and psychopathology.

Theoric Conception and Methodolog:

The investigations developed at the beginning of the 20th century, based on traditional scientific methodology, divided the object of study into a set of elements that could be analyzed separately with the objective of reducing the complexity of this object. Contrary to this methodology, the school of Gestalt practiced a series of theoretical and methodological principles that attempted to redefine the approach to psychological research.

The theoretical principles are the following:

  1. Principle of Totality - The concious experience must be considered globally (ie, the entire physical and mental aspects of the individual) because the nature of the mind demands that each component be considered as part of a system of dynamic relationships.
  2. Principle of psychophysical isomorphism - A correlation exists between conscious experience and cerebral activity.

Based on the principles above the following methodological principles are defined.

  1. Phenomenon Experimental Analysis - In relation to the Totality Principle any psychological research should take as a starting point phenomenons and not be solely isolated to sensory qualities.
  2. Biotic Experiment - The School of Gestalt established a need to conduct real experiments which sharply constrated and opposed classic laboratory experiments. This signified experimenting in natural situations, developed in real conditions, in which it would be possible to reproduce, with higher fidelity, what would be habitual on a subject.


The most basic rule of gestalt is the law of pragnanz. This law says that we try to experience things in as good a gestalt way as possible. In this sense, "good" can mean several things, such as regular, orderly, simplistic, symmetrical, etc. The other gestalt laws are:

  1. Law of Closure - if something is missing, our mind adds it
  2. Law of Similarity - our mind groups similar things together
  3. Law of Proximity - things that are close together are seen as belonging together
  4. Law of Symmetry - symmetrical images are seen as belonging together regardless of distance
  5. Law of Continuity- our mind continues a pattern even after it stops

Figure-ground minds have an innate tendency to perceive one aspect of an event as the figure or foreground and the other as the ground or the background.

Under the gestalt theory, these laws not only apply to images, but to thought processes, memories, and our understanding of time.

Examples of the Gestalt experience include the perception of an incomplete circle as a whole or a pattern of dots as a shape - the mind completes the missing pieces through extrapolation. Studies also indicate that simple elements/compositions where the meaning is directly perceived do not offer as much a challenge to the mind as complex ones and hence the latter are preferred over the former.

Relationship to Gestalt Therapy:

Gestalt psychology should not be confused with the Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls, which is only peripherally linked to Gestalt psychology. A strictly Gestalt psychology based therapeutic method is Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy, developed by the German Gestalt psychologist and psychotherapist Hans-Juergen Walter.