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Gestalt Principles of Perception for the MCAT
Types of Grouping

William Cohen
Published by William Cohen
Last Updated On: November 19, 2021

The Gestalt principles are a set of principles in psychology that focus on holistic perception.

These principles can be applied to many aspects of life, such as thinking and problem-solving, learning and memory, motivation and emotion, personality development, and psychopathology.

Their most common use today outside of behavioral health is in the field of sensory perception.

Keep reading to learn more about these fascinating principles so that you can answer knowledge and application questions about them on the MCAT exam.

Gestalt Laws of Perception Summary

  • Gestalt theory is underpinned by the idea that the whole is more than the sum of its parts and that we perceive reality in the simplest way possible.
  • Prägnanz refers to the simplicity of overall organization in perception - usually visual perception.
  • Perceptual laws lead humans to group objects by proximity, similarity, closure, symmetry, continuity, and common fate.

Gestalt Principles of Processing

Woman holding her glasses

Boiled down to their simplest, the Gestalt principles simply reframe Aristotle's idea that "the whole is more than the sum of its parts" [1].

It means we tend to perceive objects as more than just their components; we perceive them as unified wholes.

This idea came about in the early 20th century as a part of a psychological theory designed to combat the dominant "structuralist" view of that period.

Structuralism posited that ideas and sensations arose from elementary, simple constituents. "Gestaltists,” on the other hand, thought that they should examine psychological issues as an organized whole.

Prägnanz

A person with magnifying glass

The underlying principle of Gestalt theory that guides research on perception is known as Prägnanz.

It is a German word that means "conciseness" or "succinctness," and it has a nuance of precision or exactitude [2].

Prägnanz states that we will always seek to find the best, most complete, and simplest form or configuration for any object.

For example, we may see a figure as a complete circle, even if the figure only consists of four non-connected arcs.

In this case, we perceive the circle despite the fact that it is not "perfectly" enclosed.

To help researchers predict the ways humans interpret their senses, Gestalt psychologists have developed laws to explain perception. Some important ones follow.

Law of Proximity

According to the law of proximity, when an assortment of objects is viewed, we will perceive them as forming groups based on their closeness to each other.

The closer two items are to each other in space or time, the more likely our brains are to associate them together instead of as separate entities.

Law of Similarity

Twin sisters holding apples

The law of similarity dictates that elements within an assortment of objects will be perceived as related if they are similar.

Similarities within an assortment of objects can induce perceptual grouping if the similarities are significant.

This can be mostly seen as shape or color, but other qualities may also play a role, such as shading or texture.

Law of Closure

Logo with negative space

Per the law of closure, people are inclined to perceive objects as complete rather than observing or focusing on the gaps within them.

Closure is a term used to describe the tendency to complete shapes and figures.

Through closure, we may perceive an incomplete circle as being a complete one.

This occurs not only with shapes but also with letters, pictures, etc. Whenever a part of the complete picture is not present, our perception fills it in.

Law of Symmetry

Holding a justice scale

According to the rule of symmetry, the mind views objects as symmetrical and developing around a central point.

When items are divided into even numbers of symmetrical sections, they are pleasing to the eye.

Therefore, when two symmetrical items are disconnected, the mind perceptually joins the pieces into a cohesive figure.

"Most photographs take their cues from advertising, where the priority is high image content for an easy Gestalt reading."  ― Richard Serra, sculptor

If two symmetrical items are similar, they are more likely to be grouped to form a combined symmetrical object.

Law of Common Fate

Birds going in the same direction

As per the law of common fate, objects are perceived as lines moving along the smoothest possible path.

In our perception, we notice motion in objects, which indicates where an object is going.

The law of continuity then implies that objects with the same motion tend to be grouped since they are perceived to be on a similar path.

Related Article: Expectancy-Value Theory for the MCAT

Law of Continuity

Long distance road

When elements of objects are aligned within the object, the law of continuity (also known as the law of good continuation) says that they get grouped together and, therefore, become a perceptual whole.

Generally, people perceive two objects crossing as two separate objects.

Even when stimuli overlap, they remain distinct.

It means that even if other objects block part of an object, we still consider it a whole.

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Gestalt Principles for the MCAT

The MCAT exam will test your knowledge of how the human brain perceives and processes information.

The Gestalt principles help scientists understand how people see the world.

Using these principles, when we see a large, cat-like animal with a mane, sharp teeth, and claws, we perceive a lion rather than simply parts of a lion.

And that perception of the whole provides us much more information for survival than just seeing disconnected parts.

This concept is even useful on the MCAT - and not only for answering questions about Gestalt theory.

You can use it to help you solve problems by viewing the passage and questions as individual pieces and also as parts of a gestalt - an interrelated whole.

Looking at problems through both lenses will help you perform your best on the exam.

And it will help you remember what you need to know about Gestalt principles.


References:

  1. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/who-said-whole-greater-than-sum-parts-paul-b-martin
  2. https://en.langenscheidt.com/german-english/praegnanz

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