From Contour Completion to Image Schemas:
A Modern Perspective on Gestalt Psychology

Adrian Robert, 1997


The Gestalt approach to psychology represents an early but comprehensive and systematic attempt to relate psychological and neural functioning. When the approach was first formulated and actively researched, however, too little was known about brain function to forge a precise and direct connection. As a result, the approach never fulfilled its initial promise of a rigorously constructed psychology grounded in physical science and has fallen out of the favor and attention of most contemporary students of the mind. In this paper we re-examine Gestalt psychology with reference to what is currently known of dynamic mechanisms of brain function, particularly by exploring plausible cortical substrates of perceptual grouping. We suggest, based on this examination, that although many of the details of the Gestalt proposals are in need of revision, the approach remains fundamentally viable, and the elegant character of its grounding and systematicity make it a valuable framework for organizing present knowledge at both neural and functional levels. In the reformulation presented, perception and cognition result from energy minimization at two separated timescales, constrained by thalamocortical connectivity and activity dynamics in addition to environmental structure.


The organization of this paper is as follows. First, sections 2 through 5 review literature in several relevant areas. In Section 2, the Gestalt approach as it was laid down principally by Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler is reviewed, and the role of the grouping laws within it are clarified. In Section 3, a range of psychological phenomena that have been explained by reference to the grouping laws in different modalities will be presented. These examples will form the basis for discussion in the remainder of the paper. The reason for examining grouping in several modalities rather than focusing on just one is to obtain a better assessment of the generality which was proposed for the Gestalt laws. In Section 4, the concept of a gestalt, defined as the result of a grouping process, will be examined and clarified from both psychological and neurobiological standpoints. Section 5 reviews available information on the various cortical sensory representations.

Section 6 explains the psychological grouping phenomena based on the known characteristics of cortical representation by proposing neural mechanisms for perceptual grouping. These mechanisms have already been presented and explored in the neural modeling literature; we simply gather them together and demonstrate how they may be applied to a wider range of situations then they have been previously. In Section 7, the main principles underlying the proposed mechanisms are abstracted to form the basis of a revision of the organizational laws that is in fact more consistent with the original intents of the Gestalt approach. Section 8 returns to the subject of applying the Gestalt approach to higher order, more abstract cognitive phenomena. We suggest that the revised approach is highly compatible with the views of conceptual structure that are emerging within the framework of cognitive semantics and thus has great potential to be smoothly extended to abstract domains. Finally, Section 9 presents conclusions on the present status and potential of Gestalt psychology.


Regarding the question posed at the beginning of this paper as to whether the same mechanisms underlie the same perceptual grouping laws in different modalities, our investigation suggests that the answer is ``yes'', but that the grouping laws themselves are largely illusory since they are epiphenomena of an underlying interplay between statistical structure and neural constraints. This conclusion is, however, in keeping with the more fundamental conception of the Gestalt approach of perception as a process of energy minimization parallel at the neural and mental levels. Energy minimization is now conceived of as proceeding on two separated timescales given by the dynamics of neural activity and neural plasticity respectively. Regarding the utility of the Gestalt framework in this revised form, the idea of statistical abstraction is highly compatible with the cognitive semantics proposal that conceptual structure develops as a result of embodied experience. Furthermore, since there appear to be no discontinuities in the underlying thalamocortical network that simultaneously subserves perception, mentation, and action, there is the hope of extending conceptual and mathematical machinery developed for understanding perceptual organization within the Gestalt framework to understand higher level cognitive functioning. Consideration of how this might be done reveals that there will probably be some new wrinkles, however...

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