A Century of Gestalt Psychology in Visual Perception: I. Perceptual Grouping and Figure-Ground Organization

Laboratory of Experimental Psychology, University of Leuven (KU Leuven).
Psychological Bulletin (Impact Factor: 14.39). 07/2012; 138(6):1172-217. DOI: 10.1037/a0029333
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT In 1912, Max Wertheimer published his paper on phi motion, widely recognized as the start of Gestalt psychology. Because of its continued relevance in modern psychology, this centennial anniversary is an excellent opportunity to take stock of what Gestalt psychology has offered and how it has changed since its inception. We first introduce the key findings and ideas in the Berlin school of Gestalt psychology, and then briefly sketch its development, rise, and fall. Next, we discuss its empirical and conceptual problems, and indicate how they are addressed in contemporary research on perceptual grouping and figure-ground organization. In particular, we review the principles of grouping, both classical (e.g., proximity, similarity, common fate, good continuation, closure, symmetry, parallelism) and new (e.g., synchrony, common region, element and uniform connectedness), and their role in contour integration and completion. We then review classic and new image-based principles of figure-ground organization, how it is influenced by past experience and attention, and how it relates to shape and depth perception. After an integrated review of the neural mechanisms involved in contour grouping, border ownership, and figure-ground perception, we conclude by evaluating what modern vision science has offered compared to traditional Gestalt psychology, whether we can speak of a Gestalt revival, and where the remaining limitations and challenges lie. A better integration of this research tradition with the rest of vision science requires further progress regarding the conceptual and theoretical foundations of the Gestalt approach, which is the focus of a second review article. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved).

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Available from: Michael Kubovy, Jul 05, 2015
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Questions & Answers about this publication

  • David Charles Wright-Carr added an answer in Art & Neuroscience:
    Arnheim's writing on perception and art
    Arnheim wrote extensively on psychology and art. I would be really interested to hear what people on Researchgate think about his work now as his writing is getting to be rather old? How well do you think this has stood up to the test of time?
    David Charles Wright-Carr · Universidad de Guanajuato

    Dear Paul:

    The following comment refers not to Arnheim's work, but to the contemporary relevance of Gestalt vision research in general.

    I am presently reading the 2006 English tranlation of Wolfgang Metzger's book Laws of seeing (originally published in 1936), and I find that most of it holds up very well, in general, in the light of recent vision research. The "Introduction to the English translation," by Lothar Spillman, provides context and explains why the book is relevant today. See:

    Metzger, Wolfgang. Laws of seeing, Lothar Spillmann, Steven Lehar, Mimsey Stromeyer & Michael Wertheimer, translators, Cambridge/London, The MIT Press, 2009.

    Here is a review:

    Reeves, Adam (2007). "Metzger's challenge," Advances in Cognitive Psychology (Faculty of Management and Finance, University of Finance and Management in Warsaw), vol. 3, nos. 1-2, p. 361 ('s_Challenge/links/02e7e538f2f5b39fb9000000.pdf, access: 28 June 2015).

    Today I downloaded several relatively recent articles that incorporate Gestalt vision research. The last one on this list (Wagemans, et al.) is especially interesting (and Arnheim is mentioned there a couple of times).

    Ehrenstein, Walter H.; Spillmann, Lothar; Sarris, Viktor (2003). “Gestalt issues in modern neuroscience”, Axiomathes (Kluwer Academic Publishers), vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 433-458 (, access: 28 Junio 2015).

    Gestalt ReVision (undated). GestaltReVision, perceptual organizarion in the context of a dynamical and hierarchical visual brain (, access: 28 June 2015).

    Lehar, Steven M. (2009). “Gestalt isomorphism and the quantification of spatial perception,” Gestalt Theory (Official Journal of the Society for Gestalt Theory and its Applications), vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 122-139 (, access: 28 June 2015).

    Murray, Micah M.; Herrmann, Cristoph S. (2013). “Illusory contours: a window onto the neurophysiology of constructing perception,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences (Elsevier), vol. 17, no. 9, September 2013, pp. 471-481 (, access: 28 June 2015).

    Wagemans, Johan; Elder, James H.; Kubovy, Michael; Palmer, Stephen E.; Peterson, Mary A.; Singh, Manish; Heydt, Rüdiger von der (2012). “A century of Gestalt psychology in visual perception: I. Perceptual grouping and figure-ground organization,” Psychological Bulletin (American Psychological Association), vol. 138, no. 6, pp. 1172-1217 (, access: 28 June 2015).