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: 14.76). 07/2012; 138(6):1172-217. DOI: 10.1037/a0029333
Source: PubMed


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, Oct 08, 2015
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    • "This concept has emerged at the crossroad of human and computer vision research. Indeed, faced with the quantitative questions raised by the qualitative results found by the Gestalt school (Wertheimer, 1923; Kanizsa, 1980; Wagemans et al., 2012), vision scientists like Witkin and Tenenbaum remarked that ''the appearance of spatiotemporal coherence or regularity is so unlikely to arise by the chance interaction of independent entities that such regular structure, when observed, almost certainly denotes some underlying unified cause or process " Witkin and Tenenbaum, 1983, p. 481. This idea that perception relies on non-accidental relationships to segment an observed scene into meaningful structures, is usually called the non-accidentalness principle. "
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    ABSTRACT: Quantitative approaches are part of the understanding of contour integration and the Gestalt law of good continuation. The present study introduces a new quantitative approach based on the a contrario theory, which formalizes the non-accidentalness principle for good continuation. This model yields an ideal observer algorithm, able to detect non-accidental alignments in Gabor patterns. More precisely, this parameterless algorithm associates with each candidate percept a measure, the Number of False Alarms (NFA), quantifying its degree of masking. To evaluate the approach, we compared this ideal observer with the human attentive performance on three experiments of straight contours detection in arrays of Gabor patches. The experiments showed a strong correlation between the detectability of the target stimuli and their degree of non-accidentalness, as measured by our model. What is more, the algorithm's detection curves were very similar to the ones of human subjects. This fact seems to validate our proposed measurement method as a convenient way to predict the visibility of alignments. This framework could be generalized to other Gestalts.
    Vision research 09/2015; DOI:10.1016/j.visres.2015.08.014
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    • "Crucially, although unary Gestalt principles have proven to be useful for edge grouping when used alone [45] [36] [1], very few studies [44] investigate how multiple principles can be exploited jointly in a single framework. This is challenging due to the problem of Gestalt confliction [49] [50], or cross-cue dis- crepancy. "
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    ABSTRACT: We propose a perceptual grouping framework that organizes image edges into meaningful structures and demonstrate its usefulness on various computer vision tasks. Our grouper formulates edge grouping as a graph partition problem, where a learning to rank method is developed to encode probabilities of candidate edge pairs. In particular, RankSVM is employed for the first time to combine multiple Gestalt principles as cue for edge grouping. Afterwards, an edge grouping based object proposal measure is introduced that yields proposals comparable to state-of-the-art alternatives. We further show how human-like sketches can be generated from edge groupings and consequently used to deliver state-of-the-art sketch-based image retrieval performance. Last but not least, we tackle the problem of free-hand human sketch segmentation by utilizing the proposed grouper to cluster strokes into semantic object parts.
    IEEE Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR), Boston, MA, USA, June 2015; 06/2015
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    • "In a recent study, Kok and de Lange (2014) sought to test these predictions using the well-known Kanizsa illusory shape stimulus (Figure 1A). In this stimulus, pacmen-like inducers give rise to an illusory shape percept, perceived as a foreground figure relative to the inducers in the background (Kanizsa, 1979; Kogo & Wagemans, 2013; Wagemans et al., 2012). Within the proposed framework, the authors predicted that neural activity in early visual cortex related to the inducers should go down, because top-down predictions match the bottom-up sensory input. "
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    ABSTRACT: In a recent functional magnetic resonance imaging study, Kok and de Lange (2014) observed that BOLD activity for a Kanizsa illusory shape stimulus, in which pacmen-like inducers elicit an illusory shape percept, was either enhanced or suppressed relative to a nonillusory control configuration depending on whether the spatial profile of BOLD activity in early visual cortex was related to the illusory shape or the inducers, respectively. The authors argued that these findings fit well with the predictive coding framework, because top-down predictions related to the illusory shape are not met with bottom-up sensory input and hence the feedforward error signal is enhanced. Conversely, for the inducing elements, there is a match between top-down predictions and input, leading to a decrease in error. Rather than invoking predictive coding as the explanatory framework, the suppressive effect related to the inducers might be caused by neural adaptation to perceptually stable input due to the trial sequence used in the experiment.
    i-Perception 06/2015; 6(1):41-44. DOI:10.1068/i0689
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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

    Dear Paul:

    The following comment refers not only 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 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).

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