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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    • "We hypothesized that holistic face processing is supported by information similar to that underlying Gestalt perception of objects. This hypothesis derives from the fact that holistic processing, as revealed by the compositeface effect, mirrors two core aspects of Gestalt perception: (a) The whole has new, emerging properties that do not exist in the parts (i.e., emergence), and (b) perception of the whole reduces the accessibility of the constituent parts (Poljac, de-Wit, & Wagemans, 2012; Pomerantz & Portillo, 2011; Suzuki & Cavanagh, 1995; Wagemans et al., 2012). According to this hypothesis, embedding facelike Gestalt information in nonface objects should elicit holistic processing spontaneously without any training, and, more important, manipulating such Gestalt information should affect holistic processing accordingly. "
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    ABSTRACT: Holistic processing-the tendency to perceive objects as indecomposable wholes-has long been viewed as a process specific to faces or objects of expertise. Although current theories differ in what causes holistic processing, they share a fundamental constraint for its generalization: Nonface objects cannot elicit facelike holistic processing in the absence of expertise. Contrary to this prevailing view, here we show that line patterns with salient Gestalt information (i.e., connectedness, closure, and continuity between parts) can be processed as holistically as faces without any training. Moreover, weakening the saliency of Gestalt information in these patterns reduced holistic processing of them, which indicates that Gestalt information plays a crucial role in holistic processing. Therefore, holistic processing can be achieved not only via a top-down route based on expertise, but also via a bottom-up route relying merely on object-based information. The finding that facelike holistic processing can extend beyond the domains of faces and objects of expertise poses a challenge to current dominant theories.
    Preview · Article · Dec 2015 · Psychological Science
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    • "We drew from centuries of research on perceptual grouping principles and harnessed known biases in memory-based distance judgments in an attempt to detect the perception of illusory spatial boundaries. Specifically, we utilized knowledge of grouping principles such as closure, in which we complete the gaps in our perception to create unitary and distinct objects, and continuity, in which we differentiate between two or more intersecting objects by following the directions of their outlines or curves (for a review, see Wagemans et al., 2012) to predict that an opening into a room from a hallway formed by opposing corner projections appeared to promote perception of an illusory spatial boundary. We then utilized knowledge of systematic bias that occur in memory-based distance judgments to infer the perception of illusory spatial boundaries. "
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    ABSTRACT: Spatial boundaries demarcate everything from the lanes in our roadways to the borders between our countries. They are fundamental to object perception, spatial navigation, spatial memory, spatial judgments, and the coordination of our actions. Although explicit spatial boundaries formed by physical structures comprise many of the actual boundaries we encounter, implicit and permeable spatial boundaries are pervasive. The prevailing paradigm for detecting implicit spatial boundaries relies on memory-based distance and location judgments. One possibility is that these biases in spatial memory may be attributable to initial biases in spatial perception, but the extent to which implicit spatial boundaries bias spatial perception remains unknown. An approach for detecting the perception of implicit spatial boundaries would be to infer it through known systematic biases in memory-based distance judgments. We harnessed known biases in memory-based distance judgments to infer perception of spatial boundaries by probing the extent to which distances were overestimated across potential spatial boundaries. Results suggest that participants perceived potential spatial boundaries as illusory spatial boundaries leading to biased judgments of distance. A control group eliminated simple two-dimensional distance cues as responsible for this bias. This bias provides a novel method to detect the perception of illusory spatial boundaries.
    Full-text · Article · Nov 2015 · Cognition
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    • "There is a long tradition of applying Gestalt ideas to the interpretation of 2D retinal images (see Wagemans, Elder et al., 2012; Wagemans, Feldman et al., 2012, for recent reviews). In most of this work, two-dimensional Rules of Perceptual Organization were studied in an effort to discover how ambiguities inherent in our 2D retinal images are resolved by our visual system. "
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    ABSTRACT: This study, which was influenced a lot by Gestalt ideas, extends our prior work on the role of a priori constraints in the veridical perception of 3D shapes to the perception of 3D scenes. Our experiments tested how human subjects perceive the layout of a naturally-illuminated indoor scene that contains common symmetrical 3D objects standing on a horizontal floor. In one task, the subject was asked to draw a top view of a scene that was viewed either monocularly or binocularly. The top views the subjects reconstructed were configured accurately except for their overall size. These size errors varied from trial to trial, and were shown most-likely to result from the presence of a response bias. There was little, if any, evidence of systematic distortions of the subjects' perceived visual space, the kind of distortions that have been reported in numerous experiments run under very unnatural conditions. This shown, we proceeded to use Foley's (Vision Research 12 (1972) 323-332) isosceles right triangle experiment to test the intrinsic geometry of visual space directly. This was done with natural viewing, with the impoverished viewing conditions Foley had used, as well as with a number of intermediate viewing conditions. Our subjects produced very accurate triangles when the viewing conditions were natural, but their performance deteriorated systematically as the viewing conditions were progressively impoverished. Their perception of visual space became more compressed as their natural visual environment was degraded. Once this was shown, we developed a computational model that emulated the most salient features of our psychophysical results. We concluded that human observers see 3D scenes veridically when they view natural 3D objects within natural 3D environments.
    Full-text · Article · Nov 2015 · Vision research
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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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