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April 15: Max Wertheimer and Gestalt Psychology

April 14, 2016

hm_uniwertheimer_k_largeMax Wertheimer, who founded the gestalt school of psychology with his students Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler, was born in Prague on this date in 1880. After obtaining his doctorate in philosophy and psychology from the University of Wurzburg (where he did research on the lie detector), he began to study how sensory perception influences psychology — in particular, how flashing lights create an illusion of movement, which is known as the phi phenomenon. This led to the development of gestalt psychology, which seeks to analyze how people maintain organized and meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world by creating a mental “whole,” which Kurt Koffka described as “other than the sum of its parts.” Gestalt was a reaction to the “segmented approach of most psychologists to the study of human behaviour,” according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica. “To Wertheimer, truth was determined by the entire structure of experience rather than by individual sensations or perceptions.” He left Germany in 1933 in alarm at the growing influence of Nazism, and became a faculty member at the 14-year-old New School for Social Research in New York. His best-known book was Productive Thinking, published posthumously in 1945, which examined the processes of creative, as opposed to “reproductive,” thinking.

“The basic thesis of gestalt theory might be formulated thus: there are contexts in which what is happening in the whole cannot be deduced from the characteristics of the separate pieces, but conversely; what happens to a part of the whole is, in clearcut cases, determined by the laws of the inner structure of its whole.” —Max Wertheimer