Gestalt psychology, gestaltism or configurationism is a school of psychology that emerged in the early twentieth century in Austria and Germany as a theory of perception that was a rejection of basic principles of Wilhelm Wundt's and Edward Titchener's elementalist and structuralist psychology.
As used in Gestalt psychology, the German word Gestalt (/ - , - , - , - /, gə-SHTA(H)LT, -STAHLT, -S(H)TAWLT, German: [ɡəˈʃtalt] (listen); meaning "form") is interpreted as "pattern" or "configuration". Gestalt psychologists emphasized that organisms perceive entire patterns or configurations, not merely individual components. The view is sometimes summarized using the adage, "the whole is more than the sum of its parts.": 13 Gestalt principles, proximity, similarity, figure-ground, continuity, closure, and connection, describe how humans perceive visuals in connection with different objects and environments.
Max Wertheimer (1880–1943), Kurt Koffka (1886–1941), and Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967) founded Gestalt psychology in the early 20th century.: 113–116 The dominant view in psychology at the time was structuralism, exemplified by the work of Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894), Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), and Edward B. Titchener (1867–1927).: 3 Structuralism was rooted firmly in British empiricism: 3 and was based on three closely interrelated theories:
Together, these three theories give rise to the view that the mind constructs all perceptions and even abstract thoughts strictly from lower-level sensations that are related solely by being associated closely in space and time. The Gestaltists took issue with this widespread "atomistic" view that the aim of psychology should be to break consciousness down into putative basic elements.
In contrast, the Gestalt psychologists believed that breaking psychological phenomena down into smaller parts would not lead to understanding psychology.: 13 The Gestalt psychologists believed, instead, that the most fruitful way to view psychological phenomena is as organized, structured wholes.: 13 They argued that the psychological "whole" has priority and that the "parts" are defined by the structure of the whole, rather than vice versa. One could say that the approach was based on a macroscopic view of psychology rather than a microscopic approach. Gestalt theories of perception are based on human nature being inclined to understand objects as an entire structure rather than the sum of its parts.
Wertheimer had been a student of Austrian philosopher, Christian von Ehrenfels (1859–1932), a member of the School of Brentano. Von Ehrenfels introduced the concept of Gestalt to philosophy and psychology in 1890, before the advent of Gestalt psychology as such. Von Ehrenfels observed that a perceptual experience, such as perceiving a melody or a shape, is more than the sum of its sensory components. He claimed that, in addition to the sensory elements of the perception, there is something extra. Although in some sense derived from the organization of the component sensory elements, this further quality is an element in its own right. He called it Gestalt-qualität or "form-quality."
For instance, when one hears a melody, one hears the notes plus something in addition to them that binds them together into a tune – the Gestalt-qualität. It is this Gestalt-qualität that, according to von Ehrenfels, allows a tune to be transposed to a new key, using completely different notes, while still retaining its identity. The idea of a Gestalt-qualität has roots in theories by David Hume, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant, David Hartley, and Ernst Mach. Both von Ehrenfels and Edmund Husserl seem to have been inspired by Mach's work Beiträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen (Contributions to the Analysis of Sensations, 1886), in formulating their very similar concepts of gestalt and figural moment, respectively.
By 1914, the first published references to Gestalt theory could be found in a footnote of Gabriele von Wartensleben's application of Gestalt theory to personality. She was a student at Frankfurt Academy for Social Sciences, who interacted deeply with Wertheimer and Köhler.
Through a series of experiments, Wertheimer discovered that a person observing a pair of alternating bars of light can, under the right conditions, experience the illusion of movement between one location and the other. He noted that this was a perception of motion absent any moving object. That is, it was pure phenomenal motion. He dubbed it phi ("phenomenal") motion. Wertheimer's publication of these results in 1912 marks the beginning of Gestalt psychology. In comparison to von Ehrenfels and others who had used the term "gestalt" earlier in various ways, Wertheimer's unique contribution was to insist that the "gestalt" is perceptually primary. The gestalt defines the parts from which it is composed, rather than being a secondary quality that emerges from those parts. Wertheimer took the more radical position that "what is given me by the melody does not arise ... as a secondary process from the sum of the pieces as such. Instead, what takes place in each single part already depends upon what the whole is", (1925/1938). In other words, one hears the melody first and only then may perceptually divide it up into notes. Similarly, in vision, one sees the form of the circle first—it is given "im-mediately" (i.e., its apprehension is not mediated by a process of part-summation). Only after this primary apprehension might one notice that it is made up of lines or dots or stars.
The two men who served as Wertheimer's subjects in the phi experiments were Köhler and Koffka. Köhler was an expert in physical acoustics, having studied under physicist Max Planck (1858–1947), but had taken his degree in psychology under Carl Stumpf (1848–1936). Koffka was also a student of Stumpf's, having studied movement phenomena and psychological aspects of rhythm. In 1917, Köhler (1917/1925) published the results of four years of research on learning in chimpanzees. Köhler showed, contrary to the claims of most other learning theorists, that animals can learn by "sudden insight" into the "structure" of a problem, over and above the associative and incremental manner of learning that Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) and Edward Lee Thorndike (1874–1949) had demonstrated with dogs and cats, respectively.
The terms "structure" and "organization" were focal for the Gestalt psychologists. Stimuli were said to have a certain structure, to be organized in a certain way, and that it is to this structural organization, rather than to individual sensory elements, that the organism responds. When an animal is conditioned, it does not simply respond to the absolute properties of a stimulus, but to its properties relative to its surroundings. To use a favorite example of Köhler's, if conditioned to respond in a certain way to the lighter of two gray cards, the animal generalizes the relation between the two stimuli rather than the absolute properties of the conditioned stimulus: it will respond to the lighter of two cards in subsequent trials even if the darker card in the test trial is of the same intensity as the lighter one in the original training trials.
In 1921, Koffka published a Gestalt-oriented text on developmental psychology, Growth of the Mind. With the help of American psychologist Robert Ogden, Koffka introduced the Gestalt point of view to an American audience in 1922 by way of a paper in Psychological Bulletin. It contains criticisms of then-current explanations of a number of problems of perception, and the alternatives offered by the Gestalt school. Koffka moved to the United States in 1924, eventually settling at Smith College in 1927. In 1935, Koffka published his Principles of Gestalt Psychology. This textbook laid out the Gestalt vision of the scientific enterprise as a whole. Science, he said, is not the simple accumulation of facts. What makes research scientific is the incorporation of facts into a theoretical structure. The goal of the Gestaltists was to integrate the facts of inanimate nature, life, and mind into a single scientific structure. This meant that science would have to accommodate not only what Koffka called the quantitative facts of physical science but the facts of two other "scientific categories": questions of order and questions of Sinn, a German word which has been variously translated as significance, value, and meaning. Without incorporating the meaning of experience and behavior, Koffka believed that science would doom itself to trivialities in its investigation of human beings.
Having survived the Nazis up to the mid-1930s, all the core members of the Gestalt movement were forced out of Germany to the United States by 1935. Köhler published another book, Dynamics in Psychology, in 1940 but thereafter the Gestalt movement suffered a series of setbacks. Koffka died in 1941 and Wertheimer in 1943. Wertheimer's long-awaited book on mathematical problem-solving, Productive Thinking, was published posthumously in 1945, but Köhler was left to guide the movement without his two long-time colleagues.[note 1]
Gestalt psychology should not be confused with the Gestalt therapy, which is only peripherally linked to Gestalt psychology. The founders of Gestalt therapy, Fritz and Laura Perls, had worked with Kurt Goldstein, a neurologist who had applied principles of Gestalt psychology to the functioning of the organism. Laura Perls had been a Gestalt psychologist before she became a psychoanalyst and before she began developing Gestalt therapy together with Fritz Perls. The extent to which Gestalt psychology influenced Gestalt therapy is disputed, however. In any case, it is not identical to Gestalt psychology. On the one hand, Laura Perls preferred not to use the term "Gestalt" to name the emerging new therapy, because she thought that the Gestalt psychologists would object to it;, on the other hand, Fritz and Laura Perls clearly adopted some of Goldstein's work. Thus, though recognizing the historical connection and the influence, most Gestalt psychologists emphasize that Gestalt therapy is not a form of Gestalt psychology.
Mary Henle noted in her presidential address to Division 24 at the meeting of the American Psychological Association (1975): "What Perls has done has been to take a few terms from Gestalt psychology, stretch their meaning beyond recognition, mix them with notions—often unclear and often incompatible—from the depth psychologies, existentialism, and common sense, and he has called the whole mixture gestalt therapy. His work has no substantive relation to scientific Gestalt psychology. To use his own language, Fritz Perls has done 'his thing'; whatever it is, it is not Gestalt psychology" With her analysis, however, she restricts herself explicitly to only three of Perls' books from 1969 and 1972, leaving out Perls' earlier work, and Gestalt therapy in general as a psychotherapy method.[note 2]
There have been clinical applications of Gestalt psychology in the psychotherapeutic field long before Perls'ian Gestalt therapy, in group psychoanalysis (Foulkes), Adlerian individual psychology, by Gestalt psychologists in psychotherapy like Erwin Levy, Abraham S. Luchins, by Gestalt psychologically oriented psychoanalysts in Italy (Canestrari and others), and there have been newer developments foremost in Europe. For example, a strictly Gestalt psychology-based therapeutic method is Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy, developed by the German Gestalt psychologist and psychotherapist Hans-Jürgen Walter and his colleagues in Germany, Austria (Gerhard Stemberger and colleagues) and Switzerland. Other countries, especially Italy, have seen similar developments.
Gestalt psychology made many contributions to the body of psychology. The Gestaltists were the first to demonstrate empirically and document many facts about perception—including facts about the perception of movement, the perception of contour, perceptual constancy, and perceptual illusions. Wertheimer's discovery of the phi phenomenon is one example of such a contribution. In addition to discovering perceptual phenomena, the contributions of Gestalt psychology include: (a) a unique theoretical framework and methodology, (b) a set of perceptual principles, (c) a well-known set of perceptual grouping laws, (d) a theory of problem solving based on insight, and (e) a theory of memory. The following subsections discuss these contributions in turn.
The Gestalt psychologists practiced a set of theoretical and methodological principles that attempted to redefine the approach to psychological research. This is in contrast to investigations developed at the beginning of the 20th century, based on traditional scientific methodology, which divided the object of study into a set of elements that could be analyzed separately with the objective of reducing the complexity of this object.
The theoretical principles are the following:
Based on the principles above the following methodological principles are defined:
Reification is the constructive or generative aspect of perception, by which the experienced percept contains more explicit spatial information than the sensory stimulus on which it is based.
For instance, a triangle is perceived in picture A, though no triangle is there. In pictures B and D the eye recognizes disparate shapes as "belonging" to a single shape, in C a complete three-dimensional shape is seen, where in actuality no such thing is drawn.
Reification can be explained by progress in the study of illusory contours, which are treated by the visual system as "real" contours.
Multistability (or multistable perception) is the tendency of ambiguous perceptual experiences to pop back and forth unstably between two or more alternative interpretations. This is seen, for example, in the Necker cube and Rubin's Figure/Vase illusion shown here. Other examples include the three-legged blivet and artist M. C. Escher's artwork and the appearance of flashing marquee lights moving first one direction and then suddenly the other. Again, Gestalt psychology does not explain how images appear multistable, only that they do.
Invariance is the property of perception whereby simple geometrical objects are recognized independent of rotation, translation, and scale; as well as several other variations such as elastic deformations, different lighting, and different component features. For example, the objects in A in the figure are all immediately recognized as the same basic shape, which is immediately distinguishable from the forms in B. They are even recognized despite perspective and elastic deformations as in C, and when depicted using different graphic elements as in D. Computational theories of vision, such as those by David Marr, have provided alternate explanations of how perceived objects are classified.
The perceptual field (what an organism perceives) is organized. Figure-ground organization is one form of perceptual organization. Figure-ground organization is the interpretation of perceptual elements in terms of their shapes and relative locations in the layout of surfaces in the 3-D world. Figure-ground organization structures the perceptual field into a figure (standing out at the front of the perceptual field) and a background (receding behind the figure). Pioneering work on figure-ground organization was carried out by the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin. The Gestalt psychologists demonstrated that we tend to perceive as figures those parts of our perceptual fields that are convex, symmetric, small, and enclosed.
Like figure-ground organization, perceptual grouping (sometimes called perceptual segregation) is a form of perceptual organization. Organisms perceive some parts of their perceptual fields as "hanging together" more tightly than others. They use this information for object detection. Perceptual grouping is the process that determines what these "pieces" of the perceptual field are.
The Gestaltists were the first psychologists to systematically study perceptual grouping. According to Gestalt psychologists, the fundamental principle of perceptual grouping is the law of Prägnanz. (The law of Prägnanz is also known as the law of good Gestalt.) Prägnanz is a German word that directly translates to "pithiness" and implies salience, conciseness, and orderliness. The law of Prägnanz says that we tend to experience things as regular, orderly, symmetrical, and simple. As Koffka put it, "Of several geometrically possible organizations that one will actually occur which possesses the best, simplest and most stable shape."
The law of Prägnanz implies that, as individuals perceive the world, they eliminate complexity and unfamiliarity so they can observe reality in its most simplistic form. Eliminating extraneous stimuli helps the mind create meaning. This meaning created by perception implies a global regularity, which is often mentally prioritized over spatial relations. The law of good Gestalt focuses on the idea of conciseness, which is what all of Gestalt theory is based on.
A major aspect of Gestalt psychology is that it implies that the mind understands external stimuli as wholes rather than as the sums of their parts. The wholes are structured and organized using grouping laws.
Gestalt psychologists attempted to discover refinements of the law of Prägnanz, and this involved writing down laws that, hypothetically, allow us to predict the interpretation of sensation, what is often called "gestalt laws". Wertheimer defined a few principles that explain the ways humans perceive objects. Those principles were based on similarity, proximity, continuity. The Gestalt concept is based on perceiving reality in its simplest form. The various laws are called laws or principles, depending on the paper where they appear—but for simplicity's sake, this article uses the term laws. These laws took several forms, such as the grouping of similar, or proximate, objects together, within this global process. These laws deal with the sensory modality of vision. However, there are analogous laws for other sensory modalities including auditory, tactile, gustatory, and olfactory (Bregman – GP). The visual Gestalt principles of grouping were introduced in Wertheimer (1923). Through the 1930s and 1940s Wertheimer, Kohler and Koffka formulated many of the laws of grouping through the study of visual perception.
The law of proximity states that when an individual perceives an assortment of objects, they perceive objects that are close to each other as forming a group. For example, in the figure illustrating the law of proximity, there are 72 circles, but we perceive the collection of circles in groups. Specifically, we perceive that there is a group of 36 circles on the left side of the image and three groups of 12 circles on the right side of the image. This law is often used in advertising logos to emphasize which aspects of events are associated.
The law of similarity states that elements within an assortment of objects are perceptually grouped together if they are similar to each other. This similarity can occur in the form of shape, colour, shading or other qualities. For example, the figure illustrating the law of similarity portrays 36 circles all equal distance apart from one another forming a square. In this depiction, 18 of the circles are shaded dark, and 18 of the circles are shaded light. We perceive the dark circles as grouped together and the light circles as grouped together, forming six horizontal lines within the square of circles. This perception of lines is due to the law of similarity.
Gestalt psychologists believed that humans tend to perceive objects as complete rather than focusing on the gaps that the object might contain. For example, a circle has good Gestalt in terms of completeness. However, we will also perceive an incomplete circle as a complete circle. That tendency to complete shapes and figures is called closure. The law of closure states that individuals perceive objects such as shapes, letters, pictures, etc., as being whole when they are not complete. Specifically, when parts of a whole picture are missing, our perception fills in the visual gap. Research shows that the reason the mind completes a regular figure that is not perceived through sensation is to increase the regularity of surrounding stimuli. For example, the figure that depicts the law of closure portrays what we perceive as a circle on the left side of the image and a rectangle on the right side of the image. However, gaps are present in the shapes. If the law of closure did not exist, the image would depict an assortment of different lines with different lengths, rotations, and curvatures—but with the law of closure, we perceptually combine the lines into whole shapes.
The law of symmetry states that the mind perceives objects as being symmetrical and forming around a center point. It is perceptually pleasing to divide objects into an even number of symmetrical parts. Therefore, when two symmetrical elements are unconnected the mind perceptually connects them to form a coherent shape. Similarities between symmetrical objects increase the likelihood that objects are grouped to form a combined symmetrical object. For example, the figure depicting the law of symmetry shows a configuration of square and curled brackets. When the image is perceived, we tend to observe three pairs of symmetrical brackets rather than six individual brackets.
The law of common fate states that objects are perceived as lines that move along the smoothest path. Experiments using the visual sensory modality found that the movement of elements of an object produces paths that individuals perceive that the objects are on. We perceive elements of objects to have trends of motion, which indicate the path that the object is on. The law of continuity implies the grouping together of objects that have the same trend of motion and are therefore on the same path. For example, if there are an array of dots and half the dots are moving upward while the other half are moving downward, we would perceive the upward moving dots and the downward moving dots as two distinct units.
The law of continuity (also known as the law of good continuation) states that elements of objects tend to be grouped together, and therefore integrated into perceptual wholes if they are aligned within an object. In cases where there is an intersection between objects, individuals tend to perceive the two objects as two single uninterrupted entities. Stimuli remain distinct even with overlap. We are less likely to group elements with sharp abrupt directional changes as being one object. For example, the figure depicting the law of continuity shows a configuration of two crossed keys. When the image is perceived, we tend to perceive the key in the background as a single uninterrupted key instead of two separate halves of a key.
The law of past experience implies that under some circumstances visual stimuli are categorized according to past experience. If two objects tend to be observed within close proximity, or small temporal intervals, the objects are more likely to be perceived together. For example, the English language contains 26 letters that are grouped to form words using a set of rules. If an individual reads an English word they have never seen, they use the law of past experience to interpret the letters "L" and "I" as two letters beside each other, rather than using the law of closure to combine the letters and interpret the object as an uppercase U.
An example of the Gestalt movement in effect, as it is both a process and result, is a music sequence. People are able to recognise a sequence of perhaps six or seven notes, despite them being transposed into a different tuning or key.
Gestalt psychology contributed to the scientific study of problem solving. In fact, the early experimental work of the Gestaltists in Germany[note 3] marks the beginning of the scientific study of problem solving. Later this experimental work continued through the 1960s and early 1970s with research conducted on relatively simple (but novel for participants) laboratory tasks of problem solving.[note 4]
Given Gestalt psychology's focus on the whole, it was natural for Gestalt psychologists to study problem-solving from the perspective of insight, seeking to understand the process by which organisms sometimes suddenly transition from having no idea how to solve a problem to instantly understanding the whole problem and its solution.: 13 In a famous set of experiments, Köhler gave chimpanzees some boxes and placed food high off the ground; after some time, the chimpanzees appeared to suddenly realize that they could stack the boxes on top of each other to reach the food.: 362
Max Wertheimer distinguished two kinds of thinking: productive thinking and reproductive thinking.: 456 : 361 Productive thinking is solving a problem based on insight—a quick, creative, unplanned response to situations and environmental interaction. Reproductive thinking is solving a problem deliberately based on previous experience and knowledge. Reproductive thinking proceeds algorithmically—a problem solver reproduces a series of steps from memory, knowing that they will lead to a solution—or by trial and error.: 361
Karl Duncker, another Gestalt psychologist who studied problem solving,: 370 coined the term functional fixedness for describing the difficulties in both visual perception and problem solving that arise from the fact that one element of a whole situation already has a (fixed) function that has to be changed in order to perceive something or find the solution to a problem.
Abraham Luchins also studied problem solving from the perspective of Gestalt psychology. He is well known for his research on the role of mental set (Einstellung effect), which he demonstrated using a series of problems having to do with refilling water jars.: 383
Another Gestalt psychologist, Perkins, believes insight deals with three processes:
Views going against the Gestalt psychology are:
Fuzzy-trace theory, a dual process model of memory and reasoning, was also derived from Gestalt psychology. Fuzzy-trace theory posits that we encode information into two separate traces: verbatim and gist. Information stored in verbatim is exact memory for detail (the individual parts of a pattern, for example) while information stored in gist is semantic and conceptual (what we perceive the pattern to be). The effects seen in Gestalt psychology can be attributed to the way we encode information as gist.
Gestalt psychology struggled to precisely define terms like Prägnanz, to make specific behavioral predictions, and to articulate testable models of underlying neural mechanisms. It was criticized as being merely descriptive. These shortcomings led, by the mid-20th century, to growing dissatisfaction with Gestaltism and a subsequent decline in its impact on psychology. Despite this decline, Gestalt psychology has formed the basis of much further research into the perception of patterns and objects and of research into behavior, thinking, problem solving and psychopathology.
In the 1940s and 1950s, laboratory research in neurology and what became known as cybernetics on the mechanism of frogs' eyes indicate that perception of 'gestalts' (in particular gestalts in motion) is perhaps more primitive and fundamental than 'seeing' as such:
In the 1990s, Andranik Tangian developed a model of artificial perception that implemented a principle of correlativity, which operationalized the Gestalt psychology laws in their interaction. The model finds structures in data without knowing the structures, similarly to segregating elements in abstract painting—like curves, contours and spots—without identifying them with known objects. The approach is based on the least complex data representations in the sense of Kolmogorov, i.e. requiring the least memory storage, which is regarded as saving the brain energy. The least complexity criterion leads to multi-level data representations in terms of generative patterns and their transformations, using proximities, similarities, symmetries, common fate grouping, continuities, etc. The idea that perception is data representation rather than "physical" recognition is illustrated by the effect of several voices produced by a single physical body—a loudspeaker membrane, whereas the effect of a single tone is produced by several physical bodies—organ pipes tuned as a chord and activated by a single key. It is shown that the physical causality in certain observations can be revealed through optimal data representations, and this nature–information duality is explained by the fact that both nature and information are subordinated to the same principle of efficiency. In some situations, the least complex data representations use the patterns already stored in the memory, demonstrating the dependence of perception on previous knowledge—in line with the Gestalt psychology law of past experience. Such an intelligent perception as opposed to the naïve perception that is based exclusively on direct percepts and is therefore context-dependent. The model is applied to automatic notation of music—recognition of interval structures in chords and polyphonic voices (with no reference to pitch, thereby relying on interval hearing instead of absolute hearing) as well as rhythms under variable tempo, approaching the capabilities of trained musicians. The model is also relevant to visual scene analysis and explains some modes of abstract thinking.
Similarities between Gestalt phenomena and quantum mechanics have been pointed out by, among others, chemist Anton Amann, who commented that "similarities between Gestalt perception and quantum mechanics are on a level of a parable" yet may give useful insight nonetheless. Physicist Elio Conte and co-workers have proposed abstract, mathematical models to describe the time dynamics of cognitive associations with mathematical tools borrowed from quantum mechanics and has discussed psychology experiments in this context. A similar approach has been suggested by physicists David Bohm, Basil Hiley and philosopher Paavo Pylkkänen with the notion that mind and matter both emerge from an "implicate order". The models involve non-commutative mathematics; such models account for situations in which the outcome of two measurements performed one after the other can depend on the order in which they are performed—a pertinent feature for psychological processes, as an experiment performed on a conscious person may influence the outcome of a subsequent experiment by changing the state of mind of that person.
The halo effect can be explained through the application of Gestalt theories to social information processing. The constructive theories of social cognition are applied though the expectations of individuals. They have been perceived in this manner and the person judging the individual is continuing to view them in this positive manner. Gestalt's theories of perception enforces that individual's tendency to perceive actions and characteristics as a whole rather than isolated parts, therefore humans are inclined to build a coherent and consistent impression of objects and behaviors in order to achieve an acceptable shape and form. The halo effect is what forms patterns for individuals, the halo effect being classified as a cognitive bias which occurs during impression formation. The halo effect can also be altered by physical characteristics, social status and many other characteristics. As well, the halo effect can have real repercussions on the individual's perception of reality, either negatively or positively, meaning to construct negative or positive images about other individuals or situations, something that could lead to self-fulfilling prophesies, stereotyping, or even discrimination.
Some of the central criticisms of Gestaltism are based on the preference Gestaltists are deemed to have for theory over data, and a lack of quantitative research supporting Gestalt ideas. This is not necessarily a fair criticism as highlighted by a recent collection of quantitative research on Gestalt perception. Researchers continue to test hypotheses about the mechanisms underlying Gestalt principles such as the principle of similarity.
Other important criticisms concern the lack of definition and support for the many physiological assumptions made by gestaltists and lack of theoretical coherence in modern Gestalt psychology.
In some scholarly communities, such as cognitive psychology and computational neuroscience, gestalt theories of perception are criticized for being descriptive rather than explanatory in nature. For this reason, they are viewed by some as redundant or uninformative. For example, a textbook on visual perception states that, "The physiological theory of the gestaltists has fallen by the wayside, leaving us with a set of descriptive principles, but without a model of perceptual processing. Indeed, some of their 'laws' of perceptual organisation today sound vague and inadequate. What is meant by a 'good' or 'simple' shape, for example?"
One historian of psychology, David J. Murray, has argued that Gestalt psychologists first discovered many principles later championed by cognitive psychology, including schemas and prototypes. Another psychologist has argued that the Gestalt psychologists made a lasting contribution by showing how the study of illusions can help scientists understand essential aspects of how the visual system normally functions, not merely how it breaks down.: 16
The gestalt laws are used in several visual design fields, such as user interface design and cartography. The laws of similarity and proximity can, for example, be used as guides for placing radio buttons. They may also be used in designing computers and software for more intuitive human use. Examples include the design and layout of a desktop's shortcuts in rows and columns.
In map design, principles of Prägnanz or grouping are crucial for implying a conceptual order to the portrayed geographic features, thus facilitating the intended use of the map. The Law of Similarity is employed by selecting similar map symbols for similar kinds of features or features with similar properties; the Law of Proximity is crucial to identifying geographic patterns and regions; and the Laws of Closure and Continuity allow users to recognize features that may be obscured by other features (such as when a road goes over a river).