brainpop / essay

A dream of you, me, and Wolfgang Köhler

This month, my taste in music converged unexpectedly with some dead academics I’ve been learning about. Baltimore-based band Future Islands released a video for “A Dream of You and Me” off their upcoming album, Singles. And it looks to me like a love letter to Gestalt psychology (hence the dead academics).

Gestalt psychology is typically explained in introductory psychology classes as a fringe movement in the 20th century study of the mind.  Its pioneering researchers are remembered mostly for their ideas on form in visual perception — specifically, the way people see objects in the environment as wholes, not just collections of parts. Think of the difference between seeing a square as a whole square, rather than first perceiving the top line of the square, then the second, third, and fourth lines, all as separate entities. You could see a square in that latter piecemeal way; we typically just don’t.

According to Gestalt psychologists, that tendency to see wholes drives our visual experience in ways like making us “fill in” incomplete shapes, or naturally see even two-dimensional environments as having figures — distinct objects that appear closest to us in space — and grounds, which are basically backgrounds.

All these ideas came to mind when I first watched the “A Dream of You and Me” video, since it’s mostly moving patterns and shapes. Of course, I doubt this video is meant to salute Gestalt Psychology — Future Islands videos just tend to be pleasingly weird (see Balance, Tin Man and the video at the bottom of this post).

Nonetheless, it’s pretty cool to watch the video and notice how the slightest changes — a tiny reduction in light, or the motion of a paper cut-out — can shift your overall impression of the images on screen. One especially Gestalt moment happens around 3:08, when what looks like a painting-under-construction suddenly becomes the ground for a collection of moving black shapes.

In honor of this lovely little video and the overlooked branch of psychology it evokes, here are five facts on the Gestalt school of thought:

1)  World Wars I and II helped block Gestalt psychology from establishing a strong legacy. Based in Germany, most Gestalt researchers had to abandon or suspend their work during World War I. By the end of World War II, many had died or left for other countries, where they struggled to find graduate students who were at all familiar with their work.

2) Gestalt psychology was founded by Wolfgang Köhler, Max Wertheimer, and Kurt Koffka. Köhler was trained as a physicist and worked under Max Planck, who famously originated quantum theory. In his definitive book on Gestalt psychology he attacks both behaviorism and introspection, two popular movements in psychology during his heyday. Wertheimer studied lie detectors early in his career and ended his research with the book Productive Thinking. Koffka wrote a Gestalt book that looks much scarier than Köhler’s (it’s over 700 pages long) and took a special interest in applying Gestalt ideas to learning in children.

3) As hinted by their resumés, the Gestalts were interested in way more than visual perception. They had theories on memory, learning, problem-solving, and consciousness. And in his book, Köhler outlines a Gestalt approach to studying all of psychology, which he contrasts with approaches looking just at behavior or the brain. The Gestalt research program would take a big-picture approach by also studying experience, the environments we live in, and the physical laws that govern our environments.

4) Ever hear the term “self-actualization”? It came from Gestalt psychologist Kurt Goldstein. This was a huge surprise to me, since I first read the phrase in The Princess Diaries when I was 10 (true story) and later thought it was a modern self-help term. But Goldstein viewed this concept, meaning a “realization of one’s potential,” as a crucial force behind human motivation.

5) Goldstein’s work inspired Gestalt therapy, which is a separate movement from Gestalt psychology. Developed as a kind of “humanistic psychotherapy,” Gestalt therapy focuses on the in-the-moment relationship between the patient and analyst, and on the personal responsibility of patients. You can still try this kind of therapy today — see the Gestalt Institute of Toronto.

And just because, here’s Future Islands’ other video for the upcoming album. Less Gestalt, more cowboys:

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