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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 11/18/21

The Grasp of Gestalt

Message Dom Filanowski

[This is a supplementary article. For a greater understanding of context, please read "The Unjust Condemnation of the Great Barrington Declaration." click here]

"The whole is OTHER than the sum of its parts." -Kurt Koffka

Not to be confused with gestalt therapy, GESTALT THEORY (pronounced geh-SHTALT) is a psychological study of perception with a foundation dating back to the late 19th century [.toptal.com/designers/ui/gestalt-principles-of-design]. It describes the way in which the mind interprets sensory input subjectively, particularly vision. However, the same principles apply to other senses as well [click here]. Based on a German word that roughly translates to "whole form," gestalt theory is also known as configurationism. A gestalt is basically just a configuration, or an entity that consists of separate elements.

Unfortunately, the findings of gestalt theory have been exploited to implement the power of suggestion, manipulating people in the process. Graphic designers are taught that their profession utilizes propaganda techniques which rely on exploiting the principles of gestalt and that these techniques were developed by the Nazis. In addition to holism, the principles of gestalt theory were misappropriated by the Third Reich, and [together] they became known as "fundamental concepts of German psychology," under the Nazi regime [click here]. For reference, holism was coined in 1926 by General Jan Christian Smuts [click here], who defined it as, "the tendency of nature to form wholes--or organisms, and systems--from the ordered grouping of single units--alias molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles."

Before the principles of gestalt theory were generally accepted, the concepts of behavioral psychology dominated the field. To the behaviorists [click here], all learned behavior was formed by "conditioning." Being subjective, the underlying thought processes of perception were not appreciated at the time. According to the behaviorist school of thought, perception is objective, and only observable behavior should be taken into account.

Conversely, when the Rubin Goblet was published, gestalt psychologists used the well-known image of optical art to demonstrate the subjectivity of perception. The very same image can be interpreted as either a goblet or as two faces, depending on what the observer's mind interprets as positive space and negative space (figure and ground). When the mind interprets the goblet as a figure, the faces become the background, and when the mind interprets the faces as a figure, the goblet becomes the ground.

The distinction between figure and ground is a fundamental concept of gestalt theory. When the mind forms a gestalt, the elements that make up the figure, a focal point, are always backed by a ground that appears to surround the figure. This background is perceived peripherally. As the Rubin Goblet demonstrates, the elements perceived as figure and ground can change, but the same entity cannot be seen as both figure and ground simultaneously [click here]. The mind is constantly making distinctions between figure and ground as a form of simplification to interpret a scene which is often very "busy" or complex [click here]. As part of this simplification, the mind fills in the gaps of perceived input, which is known as "closure," one of the principles of gestalt. The mind utilizes shortcuts, known as heuristics, in order to organize complex information in a timely manner. In addition to closure, there are five more principles of gestalt [click here], often referred to as "gestalt laws." Proximity, similarity, prà gnanz (AKA symmetry & order, good figure), continuity (continuation), common region, and closure make up the six overlapping principles of gestalt theory.

As a matter of survival, it is important for the mind to make "quick and dirty" assessments, but sometimes these assessments are inaccurate. For example, some animals have developed markings on their bodies to defend against predators. One form of this defensive tactic utilizes the proximity principle of gestalt, instilling the perception of a face to scare off would-be predators. The "eyespots" on the wings of some moths and butterflies can be intimidating, and it is believed to be a deterrent, protecting the relatively defenseless animals [click here]. In other situations, quickly perceiving separate elements as a single entity [like a face] can trigger a fight or flight response which can prevent the observer from becoming prey.

"The Wizard," an optical art image created by Dominic Filanowski, the author of this article, exhibits several principles of gestalt theory. Right off the bat, the mind perceives a face in the pumpkin. However, the same four elements that form a face are perceived as individual entities when they aren't grouped together. The green figures are no longer viewed as two eyes, a nose and a mouth but as two cats, a toad and a bat. The pumpkin cutouts form the configuration of a face due to proximity and familiarity.

Additionally, the element that doubles as a bat and a mouth demonstrates the transition between positive and negative space. When the pumpkin is perceived as positive space (the focal point on top of a peripheral background), so too are its fangs. Everything that is not orange then becomes negative space. On the other hand, when the green bat is perceived as positive space, so too are its wings and head. The purple sky is then interpreted as negative space. The same lines that form the shoulders and ears of the bat can also be interpreted as fangs in the mouth. In other words, the elements are ambiguous, or bi-stable. Grouping the elements together with the proper spatial relationships utilizes the power of suggestion to convince the observer that these elements form a face.

As it was mentioned, gestalt principles can apply to other senses like sound (e.g., verbal communication). When manipulative people exploit gestalt principles in communication, they make carefully placed statements that are ambiguous. These statements imply something that is not true, but they aren't always scrutinized, in part, because they are not outright lies. The manipulation is hidden by the subconscious configurations of the mind. The Nazis used a scapegoating technique to consolidate power. Scapegoats rely on gestalt principles to form a false sense of causation and blame. The Nazi Party was able to manipulate the masses by conflating economic hardship (Great Depression difficulties exasperated by WWI sanctions), financial disparity, and minority groups, onto which the blame was passed [and wrongfully so].

After WWII, Winston Churchill said, "Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it." Irrespective of the source, it is important to pay close attention to detail when a claim is being made. If the claim being made is ambiguous, the source of the claim may be intentionally misleading its audience. This is the way propaganda and advertising both work. Emotional ploys can dull the senses as well and hint at the possibility of manipulation. When a presentation creates an emotional response, a heightened focus on details can pinpoint ambiguity.

In the context of Covid-19 messaging, there has been a considerable amount of ambiguity, stimulating false assumptions by exploiting the principles of gestalt.

The association fallacy of moderate symptoms and severe outcomes, a fallacy which embellishes the severity of long COVID on society as a whole, utilizes the principles of SIMILARITY, PROXIMITY, and CLOSURE. Omitting natural immunity from the definition of herd immunity, and glossing over the impact natural immunity had on the 20th century pandemics (particularly the 1957 event when less than 20% of the population was vaccinated) both exploit CLOSURE. Ignoring evidence of a decoupling [between the case rate and mortality rate of Delta variant waves] relies on an assumption of CONTINUATION. The same principle is exploited to downplay the impact of natural immunity and vaccination on more virulent strains of the virus, despite a low rate of severe reinfection and breakthrough cases. The conflation of COVID-related deaths and deaths caused by COVID, in addition to the ambiguity of high-risk individuals both exploit CLOSURE.

Are ALL obese individuals at a CONSIDERABLY higher level of risk than "healthy" individuals in the same age group, or is there a statistically significant difference between the risk factors of clinically obese and morbidly obese individuals? How many of the global COVID-related deaths were caused by COVID-related hunger? How many of these deaths can be attributed to a combination of factors, including malnourishment, which was exasperated by the economic impact of lockdowns?

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Dominic M Filanowski, II is a self-described writer-artist-activist and a cultivator of thought. He's a Philly-boy that truly knows the meaning of brotherly love. Educated in the field of graphic design, Dominic has a working knowledge of (more...)
 

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