Figure

Examples of some of the Gestalt laws of perceptual organisation: (a) the law of proximity; (b) the law of similarity; (c) the law of good continuation; and (d) the law of closure.

Gestaltist approach

Although the law of Pr├Ągnanz was their key organisational principle, the Gestaltists also proposed several other laws. Most of these laws (see Figure 2.1) can be subsumed under the law of Pr├Ągnanz. The fact that three horizontal arrays of dots rather than vertical groups are perceived in Figure 2.1a indicates that visual elements tend to be grouped together if they are close to each other (the law of proximity). Figure 2.1b illustrates the law of similarity, which states that elements will be grouped together perceptually if they are similar to each other. Vertical columns rather than horizontal rows are seen because the elements in the vertical columns are the same, whereas those in the horizontal rows are not. We see two crossing lines in Figure 2.1c, because according to the law of good continuation we group together those elements requiring the fewest changes or interruptions in straight or smoothly curving lines. Figure 2.1d illustrates the law of closure, according to which missing parts of a figure are filled in to complete the figure. Thus, a circle is seen even though it is incomplete.

Most Gestalt laws were derived from the study of static two-dimensional figures. However, Gestaltists also put forward the law of common fate, according to which visual elements that seem to move together are grouped together. This was shown in an interesting experiment by Johansson (1973; see Chapter 3). He attached lights to each of the joints of an actor who wore dark clothes, and then filmed him as he moved around in a dark room. Observers saw only a meaningless display of lights when the actor was at rest. However, they perceived a moving human figure when he walked around, although they could actually see only the lights. Other Gestalt-like phenomena (apparent motion; perceived causality) are also discussed in Chapter 3.

The Gestaltists emphasised the importance of figure-ground segregation in perceptual organisation. One object or part of the visual field is identified as the figure, whereas the rest of the visual field is of less interest and so forms the ground. The laws of perceptual organisation permit this segregation into figure and ground to happen. According to the Gestaltists, the figure is perceived as having a distinct form or shape, whereas the ground lacks form. In addition, the figure is perceived as being in front of the ground, and the contour separating the figure from the ground is seen as belonging to the figure.

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