Gestalt Psychology  

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The Bouba/kiki effect (1929)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Gestalt Psychology (1947) is a book by Wolfgang Köhler.

"The German poet Morgenstern once said of seagulls: "Die Mowen sehen die aus, als ob sie Emma hiessen. ... The sound of "Emma" as a name and the visual appearance of the bird appear to me similar. Another example is of my own construction: when asked to match the nonsense words "takete" and "maluma" with the two patterns shown ..."

Longer excerpt

We have stated the premise which leads to empiristic interpretations of social understanding. But why has this premise been so generally accepted? Why do the theorists assume that mental processes and accompanying facts of behavior have nothing in common? The answer is fairly obvious. According to Descartes and many other philosophers, the materials and events of nature are toto genere different from the contents and processes of the mental realm. Few doctrines have influenced modern thought so strongly as this thesis has. Unfortunately, it has also been applied to the situation which we are here discussing. The behavior of other people, it has been argued, ! concerns their bodies. Consequently, the facts of behavior are physical facts and can, qua physical facts, have nothing in common with mental processes. From what we have learned in previous chapters it must be clear that this argument is mistaken. Inadvertently, it uses the term "facts of behavior" in two different meanings. Whether or not the argument is correct when applied to behavior as a realm of physical facts, the problem of social understanding does not directly refer to behavior in this sense. It refers in the first place to perceptual facts which . one person experiences in contact with other persons; for, both the bodies and the behavior of such other persons are given to the first person only as percepts and changes of percepts. It follows that theses about the nature of the physical world and its relation to mental processes have no place in a first discussion of our problem. Obviously, our first question must be how behavior as perceived can help a person to understand other persons. In trying to answer this question we need not at once make any assumptions about the nature of physical facts.

I do not, of course, deny that perceived behavior is related to changes which occur on the surface of the organisms in question, i.e., to physical behavior.

I also admit that these physical changes are more directly connected with the mental processes of persons than are the events which we perceive when watching these persons. Nevertheless, since the behavior of others is given to us only in perception, our understanding of others must first of all refer to this source. Thus it seems that behavior as a realm of perceptual facts must also be our first subject when we try to solve the problem of social understanding. After all, we have to remember that sometimes percepts tell us more about facts than do the events which mediate between these facts and the percepts (cf. Ch. V, p. r6o). Similarly, perceived behavior may tell us more about the mental processes of others than could be gathered from a study of their physical behavior.

Our problem is particularly interesting where it refers to the more subjective experiences of others such as their emotions and their thinking. Somehow these facts tend to express themselves in the behavior of people as we perceive it. Now, is it really true that behavior in this sense allows of no comparison with those mental facts? Or do mental facts express themselves in the more specific sense in which the term implies that the expression resembles what is being expressed? If the latter alternative could be supported by facts, the main reason for strictly indirect interpretations of social understanding would obviously be removed.

Under these circumstances, it will be our main task to compare subjective experiences with behavior as, at the time, perceived by others. We shall proceed slowly, however. In its efforts to classify human experiences, psychology has generally enhanced differences where closer inspection reveals striking similarities. As a matter of preliminary practice, we shall first consider such similarities in cases in which subjective experience is not involved.

Take the qualities of the different senses. For long it has been held that these qualities have nothing in common. And yet we can point at various examples which are at odds with this view. Brightness and darkness, for instance, are attributes of both auditory and visual experience. Again, if an object which we . touch appears cool, its coolness somehow resembles visual brightness; comfortable warmth is dark in comparison. I have mentioned before that the German word urauh" ("rough") is used for certain auditory experiences as well as for tactual facts. In English not only a surface which we touch but also the sound of a voice and the taste of a wine may be called "smooth."

The German poet Morgenstern once said of seagulls :

Die Mowen sehen aile aus, als ob su Emma hiessen."
(All seagulls look as though their name were Emma.)

Morgenstern, I find, was quite right. The sound of "Emma" as a name and the visual appearance of the bird appear to me similar. Another example is of my own construction: when asked to match the nonsense words "takete" and "maluma" with the two patterns shown as Figs. r8 and 19, most people answer without any hesitation.

In primitive languages one actually finds evidence for the thesis that the names of things and events, which are visually or tactually perceived, have often originated on the basis of such resemblances.2

After this preliminary exercise we can return to our main problem, and compare subjective experiences with perceptual facts. In this connection it will be interesting to know what words are being used with reference to subjective experiences. Most people will agree with the statement that if, in comparison with foveal vision, peripheral vision can be called "fuzzy," the same term also applies to most subjective experiences; in this respect they resemble facts in peripheral rather than in foveal vision. But if this is admitted, we have taken an important step; we have recognized that subjective experiences have at least something in common with certain perceptual facts. Klages has collected a large number of words which are used in the description of subjective experiences as well as of perceptual phenomena.

I will give only a few instances. Something arouses a "bitter" feeling in us. Again, one talks about being in a "soft" mood. "Sweet" love seems to occur in all countries, also "bright" joy and "dark" grief. In wrath there is something which many call "hot." Often the terms in question refer to more dynamic characteristics. Thus, an expectation may be called "tense," an expression in which a subjective experience is compared with what we feel when we touch a taut string. A certain way of thinking appears to us as "straight," and everyone knows immediately what is meant when the term is used in this connection.

Both "calm" and "restlessness" occur, of course, in visual fields ; but often the same terms refer to facts in subjective experience. Again, we feel "attracted" by something, or are inclined to "reject" it. Sometimes our spirits are "high"; and sometimes they are "low." The reader will have no difficulties in continuing the list.

See also

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