Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Gestalt Laws in Perceptual Interpretation


Neural processing according to the Gestalt laws is involved in the higher order perceptual categorization in the association cortices.  Word Gestalt in German literally means "shape" or "figure."

Gestalt proponents claimed that elements of a pattern are grouped together that are most proximal spatially; most proximal temporally; most similar geometrically; part of the most continuous pattern; part of the most closed pattern; arranged in uniform density; evolving with common fate; most symmetric; exhibiting a common orientation; or optimizing an intuitive measure of "figural goodness" or pragnanz. (Zucker; Perceptual Grouping, 725)

The brain looks at multiple features of objects and comes forth with an overall perception.  For myself, I look at cloud formations in the sky and fantasize many lambs, puppy heads, bears, sometimes rabbits, old men's heads with beards, etc. The eyes and brain input these visual shapes and make an overall perception based upon past memory.  I have great fun with fractocumulus clouds breaking up into fair weather as the cloud formations spawn many tantalizing perceptions.  I have fun enjoying the gestalts.

Another fun experience is to have a friend, perhaps a child, look at a geographical map of the world, or of the United States, and suggests resemblances in the shapes of countries or states Italy is a boot, Iceland is in duck, etc. Be sure to also rotate the map at angles, looking at it upside down, etc, when recognizing your brain’s gestalts for the shapes of countries and states on the map.

Importance of the relationship among components in giving rise to a higher order of product was introduced in 1912 by a group of German psychologists who call their philosophy gestalt (pattern). (Greenfield; Centers of Mind, 97)

Idea behind the gestalt school of thought is that perception is global, not local; objects or features are perceived in relation to one another, giving a final holistic view that cannot be inferred from the individual components alone. (Greenfield; Centers of Mind, 98)

The Gestalt  laws have been expressed in several forms. Here is a listing of five basic Gestalt laws: (Schneck & Berger; Music Effect, 80)


(1)   Law of proximity -- resolution limits of sensory inputs implies that individual elements of stimuli very close to one another in space and/or time will be perceived as a single unit or figure.


(2)   Law of directionality -- sequential pattern of incident sensory inputs is perceived to be tracing a smooth, unbroken trajectory.  The next incoming stimulus is expected to follow in the same direction.


(3)   Law of similarity -- stimuli that share generic features, or are otherwise comparable in the attributes that define them, tend to be perceptually grouped into the same object category.


(4)   Law of closure -- the brain closes any existing breaks in information, "filling in the gaps" so to speak. "Connect the dots" to create a continuous flow of information.


(5)   Law of Pragnanz - (German for conciseness) -- the brain attempts to create the most stable, consistent, and meaningful interpretation of input stimuli.  The brain seeks to glean the essence of the information contained in the stimuli, rather than the embracing the absolute content.


Gestalt laws can also be expressed in terms of emergence, reification, multistability and invariance. Gestalt psychology (


Rorschach figure (pronounced ''raw-shock'') -- blotches and blobs. Brain uses the Gestalt laws to cobble together interpretations of ink blots(How many lambs, mice, dogs, etc. can you see in the form and shapes of clouds?)

At the cognitive level, features that co-occur in space and covary in time are recognized as constituting the same object. (Posner; Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention, 160)


  Gestalts for the Dynamic Core

My speculation is that neuronal assemblies in the brain mediate hierarchies of gestalts bound in coherence momentarily by rentry and recursion and by the associative property of memory to produce the Dynamic Core of consciousness in the thalamocortical system.

Current brain imaging technology does not permit the direct observation of gestalt activity in the brain.  Perhaps at some time in future years the imaging technology will permit the observation of recursive signal activity in many millions of neurons, synapses and neuronal assemblies on a millisecond timescale. Recent work with the "brainbow" imaging of individual axons in mice might some day lead to future insights. In the meantime, the gestalt concept provides a useful way of visualizing how hierarchies of neuronal assemblies could mediate consciousness in the dynamic core.



Link to — Gestalts and Consciousness

Return to — Perceptual Categorization