Gestalt Laws of Perceptual Organization

Have you noticed how a series of flashing lights often appears to be moving, such as neon signs or strands of lights? According to Gestalt psychology, this apparent movement happens because our minds fill in missing information. This belief that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts led to the discovery of several different phenomena that occur during perception.

The law of closure is one example of a Gestalt law of perceptual organization. According to this principle, things in the environment often tend to be seen as part of a whole. In many cases, our minds will even fill in the missing information to create cohesive shapes.

gestalt laws of perceptual organization
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A Brief History of the Gestalt Laws

Gestalt psychology was founded by German thinkers Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka and focused on how people interpret the world. The Gestalt perspective formed partially as a response to the structuralism of Wilhelm Wundt, who focused on breaking down mental events and experiences to the smallest elements.

Max Wertheimer noted that rapid sequences of perceptual events, such as rows of flashing lights, create the illusion of motion even when there is none. This is known as the phi phenomenon. Motion pictures are based on this principle, with a series of still images appearing in rapid succession to form a seamless visual experience.

According to Gestalt psychology, the whole is different from the sum of its parts. Based upon this belief, Gestalt psychologists developed a set of principles to explain perceptual organization, or how smaller objects are grouped to form larger ones.

These principles are often referred to as the "laws of perceptual organization." However, it is important to note that while Gestalt psychologists call these phenomena "laws," a more accurate term would be "principles of perceptual organization." These principles are much like heuristics, which are mental shortcuts for solving problems.

Follow the links below to find more information and examples of the different Gestalt laws of perceptual organization.

Law of Similarity

Gestalt law of similarity
Public Domain

The law of similarity suggests that similar things tend to appear grouped together. Grouping can occur in both visual and auditory stimuli. In the image above, for example, you probably see the groupings of colored circles as rows rather than just a collection of dots.

Law of Pragnanz

Gestalt Law of Pragnanz
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The word pragnanz is a German term meaning "good figure." The law of Pragnanz is sometimes referred to as the law of good figure or the law of simplicity. This law holds that objects in the environment are seen in a way that makes them appear as simple as possible. You see the image above as overlapping circles rather than an assortment of curved, connected lines.

Law of Proximity

Gestalt Law of Proximity
Public Domain

According to the law of proximity, things that are near each other seem to be grouped together. In the above image, the circles on the left appear to be part of one grouping while those on the right appear to be part of another. Because the objects are close to each other, we group them together.

Law of Continuity

Gestalt law of continuity

Tobias Titz / Getty Images

The law of continuity holds that points that are connected by straight or curving lines are seen in a way that follows the smoothest path. Rather than seeing separate lines and angles, lines are seen as belonging together.

Law of Closure

Gestalt law of closure
Public Domain

According to the law of closure, things are grouped together if they seem to complete some entity. Our brains often ignore contradictory information and fill in gaps in information. In the image above, you probably see the shapes of a circle and rectangle because your brain fills in the missing gaps in order to create a meaningful image.

The Law of Common Region

This Gestalt law of perceptual organization suggests that elements that are grouped together within the same region of space tend to be grouped together.

For example, imagine that there are three oval shapes drawn on a piece of paper with two dots located at each end of the oval. The ovals are right next to each other so that the dot at the end of one oval is actually closer to the dot at the end of a separate oval. Despite the proximity of the dots, the two that are inside each oval are perceived as being a group rather than the dots that are actually closest to each other.

A Word From Verywell

The Gestalt laws of perceptual organization present a set of principles for understanding some of the ways in which perception works. Research continues to offer insights into perception and how we see the world. These principles of organization play a role in perception, but it is also important to remember that these principles can sometimes lead to incorrect perceptions of the world.

For example, imagine that you are out hiking in the woods when you spot what appears to be a moose behind a large tree. You leave the area to ensure you don't disturb the animal, but as you are hiking you realize that the "moose" is actually just two broken tree stumps. Because of the Gestalt law of continuity, you perceived the two disconnected shapes as one continuous object, which your brain then interpreted as a moose.

It is important to remember that while these principles are referred to as laws of perceptual organization, they are actually heuristics or short-cuts. Heuristics are usually designed for speed, which is why our perceptual systems sometimes make mistakes and we experience perceptual inaccuracies.

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  2. Vezzani, S, Marino, BF, Giora, E. An early history of the Gestalt factors of organization. Perception. 2012;41(2):148-67. doi:10.1068/p7122

  3. Dresp-langley B. Principles of perceptual grouping: Implications for image-guided surgery. Front Psychol. 2015;6:1565. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01565

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Additional Reading
  • Goldstein, EB. Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience. Belmont, CA: Wadworth Cengage Learning; 2011.

  • Goldstein, EB. Sensation and Perception. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2010.

  • Nevid, JS. Essentials of Psychology: Concepts and Applications. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning; 2018.