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Gestalt - Making Sense of the World

Permalink by Tikal, Categories: Toddlers, Babies, Child Development , Tags: gestalt, interpretation, learning difficulties, learning problems, perception, understanding

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Gestalt is a set of psychological principles, founded in Germany in the 1920's, that try to describe the way that we make sense of the world - the skills that set a 2 year old toddler apart from a robot!

There is no direct translation for the word Gestalt but it means something like 'essence' or 'form'.  Several core principles make up our understanding of the world, and many children's toys and puzzles are aimed at practicing with real world interaction in order to make our own understanding of these principles.  The principles include:-

  1. Proximity: if similar objects are grouped in clusters then we perceive them to be in groups
  2. Similarity: we perceive objects to be similar if they are similar in shape, colour or size
  3. Common fate: if objects move together then we interpret them as being related
  4. Continuity: we perceive the continuation of lines as being part of the same object
  5. Closure: we interpret a circle made up of dots as a single object even though it is not complete
  6. Symmetry: we perceive symmetrical borders as corresponding edges and overlook the individual lines that make up a pattern, seeing an overriding shape instead

Gestalt attempts to describe how, when we look out of the window, we convert a series of lines, colours and shapes into a meaningful view of trees, houses, cars and so on.

The principles begin to explain how we make sense of what we see, and also what we hear, around us.  Take a tree as an example.  To adults, and even young children, it is clear that a trunk, branches, leaves and flowers make up a tree, but to a newborn baby, there's no automatic connection between all of these parts that make it obvious that a tree is a single object.  Over time a baby's brain forms the necessary connections required to interpret that the lines, shapes and colours that we see indeed make up a tree.

This understanding is formed using the principles of gestalt: branches are similar, there is continuation between the trunk and its branches, there is common fate amongst the leaves which all flutter in a similar way in a breeze, as do the branches which all move together in stronger wind.  All of these clues lead us to be able to interpret a tree as being a unified object.

The amazing thing about babies and toddlers is that they are making these connections and learning and by the age of 2 years, they have a good grasp on all of this.  Yet scientists have been trying to apply these same principles to robots for decades and yet still a robot is not able to interpret the world in the way that an untutored toddler can!

Once we form these connections, it is difficult for us to unlearn them, and there is a branch of psychology that believe that some forms of learning difficulty might arise from basic misinterpretation at an early age.  If a toddler interprets the world along different principles, then it can be difficult to reprogramme the mind to work otherwise and that can lead to long term learning problems.


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Hi! I'm Tikal the Toucan, the mascot for ToucanLearn. Follow my blog to find out interesting things relating to babies, toddlers and preschool children!

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