The World in Your Head: A Gestalt View of the Mechanism of Conscious Experience

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Rubin was a Danish phenomenologist and contemporary of Wertheimer. In , he presented for the first time these ambiguous figures that can now be found in almost every introductory psychology book, for instance the white vase on a black background that can equally well be seen as two black heads looking at each other against a white background.

We learn from these ambiguous images that perception is selective. He showed for instance that when an object is perfectly flat and lies in the same physical plane as its environment, we perceive it as located in front of its environment. Husserl is sometimes called the father of phenomenology, even though Stumpf actually coined the term. Husserl studied with Brentano and later worked with Stumpf. But there is also the knowledge that comes through turning our attention inward. Husserl used introspection to examine subjective experience, without relating it to anything else. He called it pure phenomenology.

Husserl claimed that the methods of the natural sciences are inappropriate for studying mental phenomena. This philosophy solidifies the methodological separation between human and natural sciences that characterizes many academic institutions today. He did not deny that an experimental psychology was possible, but he said it must be preceded by careful phenomenological analysis.

Phenomenology could help psychology clarify the implicit assumptions and preconceptions that guide its investigations. Brentano, Stumpf, and Husserl all assumed that the subject matter of psychology is meaningful and integrated or holistic psychological experience on a human level.


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They want objectivity in conjunction with a holistic approach to human science. This sets the stage for the development of Gestalt psychology. Husserl was also the teacher of Heidegger, who created his own version of a phenomenological method in philosophy. Another student of Husserl is Emmanuel Levinas. They believed that people do not experience life in isolated pieces, but rather in a holistic fashion, where everything fits together.

Gestalt theory emerges from phenomenology, because these early Gestalt psychologists studied mental experience as it naturally occurred to the observer, without further analysis or interpretation.

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Max Wertheimer was born in Prague on April 15, His father was a teacher and the director of a school. At Frankfurt, he began to study the effects that blend a series of pictures into the perception of motion. The collaboration between these three men created the Gestalt school.

In , he moved to Berlin, and in was made an assistant professor there. In , he came back to Frankfurt as a professor, and in , he moved to the United States to escape Hitler. He died October 12, in New York. Wertheimer asked: What are these entities, why do we experience them as wholes, even though they extend through space and time? It is the hope of Gestalt theory to determine the nature of such wholes. Wertheimer was more of a philosopher than a psychologist.


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  • As a philosopher, he was also committed to science, and he wanted to apply the scientific method to the study of behavior. Behaviorists were somewhat naive for him, because they think in terms of stimulus and response, without enough reflection for these terms. Take a box with 2 slits, and put a light behind each slit. If the light is shown behind first one and then the other slit, we perceive a moving light, even though physically there was actually no movement. This works in the same fashion whether the lines are vertical or horizontal.

    The experiment demonstrates that the physical and the experiential aspect of the stimulus are different, so how should we define the stimulus or the response? To the observer, the apparent movement exists as perception, and cannot be reduced to something simpler. The sensory experience itself creates the perception of movement; it does not originate from an underlying reality. What makes behaviorists naive is their lack of reflection of the differences between physical and perceived stimulus. Wertheimer asked: What is the relationship between the physical aspect of a stimulus and its perceptual aspect?

    What we see are not the physical aspects of the form, but the form itself. The whole is different from the sum of its parts. These observations generate a theory which has as its central ideas concepts like wholeness, interdependence, context, and field. Gestalt theorists argue that there is a connection between physical and perceptual aspects if we take relationships and patterns into account.

    For instance: take four dots, and arrange them in a square. Why is each dot perceived as the corner of a square? The perception of a square results only from the relationship the dots have with each other, not from any individual dot, or even from two dots together. If you add four more dots around the perimeter of the square to make it look more like a circle, an individual dot begins to change its function, without ever changing its position. When we perceive details, we perceive them in contexts, patterns, or in relationships to other details.

    There is something dynamic in the pattern of interrelationships. This dynamism emerges from the patterns itself, not from the details. In real life we see not just some details, or isolated stimuli, but also meaningful configurations — hallways, market places, streets, etc. We act in relation to these gestalt configurations, rather than in relation to the elements. It is possible for there to be a chaotic gestalt, in which things do not fit together. He received his PhD in from the University of Berlin.

    He then became an assistant at the Psychological Institute in Frankfurt, where he met and worked with Max Wertheimer. In , he was assigned to study at the Anthropoid Station at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and stayed there till In , he wrote his most famous book, Mentality of Apes. In , he became the chair and director of the psychology lab at the University of Berlin, where he stayed until During that time, in , he wrote Gestalt Psychology.

    In , he moved to the U. He died June 11, in New Hampshire. Kurt Koffka was born March 18, , in Berlin. In , he moved to the University of Giessen, where he taught until In , he wrote an article for Psychological Bulletin which introduced the Gestalt program to readers in the U. In , he left for the U. The need for third-person empirical data gathered by external observers is perhaps most obvious with regard to the more clearly functional types of consciousness such as access consciousness, but it is required even with regard to phenomenal and qualitative consciousness.

    For example, deficit studies that correlate various neural and functional sites of damage with abnormalities of conscious experience can make us aware of aspects of phenomenal structure that escape our normal introspective awareness.

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    The World in Your Head: A Gestalt View of the Mechanism of Conscious Experience

    As such case studies show, things can come apart in experience that seem inseparably unified or singular from our normal first-person point of view Sacks , Shallice , Farah Or to pick another example, third-person data can make us aware of how our experiences of acting and our experiences of event-timing affect each other in ways that we could never discern through mere introspection Libet , Wegner Nor are the facts gathered by these third person methods merely about the causes or bases of consciousness; they often concern the very structure of phenomenal consciousness itself.

    First-person, third-person and perhaps even second-person Varela interactive methods will all be needed to collect the requisite evidence. Using all these sources of data, we will hopefully be able to construct detailed descriptive models of the various sorts of consciousness. Though the specific features of most importance may vary among the different types, our overall descriptive project will need to address at least the following seven general aspects of consciousness sections 4.

    The relevant sort of qualitative character is not restricted to sensory states, but is typically taken to be present as an aspect of experiential states in general, such as experienced thoughts or desires Siewert The existence of such feels may seem to some to mark the threshold for states or creatures that are really conscious. If an organism senses and responds in apt ways to its world but lacks such qualia, then it might count as conscious at best in a loose and less than literal sense.

    Qualia problems in many forms—Can there be inverted qualia? Block a b, Shoemaker , Are qualia epiphenomenal?

    Gestalt Isomorphism

    Jackson , Chalmers How could neural states give rise to qualia? Levine , McGinn —have loomed large in the recent past. But the What question raises a more basic problem of qualia: namely that of giving a clear and articulated description of our qualia space and the status of specific qualia within it. Absent such a model, factual or descriptive errors are all too likely. For example, claims about the unintelligibility of the link between experienced red and any possible neural substrate of such an experience sometimes treat the relevant color quale as a simple and sui generis property Levine , but phenomenal redness in fact exists within a complex color space with multiple systematic dimensions and similarity relations Hardin Color may be the exception in terms of our having a specific and well developed formal understanding of the relevant qualitative space, but it is not likely an exception with regard to the importance of such spaces to our understanding of qualitative properties in general Clark , P.

    Churchland There are obviously important links between the phenomenal and the qualitative. Indeed qualia might be best understood as properties of phenomenal or experienced objects, but there is in fact far more to the phenomenal than raw feels. As Kant , Husserl , and generations of phenomenologists have shown, the phenomenal structure of experience is richly intentional and involves not only sensory ideas and qualities but complex representations of time, space, cause, body, self, world and the organized structure of lived reality in all its conceptual and nonconceptual forms.

    Since many non-conscious states also have intentional and representational aspects, it may be best to consider phenomenal structure as involving a special kind of intentional and representational organization and content, the kind distinctively associated with consciousness Siewert See the entry on representational theories of consciousness. Answering the What question requires a careful account of the coherent and densely organized representational framework within which particular experiences are embedded.

    Since most of that structure is only implicit in the organization of experience, it can not just be read off by introspection. Articulating the structure of the phenomenal domain in a clear and intelligible way is a long and difficult process of inference and model building Husserl Introspection can aid it, but a lot of theory construction and ingenuity are also needed.

    There has been recent philosophical debate about the range of properties that are phenomenally present or manifest in conscious experience, in particular with respect to cognitive states such as believing or thinking. Some imagery, e. On the thin view, the phenomenal aspect of perceptual states as well is limited to basic sensory features; when one sees an image of Winston Churchill, one's perceptual phenomenology is limited only to the spatial aspects of his face.

    On the thick view, the what-it-is-likeness of perceiving an image of Marilyn Monroe includes one's recognition of her history as part of the felt aspect of the experience, and beliefs and thoughts as well can and typically do have a distinctive nonsensory phenomenology.

    Both sides of the debate are well represented in the volume Cognitive Phenomenology Bayne and Montague Subjectivity is another notion sometimes equated with the qualitative or the phenomenal aspects of consciousness in the literature, but again there are good reason to recognize it, at least in some of its forms, as a distinct feature of consciousness—related to the qualitative and the phenomenal but different from each. In particular, the epistemic form of subjectivity concerns apparent limits on the knowability or even the understandability of various facts about conscious experience Nagel , Van Gulick , Lycan On Thomas Nagel's account, facts about what it is like to be a bat are subjective in the relevant sense because they can be fully understood only from the bat-type point of view.

    Only creatures capable of having or undergoing similar such experiences can understand their what-it's-likeness in the requisite empathetic sense. Facts about conscious experience can be at best incompletely understood from an outside third person point of view, such as those associated with objective physical science.

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