Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Gestalt Function

Originally posted on February 25, 2013

There’s a function of the mind called “Gestalt” that’s not “Gestalt therapy” but rather the innate tendency to see meaningful patterns in what is perceived. The mind tends to see things as wholes. Shown a series of still pictures quickly enough, it generates the illusion of motion (and from this, movies and television). The Gestalt function generates “closure.”

“Gestalt” is from the German and refers to the seeming wholeness of a perception. In the 1930s psychologists began to note that the mind tends to work in wholes, and blurs over parts that don’t fit the general sense of something.

For example, the Gestalt function may be noted in the way that, when turning one’s head, one re-creates in a micro-instant the constellation of visual patterns that came in through the eyes so it’s not seen as chaotic or (usually) even wavy. The mind compensates unconsciously, and what one perceives remains whole, or so it seems. I’ve been thinking about many illusions, from the sense of staying oriented to meaning to the sense of being a coherent self—which I’ve written about on a webpage. Other illusions tend to fulfill expectations. If one feels one belongs and is okay, the multiplicity of events perceived tend to be cherry-picked to confirm that. (Contrariwise, if a person is in a state of depression or afflicted with an inferiority complex, events are perceived in a way that tends to confirm these self-images.)

In other words, the dynamic of the Gestalt generates an illusion: The mind can take something that seems mostly some way and make it seem completely that way. That which is 90% prevalent thus tends to be perceived as 100% true—but in fact the 10% exception can be crucial!

Some Variations

90% of people in most areas are not extraordinarily talented, and so the 10% who are tend to be seen not just as more of what most people are a little, but something quite different. If it is a favored quality, that person is celebrated; if it’s unusual, then that person is just “weird.” But most people have a few skills, inclinations, sensitivities, abilities, talents, in the 10% realm even if they’re mainly ordinary. (And most people, let it be said, also have a few “no-talent” or weaknesses in certain areas.)

So, beyond 90% the mind blurs over, accepts the version of the 90%, creates a Gestalt or overall impression. Some common examples:
   – Most of the time for all practical purposes the ground functions as if it is stable, not moving. Thus, the earth doesn’t turn on its axis: Obviously, the sun goes around the earth. But that’s an illusion—astronomical observations and other data do support the idea that the earth is rotating around its axis and traveling around the sun.
  – Germs are invisible so they don’t count. Actually, much of the time this is pretty true, but that 10% of the time when germs are a problem—well, it’s best to wash your hands before eating.

The point here is that the 10% that seems to be not that important in other contexts can become very, very important, 90 or 99% relevant. So context makes a difference.

Re-Considering Rationality

As another example: We used to think that most of the mind was involved in rational thought—or at least 90% so. Yes, maybe 10% of the time we slipped into irrationality—or so it seemed. Now that I reflect on it, though, I think that we are mainly non-rational! It is only that the part of our mind that is conscious and willing tends to generate a sense that we are mainly in control and that we know what we are doing.

So I now flip those numbers and think that 90% of our mind goes flowing non-rationally, and sometimes irrationally, into a goodly number of illusions:
– we are involved in the dramas we see on television or in the movies, we are caught up, we are somewhat identified with the main players, we suffer at their defeats and exult at their triumphs
– we are tired, dreamy, lazy, and half present some times
– we are “on automatic” and responding as we have for the most part responded, habitually, not really doubting ourselves, as we interact with others, drive to work, do household chores
– we are comfortable sharing small talk and lightly joking or recounting memories or speculations in social situations, not recognizing subtle gossip or triviality as it happens
– all the neurotic sub-routines operate in this sphere, most worries, short term illusions of triumph, vengeance, or superiority (“I sure showed ‘em!”), or defeat and excuses.
– the “I should have said…” or “She should have said…”
– regrets of the I should have bought that,” “Doggone, I forgot to get that,” or “Missed it by only a little bit!” type

Objective Reality

In a similar sense, we tend to think that “reality” involves phenomena that is mainly—90%— “out there,” in a realm we call “objective,” or “consensual reality.” It’s what can be tested, most people will agree on the results, it’s more material. But I’ve changed my mind about the ratio: No doubt a considerable amount of reality is “out there” for all practical purposes, but as I think about life, the time spent on small talk, reassurance, loving, ruminating over resentments or worries, zoning out as mentioned above, etc., I now think that 90% of time is spent on our personal experience, our narrating the stories about our life or our experience, our noticing whether we like or hate it, our comparisons, and innumerable other thoughts.

In summary, these shifts in recognizing the illusory nature of much that we used to think was mainly so represents another way that I’ve been noticing about how we are in a time of many paradigm shifts. This is a minor theme on this blog: What seemed so a half century ago is no longer so compelling. 

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