Wolfgang Köhler and the Gestalt Approach, What is Insight?

Wolfgang Köhler and the Gestalt Approach, What is Insight?

June 28, 2021 Off By Felso

Gestalt psychology, which Köhler developed together with Wertheimer and Koffka, was a movement that focused on perception mechanisms, critically approaching behaviorism, which gradually lost its influence in the early 20th century, and behaviorism in psychology.

Gestaltists, who rejected the common approach of both behaviorist and structuralist psychology, which aimed to analyze psychological phenomena by disassembling them, emphasized that perception as a whole has a unique dynamic, and they carried out new kinds of experiments to prove their arguments, giving great importance to the qualitative difference of the perceived whole from the sum of its parts. On the one hand, they objected to the argument of structural psychology that the content of consciousness enriched by past experiences can be found by examining with introspection methods, and on the other hand, they opposed the mechanical view of behaviorism, which completely denies consciousness. In this context, they emphasized the dynamics of perception (and consciousness) that emerged spontaneously as a result of the relations of stimuli with each other.

What is Insight?

Köhler’s research in Tenerife has enduring value in the criticisms of Gestalt psychology, particularly of behavioral learning theories. According to theorists close to the behaviorist view, especially Thorndike, learning is mechanically built on the knowledge gained from past experiences through the method of trial and error. For example, while an organism is solving a problem to find food—or to be rewarded in a certain way—it makes use of its mistakes and successes in the past. Köhler, who conducted various experiments on learning in chimpanzees, claimed that the solution emerged as a result of “insight” by simultaneously grasping all the elements that lead the organism to the solution. For example, Sultan, Köhler’s famous chimpanzee subject, “suddenly” found, after examining all the necessary elements for a solution, that he could obtain a bunch of bananas outside of his cage, which he could not normally reach, by intertwining two sticks. Köhler emphasized that in such experiments, the insight method, which is based on clearly seeing the necessary elements for a solution during learning and simultaneously grasping and reaching a solution, is both more common and more educational than the mechanisms based on trial and error, especially emphasized by Thorndike.

Köhler focused his research in the USA on the relationship between psychological phenomena and physical phenomena, emphasizing the integrity of nature and tried to consider psychology within the laws of physiology and physiology within the laws of physics. Meanwhile, arguing that psychological perception and its physiological effect on the nervous system (brain) are isomorphic, he directed his research more towards measuring activity in the brain during excitation. For this reason, Köhler focused on the study of electrical waves in the brain, and especially flat or very slowly changing currents, and showed that electrical activities other than impulses that provide neural transmission, albeit indirectly, are also important in terms of functions in the brain. With his researches in this field, he found that predictable perceptual errors may occur as a result of continuous observation of a certain form of visual stimulus. showed that neural activities also undergo certain changes. Köhler, who also examined the memory mechanisms, tried to explain forgetting within the framework of the perception principles of Gestalt psychology, claiming that the remembered event is not fundamentally different from the perceived event, and that both phenomena are affected by the same dynamics in the brain.

Köhler provided a holistic view of psychological phenomena with his experimental and theoretical studies, but his observations and arguments, especially on physiology, which he interpreted within the narrow framework of Gestalt psychology, which has lost its vitality as a movement today, lost their old influence. On the other hand, theories of learning by emphasizing the insight mechanism in particular influenced the development of physiological psychology by examining the physiology of the brain.

Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook