Isomorphism in Gestalt Theory: Comparison of Wertheimer's and Köhler's Concepts (2)

by Abraham S. Luchins and Edith H. Luchins


This section is based mainly on LUCHINS and LUCHINS (1973, Vol. II, pp. 157-171), which reconstructed several sessions of WERTHEIMER s 1937-1938 seminar at the New School for Social Research that were devoted to "a new theory of perception of feelings." First WERTHEIMER described a lecture-demonstration in which the instructor was standing behind a table in the front of the room. In the back of the room were two boxes of the same size, shape, and color. The instructor asked a student to go to the back of the room and bring to his table, one at a time, each of the two boxes. The box contents were visible to the student who carried them, but not to the other students in the class. (One box held a sensitive, delicate apparatus, but the other held old newspapers.) The class members were asked to describe verbally what they saw and also to draw graphs of the student s movements with each box. For example, when the student carried the box with the instrument, he and his movements were described as cautious and careful; when the student carried the newspapers, he and his movements were described as casual. The graphs that students drew showed Gestalt qualities of the behaviour.
WERTHEIMER described another demonstration: there were two rods with a wire between them on the instructor's table in front of the room. The instructor called on a student to touch the wire. After he did this, the experimenter made a motion as if to open a switch; the class members did not see the switch nor the words printed below it: DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE. (There was no danger to the student.) Again the student volunteer, who could see the words, was asked to touch the wire. The class was asked to describe what had happened, to characterize the student s behaviour each time, and to draw graphs of the actions. Descriptions of the volunteer s behaviour and the graphs showed hesitation and discontinuity after the instructor made a motion to open the switch.
During a discussion WERTHEIMER made remarks such as these: If you say that someone is energetic or furious, are you referring to his behaviour, or to his feelings, or to both? In the old theory, feelings were considered separate from movements and other physical behaviour; they belonged to different, heterogeneous realms. The new theory recognizes that the Gestalt qualities of behaviour and feelings may be the same. He said, as KOFFKA (1935) had stated it: The same stimulus array that gives rise to seeing a face may contain the sadness that one see in it. Isomorphism is a thesis that the Gestalt quality of psychological events is similar to the quality of the physical world. The old view held that if certain psychological feelings and certain physiological movements seem to be related, it is because they have been associated together in the past. WERTHEIMER wrote on the blackboard:

Old View
New View: Isomorphism
Psychology and physiology are similar because of association due to past experience.
Psychology and physiology are similar because of similar Gestalt qualities.

WERTHEIMER improvised on the piano and asked the class to match what he played with colors as well as with words that he had written on the blackboard, e.g., sad, happy, and aggressive. There was considerable agreement among the class members.
In response to a student's question about KÖHLER's concept of isomorphism, WERTHEIMER said that their formulations differ. He wrote on the blackboard:
A) How stimulation is and how it is in the brain (K)
B) How behaviour is and how it appears (W)
After a pause, WERTHEIMER said in reference to B) that isomorphism does not always hold. Some expressions of feeling are added to the behaviour, are external to it. Some expressions are due to cultural factors; in certain societies one has to hide feelings. Not all psychological states of a person are expressed in the responses and not all behaviour expresses the psychological states. He then raised the question: What are the criteria of real or true behaviour and of pretense or falsity? He suggested some methods of studying reactions to actual expressions of emotions and re-enactments of them.
In another comparison of the two conceptions of isomorphism (cf. SCHEERER, 1954), WERTHEIMER noted that KÖHLER assumes that phenomenal patterns correspond to patterns of the brain field s physiological processes. WERTHEIMER is concerned with the relationship between organization of the phenomenal field and that of the geographical field.
After class several seminar members continued the discussion of isomorphism. One student said that he was surprised to hear that WERTHEIMER's thesis of isomorphism is not like KÖHLER's. From reading KOFFKA (1935) he had the impression that WERTHEIMER originated the thesis of neural physiological isomorphism. But it seems that WERTHEIMER actually focuses on the relation between the geographical and the phenomenal world, while KÖHLER focuses on the relation between the phenomenal and the psychophysical field. The discussants decided that neither KÖHLER nor WERTHEIMER would deny that it sometimes happens that the phenomenal, the geographical, and the brain field may be isomorphic.
Someone said that WERTHEIMER seems more concerned than KÖHLER with truth, with veridical perception. WERTHEIMER is aware of the lack of isomorphism in some cases and suggests that we find out the conditions that produce non-correspondence between the percept and the aspect of the real world that it maps. KÖHLER's thesis does not lead to such research.
Martin SCHEERER, a seminar member who had joined the discussion, said that WERTHEIMER's thesis of isomorphism does not require a physiological theory. WERTHEIMER is pointing out that there are resemblances between perception and the external world. A philosophy major argued that WERTHEIMER would have to be a Naïve Realist to believe that what we see actually exists; what we see is often not really so!
It was noted that psychology until recently was a branch of philosophy, and it has inherited the mind-body problem. A refugee scholar said that the principle of isomorphism is the Gestalt psychologists solution to the mind-body problem as it was formulated by DESCARTES. KÖHLER's thesis has replaced metaphysical dualism with an epistemological dualism. He went on to say that in many respects WERTHEIMER's thesis reflects SPINOZA's identity theory and PYTHAGORAS idea that Form is immanent in the material thing. ASL (A.S. LUCHINS) commented that WERTHEIMER's thesis of isomorphism is neutral to the question of the nature of the mind, the body, and the relation between them. His thesis calls for study of the relationship between the evidence and what one sees based on the evidence. The principles of organization provide an example of how WERTHEIMER would go about studying the relationship between the organization of the geographical and phenomenal fields. Someone recalled that WERTHEIMER said that the laws of organization also hold for structuring of the brain field. SCHEERER remarked that Gestalt isomorphism frees psychologists from the idea of mysterious conscious events in the brain. The philosophy major argued that WERTHEIMER himself used physiological speculation to concretize his thesis about a Gestalt as a dynamic whole in his short-circuit theory for phi movement. ASL pointed out that the neurologizing was a kind of footnote but WERTHEIMER himself claimed it was not essential to understanding of the phi phenomenon.
Someone remarked that WERTHEIMER's thesis takes us back to the pre-philosophical naïve view that there is a correlation between the structure of objects and the structure of psychological experience. ASL commented that WERTHEIMER does not say that there is always a correlation between the geographical and phenomenal worlds but that there are cases where there is such a correspondence; there are also cases where there is little or no correspondence. WERTHEIMER suggests that we study the factors involved in each case; what factors blind one and what factors open one's eyes to the structure of what is before him? Moreover, what can be done to bring about recovery for those who are blind to the structure? WERTHEIMER's thesis calls for empirical research. It involves looking for new ways to deal with the question of why things look the way they do.
The refugee scholar said that eventually WERTHEIMER's approach will have to reconcile itself to KÖHLER's because psychology is becoming a biological science. WERTHEIMER himself realized the value of a neurological model when he discussed the phi phenomenon. KÖHLER is merely following in the master s footsteps with the thesis of psychophysiological isomorphism. SCHEERER insisted that it is possible to deal with the percept and the geographical stimuli in WERTHEIMER's manner without a neurological model. ASL said that it may even be an advantage to do this; it will spare Gestalt psychologists the criticism of both the traditional physiologists and the Behaviourists. The former object to Gestalt psychology, saying that the brain is a network of connections and not a field of interacting dynamic forces; the latter object to neurologizing of behaviour because they regard the brain as a mystery box. SCHEERER cautioned that we not overlook the differences between their views and WERTHEIMER's views on the nature of man. Someone added that they also differ in their concern with values and requiredness. KÖHLER also insists that we cannot avoid the question of value and agrees with WERTHEIMER that there are requirements of a system.
In other lectures WERTHEIMER contrasted KÖHLER's focus on brain dynamics and neurophysiology with his own interest in a mathematical model of isomorphism. WERTHEIMER did not accept the widespread belief that Gestalt psychology implies a neurophysiological model of brain dynamics. As we pointed out elsewhere (1991-1993), aside from the phi phenomenon, WERTHEIMER did not present such a model:
Unlike his paper (1912b) on the phi phenomenon, WERTHEIMER did not give a physiological model or any model of brain dynamics in his [other] publications [e.g., 1912a, 1925, or in his (posthumous) 1945 book on productive thinking] in discussing his concepts of centering, recentering, or restructuring. The notion that they are due to brain dynamics may have been reinforced by KÖHLER's discussion of insight [and] by HUMPHREY's (1951) and KOFFKA's (1935) references to WERTHEIMER's work in terms of brain dynamics. The fact is that WERTHEIMER, in his 1920 and 1945 works, and in his lectures on productive thinking [at the New School for Social Research], stressed the need for a new logic and new mathematics that would deal with Gestalten and Gestalt processes. He specifically pointed out in his lectures the differences between WERTHEIMER's and KÖHLER's concepts of isomorphism...and he contrasted his search for a mathematical model with KÖHLER s neurological model of isomorphism. (LUCHINS & LUCHINS, 1991-1993, Vol. II, p. 856)


In a chapter on cognitive theory, Martin SCHEERER (1954) wrote about the Gestaltists views on perception:

...the question [is] what determines the organizational character of a percept. It has been dealt with by the Gestaltists in two ways: first, they postulate a dynamic self-distribution of nervous excitations which is triggered off by the proximal stimuli. This culminated in KÖHLER s theory of isomorphism, which assumes a formal correspondence between brain-field patterns and phenomenal patterns; in the last analysis the latter are believed to derive from the former...Second, the Gestaltists examine the proximal stimulus conditions themselves as to their possible relevance for perceptual patterning. In so doing, KÖHLER concludes: "Although the local stimuli are mutually independent, they exhibit formal relations such as those of proximity and similarity" (1947, p. 1657). It is clearly implied that the WERTHEIMER factors give rise to perceptual unit formation. The organizational response is induced by the relations among the independent local stimuli in terms of similarity, proximity, common fate, and good continuation....The cognitive significance of these perceptual principles may be summed up in the proposition that phenomenal organization is a cohesive structured field and that the units in this field represent distal objects of the geographic environment. [The italicized sentence may be regarded as reflecting WERTHEIMER's concept of isomorphism.]
In repudiating the traditional constancy hypothesis of a strict correspondence between local stimuli and sensation the theory has to postulate that something of the physical object is preserved which makes, on the whole, for its adequate representation....In the words of KOFFKA, the behavioural object, the perceptual representation of an object, "is a dynamic map of the distant stimulus when and inasmuch as the proximal stimulus distribution possesses such geometrical characteristics as will produce a psychophysical organization similar to the one of the distant stimulus object" (1935, p. 659). (SCHEERER, 1954, pp. 98-99)

The chapter also discussed the relationships among the geographic, the phenomenal, and the behavioural environments:
For the Gestaltists the total field, in the widest sense, consists of the geographic environment and the psycho-physical organism within it. Only a portion of this field is psychologically represented; this is the phenomenal (or psychological) field of direct experience or awareness. It includes distal representation and the phenomenal self. The behavioural environment, or life space, is more inclusive than the phenomenal field, and extends beyond momentary awareness. In turn, the behavioural environment corresponds only to that segment of the wide geographic environment that affects behaviour. (Ibid., p.100)

SCHEERER also pointed to some gaps in Gestalt psychological research:
The Gestaltists have not attempted to deal with the acquisition and function of symbols, concepts, ideational contents, and language, nor with the manner in which these are reflected in the phenomenal field and in motivated behaviour. KOFFKA acknowledges this gap. (Ibid., p. 113).

SCHEERER cited KOFFKA's comments (1935, p. 422) on the importance of not only the palpably presented behavioural environment but also the environment which we "merely" imagine or think of, an environment closely related to our language. Recognizing that "an ultimate explanation of the problems of thought and imagination will not be possible without a theory of language and other symbolic functions," KOFFKA admitted that "we shall exclude the study of language from our treatise," rather than risk a superficial treatment (1935, p. 422).
SCHEERER also pointed to an additional gap in Gestalt psychological research:
Another admitted gap is the social and value-oriented aspect of behaviour. Efforts have been made to implement Gestalt theory in this direction. With regard to value, KÖHLER (1938) has presented a novel approach of combining the phenomenological analysis of "requiredness" with the formal principles of isomorphism. ASCH (1952) has extended the Gestalt approach with the cognitive aspect of human interaction. However, in these later efforts, symbolic behaviour and its relation to motivation are secondary. (SCHEERER, 1954, p. 115)

The gaps that KOFFKA acknowledged in 1935 decreased in subsequent years. KÖHLER's 1938 book on value was acknowledged by SCHEERER. In the 1937-1938 seminars, WERTHEIMER dealt with the environment that one imagines and thinks of, as well as with emotions and with language and symbols. He provided lively demonstrations using colors and music and suggested experimental outgrowths. One of the most popular courses WERTHEIMER taught at the New School was on music and art. Some of his students undertook research in these areas. Among them was Rudolf ARNHEIM, who did a doctoral dissertation on expressive movement under WERTHEIMER, and who together with students did research on perception and art, resulting in his 1969 book to which we turn.


In Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye, Rudolf ARNHEIM (1969) acknowledged his indebtedness to Gestalt psychology and its founders:

The experiments I am citing and the principles of my psychological thinking derive largely from gestalt theory. This preference seems justifiable. Even psychologists who have certain quarrels with gestalt theory are willing to admit that the foundation of our present knowledge of visual perception has been laid in the laboratories of that school. But this is not all. From its beginning and throughout its development during the last half century, gestalt psychology has shown a kinship to art. The writings of Max WERTHEIMER, Wolfgang KÖHLER, Kurt KOFFKA are pervaded by it. Here and there in these writings the arts are explicitly mentioned, but what counts more is that the spirit underlying the reasoning of these men makes the artist feel at home. In fact, something like an artistic look at reality was needed to remind scientists that most phenomena of nature are not described adequately if they are analyzed piece by piece. The realization that a whole cannot be attained by adding up isolated parts was not new to the artist. (p. vii)

Concerned with dynamic patterns, and raising the question of what was meant by perceptual forces, ARNHEIM wrote:
Throughout this book it must be kept in mind that every visual pattern is dynamic. Just as a living organism cannot be described by its anatomy, so the essence of a visual experience cannot be expressed by ...static measurements [which] define only the "stimulus," that is, the message sent to the eye by the physical world. But the life of a percept - its expression and meaning - derives entirely from the activity of the kind of forces that have been described. (p. 6)
The reader may have noticed with apprehension the use of the term "forces." Are these forces merely figures of speech, or are they real? And if they are real, where do they exist?
They are assumed to be real in both realms of existence û that is, as psychological and as physical forces...In what sense can it be said that these forces exist, not only in experience, but also in the physical world? (Ibid.)
...Light rays, emanating from the sun or some other source, hit the object and are partly absorbed and partly reflected by it. Some of the reflected rays reach the lens of the eye and are projected on its sensitive background, the retina. Do the forces in question arise among the stimulations that light produces in the millions of small receptor organs situated in the retina? The possibility cannot be entirely excluded. But the receptor organs of the retina are essentially self-contained. In particular, the "cones," which are largely responsible for pattern vision, have little anatomical connection with each other, many of them having private pathways to the optic nerve.
In the brain center of vision itself, which is located in the back of the head, conditions seem to exist, however, that would allow for this very kind of process. According to gestalt psychologists, the cerebral area contains a field of electrochemical forces. These interact freely, unconstrained by the kind of compartmental division that is found among the retinal receptors. Stimulation at one point of the field is likely to spread to adjoining areas. As an example of a phenomenon that seems to presuppose such interaction, WERTHEIMER's experiments on illusory movement may be cited. If two light spots appear successively in a dark room for a split second, the observer often does not report two separate and independent experiences. Instead of seeing one light and then, at some distance, another, the observer sees only one light, which moves from one position to another. This illusory movement is so compelling that it cannot be distinguished from the actual displacement of one light dot. WERTHEIMER concluded that this effect was the result of "a kind of physiological short-circuit" in the brain center of vision, by which energy shifted from the place of the first stimulation to that of the second. In other words, he suggested that local brain stimulations acted upon each other dynamically. Subsequent research confirmed the validity of this hypothesis and provided more information about the exact nature and behaviour of cortical forces. Although all these findings were indirect, in that they inferred knowledge of physiological happenings from psychological observations, more recent investigations by KÖHLER have opened the way for the direct study of the brain processes themselves.
The forces that are experienced when looking at visual objects can be considered the psychological counterpart or equivalent of physiological forces active in the brain center of vision. Although these processes occur physiologically in the brain, they are experienced psychologically as though they were properties of the perceived objects themselves. (p 7)

Examples were given in the book to show that "simplicity requires a correspondence of structure between meaning and tangible pattern" (p. 51). ARNHEIM noted: "Such structural correspondence has been named isomorphism by gestalt psychologists" (Ibid.).


George HUMPHREY's book, Thinking (1951), has a chapter entitled "The Gestalt Theory of Thought" (Chapter VI, pp. 150-184). Under "General Characteristics of the Gestalt Theory," HUMPHREY wrote:

At the outset it should be pointed out that these wholes, which are to serve as psychological units, may be, and in fact characteristically are, extended in time. To borrow a phrase from the physicists they are four dimensional. As KÖHLER puts it, they are processes.. Thus the "phi-phenomenon" of WERTHEIMER, which may be called the experimental starting-point of the theory, is the experience of spatial motion over a certain period of time. For example, if two spots of light are thrown on a screen with suitable lengths of exposure and at suitable intervals of time and spatial distance, the observer sees not two stationary spots but one moving spot. This latter experience, according to the theory, cannot be analyzed into two discrete experiences corresponding to the patches of physical light on the screen. It is the experience of a single patch of light moving from this point in space to that. The experience corresponding to each stationary spot of light has been modified, and an entirely new kind of experience has been created, namely the phenomenal Gestalt of motion from one point to another. This "Gestalt of motion" is then "four dimensional." The same thing is true of musical notes. The experience corresponding to each such note is different according to the melody of which it forms part and to its place in the melody.... The whole gives the meaning to the "elements", and cannot be analyzed into them; for such analysis neglects the fact that when originally separate experiences are juxtaposed, with the result that a new Gestalt is formed, those original experiences lose their original character and acquire a fresh character from their membership in the new whole. Physically, a melody can of course be analyzed into so many discrete notes; psychologically it cannot. The melody-Gestalt [von EHRENFELS, 1890] is, again four dimensional; it takes place in space and time....
From the elementary statement foregoing several points emerge. The Gestalt is new. Under the proper conditions, a new kind of experience is born out of the disjecta membra of relatively discrete experiences. The spots of light are experienced as two discrete spots, if the interval is properly chosen. WERTHEIMER states that an interval of about 0.03 sec. gave two simultaneous lines in perception, one of 0.2 sec. two successive lines, while one of about 0.06 sec gave motion [1925, p. 73]. The individual notes [of a melody] are experienced as separate notes if the intervals between them are sufficiently long. But under the proper conditions the melody experience arises, which is new.

In the subsequent section, called "Isomorphism," HUMPHREY wrote about WERTHEIMER's physiological short-circuit hypothesis concerning apparent movement and about KÖHLER's concept of physiological isomorphism: is claimed that between the experience and the physiological processes directly underlying it there is a specific relationship, of congruence or isomorphism, to use KÖHLER's term. Actual motion of a spot of light in the field of vision is presumably accompanied by some kind of neural displacement in the visual area of the brain. WERTHEIMER's hypothesis is that in the case of apparent movement, there is a similar shift of excitation from one centre to another in the brain, a physiological short-circuit [1925, p. 88]. Apparent motion and real motion thus have similar physiological correlates, namely actual neural displacement. This is generalized by KÖHLER into the statement that "experienced order in space is always structurally identical with a functional order in distribution of underlying brain processes," and similarly for time [1947, pp. 61-63, original 1929]. The same principle applies to the experience of totality, wholeness. An experienced whole, according to the theory, implies wholeness, totality in the underlying physiological process. If the melody is to be perceived as a unity there must be unity in the correlative physiological processes. And in general "units in experience go with functional units in the underlying physiological processes ." Indeed, KÖHLER is prepared to extend the notion of isomorphism still further. Language, he points out, is the direct outcome of physiological processes in the organism. Hence, "It does not matter very much whether my words are taken as messages about experience or about these physiological facts" [Ibid., p. 64] (HUMPHREY, 1951, pp. 152-153)

Under the heading "General Statement of the Gestalt Theory of Thinking," he wrote:
...the Gestalt theory of thinking may be summarily stated as follows. There is first stimulation by the situation. This gives rise to a nexus of perceptual processes of a psycho-neural nature, which by dynamic interaction, with each other and with the mnemonic traces present, results in a re-ordering of the first perceptual processes, in the way which we call "seeing the problem" ... or "formulating the problem." At this stage, the psycho-neural process remains mainly at the perceptual level. Because of the dynamic interaction of the processes leading to it there has been a certain amount of transformation of the original perceptual material; but the stage is still provisional. Seeing the problem is only "a step toward solution." From the psycho-neural processes...springs a series of events which we call the thinking proper...Thus through the thought-processes the solution springs from the stresses inherent in the seen-problem, in a manner comparable to the way in which perception of "a spot in motion" springs from the stresses inherent in the psycho-neural ensemble of the phi-phenomenon experiment. The whole series of events, from seen-problem to solution, is then unitary. It is the series of events leading from one state to another of a self-regulating system under stress. This series is comparable to the total series of swings of a pendulum coming to rest, which is likewise of a unitary nature...It will be noticed that no attempt has been made to segregate neural events from those of experience. This omission is deliberate and is in accordance with the principle of isomorphism. (HUMPHREY, 1951, pp. 154-155)

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Copyright © 1999 , A.S. Luchins, E.H. Luchins. All Rights Reserved.
This paper was prepared in the context of the 11h Scientific Convention of the international Society for Gestalt Theory and its Applications (GTA), March 1999 in Graz/Austria, and was first published in
GESTALT THEORY - An International Multidisciplinary Journal, Vol. 21, No 3, Nov 1999, pp 208-234.

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