How Your Brain Simplifies Complex Reality

The world around us is a mess, yet we're able to understand it. How do our brains make sense of it all, and how does design make it easier?

When you look at a tree, you don't think of it as individual branches, leaves and a trunk. You think of it as a tree. But why is that? Why do our brains process things as whole objects rather than the parts they're made of?

This is largely because of the Gestalt Psychology movement. In 1912, Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka came up with the idea that "the whole of anything is greater than its parts." This best example of this idea is the way we watch movies. Films are made up of still images put together, but our brains process them as moving. Our brains are creating a story.

Gestalt Psychology also involves many other laws for how our brains perceive visuals. Some of them include Proximity, Similarity, Continuity, Prägnanz (simplicity), Symmetry, Closure, and Common Fate. The law of Proximity dictates that we group things closest together first. But if they appear different, the law of Similarity says our brains will then group things together based on how alike they are.

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The principle of Continuity says that we assume the smoothest curve will always be the correct path, unless that path is interrupted, in which case Prägnanz comes into play and we look at the overall collection of shapes in its simplest form.

Closure might be the most interesting of the Gestalt laws in that it shows how our brains create images that aren't there. We like to group things together if we think they complete an entity.

All of this might seem a bit abstract, but this concept is all around us everyday. How we perceive the world affects everything from our decision-making, to our biases, to our memory. In fact, according to a study from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Gestalt principles are what allow us to read. Essentially, we see letters as shapes, our brain groups them together to recognize words, and we follow them along the lines of a page.

Design is creative field but it's informed by scientific principles. This is just one example of how science and creativity are more interconnected than we realize.

-- Molly Fosco

Read More:

NCBI: A Century of Gestalt Psychology in Visual Perception I. Perceptual Grouping and Figure-Ground Organization Gestalt Laws: Form, Continuation, and Common Fate

RJI Online: Results are in: A cleaner webpage design equals more engaged readers