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The word Gestalt is used in modern German to mean the way a thing has been; i.e., “placed,” or “put together.” There is no exact equivalent in English, although “form” and “shape” are the usual translations.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was disturbed by earlier associationists that complex ideals are just a combination of simple ideals. He added the notion that simple ideals combine into a new totality that may bear little resemblance to its parts. For example, if we combine red, green, and blue lights, we get white. So came one of the central themes of the gestalt movement, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), the founder of gestalt psychology, launched it in 1912 with an article on apparent motion. He had an insight while riding a train that if two lights blink on and off at a certain rate, they give the impression that one light is moving back and forth.

Wertheimer contrasts rote memorization with problem solving based on the Gestalt principles. In the former, the learner has learned facts without understanding them. Such learning is rigid and can be applied without truly understanding them. Learning in accordance with the Gestalt principles, however, is based on understanding the underlying principles of the problem. This type of learning comes from within the individual and is not imposed on by someone else. It is easily generalizable and is remembered for a long time. When one performs upon memorized facts without understanding them, one often makes stupid mistakes.

Wertheimer told this story to illustrate the point:

A school inspector was impressed by the children that he had observed, but wanted to ask one more question before departing. “How many hairs does a horse have?” he asked. Much to the amazement of both the inspector and the teacher, a nine year old boy answered “3,571,962.” “How do you know that your answer is correct?” asked the inspector. “If you do not believe me,” answered the boy, “count them yourself.” The inspector broke into laughter and vowed to tell the story to his colleagues when he returned to Vienna. When the inspector returned the following year for his annual visit, the teacher asked him how his colleagues responded to the story. Disappointedly he replied, “I wanted very much to tell the story but I couldn't. For the life of me, I couldn't remember how many hairs the boy had said the horse had.”

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