For the next step along the dream exploration I had to define Gestalt for Doris. The following email gave me a good hint for this attempt.
People send all kind of information online. Since email is part of our lives, people have sent strange things to each other. Some of those have had the ability to reappear in our mailbox from time to time.
One of those recurring phenomena is an interesting letter that provided me with some clue about how the brain works, and how to define Gestalt. Here’s the main part of the letter:
“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”
It turned out that it was not a Cambridge University research and it was not meant to measure our intelligence (as the complete email suggested). This was a letter written by Graham Rawlinson, a specialist in educational psychology, in response to a New Scientist magazine article back in 1999.
“Is that true?” Doris, a cute thirteen years old inquisitore asked. “The order of the letters is not important because the brain reads the word as a whole?”
“Not exactly”, I said. “For the brain to recognize the word, it is also very important to consider the sentence’s context. This is what Rawlinson later commented about his thesis research:”
“Clearly, the first and last letters are not the only thing that you use when reading text,” he wrote. “If this were the case, how would you tell the difference between pairs of words like ‘salt’ and ‘slat’.”
“… Now, Doris, do you know why I’m showing you this email?”
“Because you like to send weird information to other people, like everybody else?”.
“Yes, images which come from our memories. I remember you said there was a missing link in that”.
“Correct, and that missing link is related to the letter I just showed you; or, more accurately, the way the brain always tries to make sense of all the things we perceive. Sometimes, the brain ”completes” the information”.
“What do you mean?” Doris asked.
“Have you ever tried to recognize figures looking at the shape of the clouds?”
“Sure, everybody does that”.
“You are right! Everybody does that one time or another; it’s a natural ability of all humans. A whole philosophy of psychology was founded based on that idea, back to the beginnings of the XX century, in Germany. It was called Die Gestalt.
“Gestalt? Is that English?”
“No, is German for form or shape. The tendency of the mind, always trying to recognize the shape of things is called the gestalt effect. This concept has generated a psychology theory, a psychology school and a therapy”.
“… Gestalt psychologists have identified many variations of this ability and assigned some rigid names to them, like reification, multistability and invariance, but they all consist in how the brain reacts to stimuli”.
“… Have you seen those pictures that represent something when you focus on the dark side, and then change completely when you focus on the whites?”
“Yeah, sure! They are all over the web”,
“Those are called gestalt pictures”.
“So, what you are saying is that the brain always looks for shapes?”
“The brain always tries to make sense of images. If it only sees an incomplete spot, the brain searches in its memory storage and finds what fits better. It’s a natural ability that has helped us humans in many ways. Sometimes, recognizing danger a second faster can be a matter of live or death”.
“Oh, I see… What you are saying is that that Gestapo thing…”
“Gestalt! Gestalt effect!”.
“That thing! Is the same mechanism the brain uses to put images I our dreams?”
“Yes. You got it”
“So, where is the missing link?” Asked Doris, dramatically showing her hands.
“The missing link is this: that mechanism only works when there is an incomplete image, an unfamiliar sound, touch or taste. It requires a stimulus”
“… So, the next question is: where do the stimuli for our dreams come from?”