Is Gestalt the Third Mode of Thought?
Two important characteristics of gestalts are speed of access and compression. Gestalts are also subtle and ineffable, ie they cannot be adequately described in words. They are often arranged hierarchically. It is worth stressing that the three modes - words, images and gestalts - work in tandem. When we think of a particular person, we may picture their face, and recall their name, as well as our memories, opinions and feelings about them. The first of these is visual, the second is verbal, whereas the rest are gestalts. The gestalt mode of thinking goes largely unnoticed because the translation of gestalts into words is habitual, rapid and automatic.
My contention is that when we express a thought in words in the privacy of our mind we are often giving form to something which has had prior existence as a thought, but not in words. I claim that the thought existed as something other than ordinary language before it was expressed in words. Evidence for this belief is that we sometimes have the feeling that what we say does not fully express what we really meant during a conversation.
Further, I claim that this third mode, which I call gestalt thinking, is the primary mode of thought. It is more basic, more ubiquitous and more important than thinking in words or images.
Definition of gestalt
A gestalt is an overall impression or summation that we consciously hold in our mind of an event, person, object or concept. This representation functions as a unit or building block in our thought processes. A gestalt is a mix of connotations and denotations, as well as of emotional reactions, memories, facts, intuitions, attitudes, and beliefs. It includes definite as well as half-formed opinions and all our intellectual and emotional reactions to the subject. Note that words and sensory images are excluded from this definition.
Gestalt thinking is the form our thoughts have prior to their expression in language. This mental representation is not linguistic, nor is it a kind of sensory imagery. Thinking using sensory images includes visualising images, hearing music playing in our minds, remembering smells, imagining sensations, and so forth. There are times when our thinking is best described as being visual or pictorial, especially if we are imagining a face or a scene, whether it is an experience from our past, or a fantasised one, such as of the future. By contrast, gestalt thinking is any form our thoughts take other than verbal or sensory, ie a distinct third mode of mental representation. It is worth stressing that the three modes work in tandem. For example, when we think of a particular person, we may picture their face, and recall their name, as well as our memories, opinions and feelings about them. The first of these is visual, the second is verbal, whereas the rest is a gestalt.
It is important to note that 'gestalt' and 'mental representation' are not interchangeable terms. A mental representation of something consists of words, images, and a gestalt, not just the gestalt itself. So a representation of something is more than its gestalt. No representation is free of words, if only because we can describe anything that occurs in our minds in terms of words, even if this is not really adequate. Images are also linked to nearly all our mental contents. Even abstractions such as time, mind and pi are associated with visual images of clocks, brains and circles.
The gestalt mode is not a kind of language. Language is a versatile and rich means of communicating and expressing experience, feeling and thought. It employs signs to stand for meanings. Gestalt thinking does not fit this definition because it is not used for communication, but only for thinking. Further, gestalt thinking does not use signs or symbols.
Memory and thought
Looking more deeply, it seems that gestalts are not so much the stepping stones of thought as the stuff of memory. Since thought operates using pre-existing memories, memory is more basic than thought. Without some form of memory, thought is not possible, as it would have nothing to operate on - no words, no images, no gestalts. Memory does not primarily store words or sense impressions, though these are the main inputs that give rise to each particular memory. Instead, memory summarises what we experience. Words become stories and sense impressions (eg walking to yoga) are filed away as complete events. Of course, we also remember individual sense impressions and words, but these tend to be fragmentary and are not the main features in our mental warehouse.
Our memory compresses many different days into an overall representation of an entire summer. This becomes a single recollection, with a thickness or depth that a single moment cannot have. Yet the gestalt we have of that summer is more than just a compressed memory, for it includes our present opinions, judgements and emotional reactions to what happened. As well as being a summary, it is also an interpretation, ie a pattern of meanings. Since this gestalt exists in the present, the opinions and feelings it contains are the ones we have now, rather than what we felt at the time, though they are likely to be similar.
If you think about a book you have read then what you recall are not the words themselves, except for the title and author. What comes back is a summary of the contents, or the impression the book made on you. Similarly, if you think back to an excursion, what you recall is not so much a series of sense impressions (though these also figure) but a sequence of events that encapsulates a large number of visual and auditory experiences.
Although film is primarily a visual medium, my main memory of a movie is likely to be a summary of its plot rather than a sequence of images.
Putting images and words to one side, what else are our memories made of? What is remembered are representations or notions. Even if the input was largely visual, eg looking out of a train window, it is mainly stored as a summary, rather than as a series of images. The summary is like an idea, a notion of what the landscape was like, with a few images thrown into the overall representation. I remember taking off my jacket yesterday. Yet what I recall are not the sensory or motor details of doffing the jacket, but the overall action, which is a standard one. Memory mainly deals in standard units that correspond to repeated experiences, such as taking a shower, meeting someone, or driving to the city. The details of such actions are largely forgotten, as are the minor variations of each repetition.
What is my memory of a book, eg A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley? Although the book itself consists of hundreds of thousands of words, in my memory these are compressed, not into a word summary, but into a summary representation, a gestalt. What I recall is a synopsis of the story. Certain episodes or aspects stand out, such as the use of Google maps, and the author's survival as a street kid in Calcutta. I can delve into more detail by reconstructing the narrative in my mind. Apart from the overall gestalt for the entire book, there is a gestalt for each component of the story that I remember. This is true of memory in general. An individual memory is usually highly compressed when we first access it, but becomes more detailed as we examine it further. This is the active aspect of memory, where we recreate something in the present that derives from what we have previously experienced, such as a book we have read.
As for the memory of a conversation, this too is not a series of words, but a gestalt. It is like a summary of what was said, containing the meaning it holds for us now, in the present. The gestalt also contains the feeling-tone we associate with the conversation, our reactions (such as surprise, agreement, disagreement), its context, and other impressions. We may not remember any of the words that were actually spoken, yet we do recall the subjects discussed and the opinions that were expressed.
Evidence for the existence of gestalt thinking
The idea for this article came while I was writing a translation. As I mentally observed myself translating a philosophical article from Polish into English, I noted that the process had three distinct steps. The first was reading the Polish words that form a phrase or sentence. The second was trying to understand what these words meant. The last step was finding an English phrase or sentence that corresponded to this understanding. Of course, I also checked whether I was correctly translating individual Polish words into their English equivalents, but this was a secondary process, more like a verification, rather than the primary mode of translation. The most important step of the translation process was understanding what I was reading.
The crucial point is that the process of understanding was not carried out within the medium of Polish nor that of English, but occurred at a level where language does not operate. The words were being processed at another level, by a form of processing that works on words but does not use the medium of words. This intervening step, where comprehension occurs, is not normally perceptible unless we are translating a difficult text. It is the transition from one language to another that made me see that we use another representation, one which is not itself in either of the languages in question. In fact, it is not a language at all, but is termed gestalt thinking in this essay.
The problems of translation also arise in the very act of reading. The reader does not generate the same gestalts in their mind that were in the author's mind when they wrote the book. There are a multitude of reasons for why the reader does not think the same thoughts as the writer when they read a book. One of these is that we each have a different understanding of the meanings of words and idioms, especially of their connotations. Another is that the words of the text we read are a translation from representations in the author's mind into language. As such, they can only be an approximation of what the author was thinking. We translate what we read into our own private internal representations, and this translation process takes us another step away from the author's conception. This is how we understand and remember what we read. It's not the actual words that we remember, but the gestalts and images the words evoked in us.
If the writer is describing an actual scene then the picture generated in the reader's mind can, at best, be a crude approximation of the scene itself. A scene cannot be described in language in a bit-wise manner, as it can be by a digital camera. Instead, the person writing the description breaks up the scene into discrete elements, such as water, rocks and sky. They then translate these gestalts into ensembles of words. These words will not evoke the same visual notions in the reader as seeing the actual scene.
Likewise, when I write down my experiences of today I am not transcribing words from my mind into a physical document. Instead, I am expressing in words the internal representations, ie images and gestalts, that I encounter as I scan my memory of today's events. This is a kind of translation, and is subject to all the problems that bedevil linguistic translations.
Moreover, this is the source of the myriad misunderstanding that are the bane of inter-personal relations. What we think the other person meant to say is often not what they actually meant. Misunderstandings or mis-communications often go unnoticed, unless we make a special effort to check. A good way to do this is to express what the other person has said in our own words and ask whether this is what they meant.
The translation problem goes deeper than a difference of understanding of the words we hear. There are instances when I say something aloud and realise that the verbal expression does not quite capture what was in my mind. It was not exactly what I meant, even if I am directly verbalising my thoughts, ie saying out loud the words that come to my mind. I find that the verbal expression of what is going on in my mind, whether externalised as speech, or in the form of verbal thoughts in the privacy of my mind, does not fully capture their content. A similar example is that I sometimes catch a fleeting perception or insight and think it over in my mind, finding that the words that express it do not do it justice, but merely approximate it. This may be due to the inherent limitations of language or to my lack of appropriate vocabulary. Whatever the reason, in these instances I have the feeling that words do not fully express my mental contents.
Another argument in favour of the existence of gestalts is that intuition seems to be a faculty that does not operate in words, nor in images.
Examples of gestalts
I can recall an entire story in my mind, such as the Edipus myth, without spelling out all the words that constitute the plot, nor does the story come back as images. Likewise, an idea can arise full-blown before being spelled out laboriously in words in my mind. In its original form it is a gestalt, a compressed and self-contained impression. We often think in gestalts, eg I can think of my entire trip to Tahiti, what it means to me right now, without spelling out the details. It is not done in images either, at least not entirely. Another example is remembering the four years I spent working for a particular firm. It would take too many, or too difficult a choice of words, to sum this up quickly as a fleeting thought, whereas the gestalt is instantly available. Nor does an image or sequence of images do the trick, though images often accompany this process. The same goes for overall impressions, especially of people we know well. When we think of a specific person, we automatically conjure up all our knowledge, feelings and opinions regarding them. Yet this is neither sensory nor verbal, though images accompany the process.
Another example are our religious and political beliefs. These are readily accessed as gestalts, ie as summary representations. It is only when we try to explain our beliefs to someone, or to answer a question about them, that they take shape as words. When we explain our beliefs, they often sound over-simplified, or overly concrete to our own ears. Many nuances are lost in the translation from gestalts to verbal descriptions. This is particularly clear when someone labels us as a 'conservative', 'feminist', 'atheist' or whatever. Any such label is a crude tool for dividing people into non-overlapping categories, whereas each person has their own unique world-view, whether or not they are able to articulate it clearly. The fact that it is so hard to articulate our world-view clearly and succinctly argues for its existence as a non-verbal representation.
It is easy to list other examples of gestalts. Think of our ideas about: yoga, Nicaragua, our own country, classical music, logic, viruses, tennis, World War II, the founding of Sydney, the economy, and our partner. We have an internal representation of each of these. Each representation is like an instantly available rough sketch or caricature of the topic in question. The gestalt comes to mind when someone mentions a subject, any subject, even our own person. When we examine our notion of the topic further it becomes more nuanced, but the initial thought is compressed and simplistic. When we do explore our notion of something more deeply, we are still dealing with the stored gestalts.
When someone asks you, Do you want to travel to Cambodia?, your mind comes up with a gestalt of the country as it exists in your mind, and probably some images. The gestalt may contain references to Angkor Wat, the killing fields, tropical heat or a map of Asia. If you have already been to Cambodia then a compressed memory of your trip will also come to mind.
The mention of sex triggers a very complex and emotion-laden representation, one that is different for each person.
I have a gestalt in my mind of a "long" squash game, ie a version of squash where the ball must not bounce before the half-way line. Yet this is not a visual image. Instead, it is my overall idea of what it is like to play this variant of squash.
Every chess player has a gestalt, ie an internal representation, of the Queen in chess. You might think that this is something rather simple - a piece of wood that moves in well-defined ways on a chessboard. Not so. To a person playing their first game of chess, the Queen seems a straightforward piece. Such a person has no inkling of the sort of combinations, traps, pitfalls and manoeuvres that are possible with this powerful piece. To someone who has played chess for decades, the Queen is a piece whose mental representation is rich and complex. The representation includes good and bad ways of moving this piece, mating combinations using the Queen, its value compared to other pieces, its strong and weak points, and much else. This knowledge accumulates slowly, and is just one part of the rich repertoire of patterns that a player builds up as they continue to play chess over the years. It is important to stress that the gestalt of the Queen somehow holds within it a summary of the memories of how this chess-piece was used in a large number of games.
Gestalt thinking is used to solve chess puzzles. The gestalts consist of a number of general notions. Firstly, the rules and aim of chess, secondly that a quick mate or win of material is usually the solution to the puzzle. Another rule of thumb is that you look for checks and other forcing moves, especially sacrifices. Salient features are the vulnerability of the other side and piece mobility of our side. To find the solution we look at our stored patterns of tactics, check-mates and winning endgames. These patterns are not really visual, nor are they detailed. They are actually summaries of chess dynamics, ie patterns of moves. Solving a chess puzzle is definitely not verbal. It is not primarily visual either. It's true that we need to visualise positions, but it is not the actual look of a position that matters. What is needed is the perception of the lines of force emanating from the pieces, such as a potential check to the king.
A logical puzzle, such as the two envelope paradox, provides a good example of a gestalt. This paradox does not lend itself to a visual representation, nor to a brief word description. When I am thinking about it, this puzzle is not in a visual or verbal form, but is accessed as an idea. More exactly, it figures as the opposition of two ideas, being the two parts of a contradiction, as well as a third idea - that they cannot both be right.
Solving any kind of problem involves forming a gestalt of the desired goal and another gestalt of the problem situation. These two are held in the mind as simplified notions while we examine ways of getting from one to the other. When we think of a possible solution we see whether this fits with the context of the problem and the goal we seek.
My wants and desires are quite tangible and accessible to me, yet when I think of them they are not expressed in words, nor in images. For example, I want to write well. This is not a visual image, nor does it require words. Rather, it is another gestalt. Although I can articulate its features using words, I can also think about it wordlessly.
The colour blue exists as a gestalt in our minds. Obviously, it is impossible to think of blueness without seeing the colour in our mind. Yet apart from the hue as we picture it in our minds, the notion of blue has many other aspects. The gestalt of blue contains notions such as the physics of the colour (ie wavelength), what it symbolises in various contexts, how it is used in paintings (eg that blue plus yellow makes green), the notion that there are many shades of the colour, and all the things we associate with blue, such as sky and water. We learned to identify blueness as children by repetition and this created a representation in our minds. Although the mental representation of blueness cannot be divorced from the visual image of blueness, the gestalt is also important.
Take bread. In addition to sensory memories, such as taste, weight, shape, colour and texture, this common food has a plethora of gestalt aspects. These include its composition, knowledge of the different varieties, and of how it is made, what sorts of bread we like or dislike, and our habits of eating it for breakfast.
I have written an article about the Enigma cypher machine and recently I read a book that offers new insights into the subject. I want to use these to improve my article. I can only do so by comparing the gestalts I formed while reading the book with my memory (ie remembered gestalts) of what I have written in my article. It would be absurd to compare the two accounts sentence by sentence.
How do gestalts arise?
It is helpful to enquire how gestalts arise in the first place. When we initially encounter a new concept, eg quantum computing, the first thing we have is a vague idea based on the individual terms. If these don't seem connected, as in this case, then that idea may be so vague as to be almost empty of content. To learn about quantum computing we may need to assimilate concepts that are new to us, such as quantum entanglement. To understand the latter, we need to understand the basic ideas of quantum physics, which are extensions of the concepts of classical physics, which in turn, are based on features of our ordinary experience. In other words, new concepts are built by combining or extending old ones. So our understanding of a new concept, ie its gestalt, derives from other gestalts.
Someone may tell us a story about a person we have not previously heard of. In this case we have nothing to go on except what our informant tells us, plus whatever we associate with the name, such as gender and ethnicity. As we hear more about the unknown person, we gradually build up a representation in our mind. This representation is not a word picture, nor an image, but rather an idea or pattern. We build up a mental picture in terms of categories, such as gender, age, profession and nationality, as well as any distinguishing features. These cause the person to assume a specific shape in our mind. Attached to this skeleton are the opinions or attitudes that have been aroused in us by the story. The result is a gestalt or representation of the person in question. Due to our faculty of imagination this representation is not the same as the words of the story we have been told. Indeed it cannot be, because we soon forget the actual words.
I believe that new gestalt memories consist of previously existing elements, which are pressed into service to represent something new. A baby must start by noticing repetitions, ie patterns, and holding these as increasingly well-defined notions in the mind.
As adults we we understand something new by means of the old. We represent a new idea internally in terms of our pre-existing internal representations of the world, ie in terms of our existing gestalts. Each new memory is likewise stored in terms of pre-existing ones. If I have a new experience then I store it as a variant of an old experience. Rarely (if ever) do I experience something radically new. Instead, the new experience is a variant of something that has happened to me in the past, or that I have heard about from other people. I may have a new experience (such as an unfamiliar form of physical discomfort) and not know the correct label for it, but in such cases I will see it as a new version of something I have experienced before, or at least heard about.
There are multiple stages in forming a gestalt. Firstly, sensations are organised into perceptions. A perception is the data provided by our senses after it has been moulded and interpreted by various brain mechanisms. The bare sensations we receive from our eyes consist of areas of different colour plus light and dark, but what we perceive are things. Secondly, repeated perceptions are organised into patterns. Finally, these are summarised in the mind and stored as gestalts. Each gestalt is an updatable representation, that allows for the addition of extra components, the elucidation of details and the rectification of errors.
Take the example of seeing Ralph, the family dog. The sensations are colours and areas of light and dark. These form the perception of a shape identified as a dog. Repetition of similar perceptions makes Ralph become for us a stable and easily recognisable visual shape, readily identified from any angle, and different from that of other dogs. Auditory and tactile perceptions also contribute, as does our thinking about and feelings for the dog. Ralph becomes a character for us. At this point the perceptions of Ralph have been integrated into a summation. Because he is remembered in many situations and seen from various points of view, Ralph becomes a multi-faceted entity in our mind. His mental representation is a summation, ie a simple and compressed entity, a gestalt.
Whether we know much about it or not, we all have an idea of what physics is. Physics is a big subject that quickly becomes technical and specialised, so our knowledge of it can never be complete. Our schooling gives us an initial idea of the subject, and this idea is refined and deepened when we read about a new technology or scientific breakthrough. Perception has little to do with building up our gestalt of physics. Instead, the process is one of adding knowledge and understanding, which are acquired mostly second-hand. Although this knowledge is conveyed by words, the actual words are soon forgotten. What remains for a non-physicist is a patchy amalgam of notions about natural law, forces, atoms, light and electricity.
The same process is involved in learning about mundane things, such as shoes. The young child is introduced to shoes and becomes familiar with these objects. As a person grows older, they learn more about the nature and uses of shoes, about shoe fashions, specialised shoes, shoe fetishism, and so forth. The simple notion of a foot-covering becomes elaborate and multi-faceted.
Gestalts are essential to learning. When we are learning Spanish, how to drive, or to use a computer, much of what we pick up is incremental. It is only when the details coalesce into a pattern that real learning takes place. In other words, we acquire a new skill when we develop a well-formed gestalt that covers the subject.
Characteristics of gestalts
Two important characteristics of gestalts are speed of access and compression. A gestalt is instantly accessible. In this sense it is like a visual image and unlike any text longer than a few words. Using our gestalt memory we can instantly think of the sense of a single sentence, a whole paragraph, or even an entire book. Of course, when we think of a book what we hold in our minds is a very simplified version, which may be distorted or downright mistaken. The point is that we represent a long piece of writing as a whole unit, ie a gestalt, in order to be able to manipulate it in our mind and express opinions about it.
It is not so with literal word memories. Because of their sequential and particulate nature, we cannot focus on a large number of words simultaneously. We may be able to instantly call to mind the exact wording of a short sentence, but not of a paragraph, or longer piece of writing. Of course, it is possible to memorise a long passage by heart, but not to hold all of it simultaneously in one's mind. What we can hold in our mind simultaneously is our overall understanding of the passage, not the actual words.
What is true of words is also true of images and sounds. To someone who has studied the subject, the term "Renaissance painting" conjures up not so much a series of images, as various ideas about artistic styles and the history of art. Likewise, when I think of Baroque music, I don't hear music in my mind. Rather I think about what this music means to me in an overall sense. So even if the subject matter is predominantly visual or auditory, the gestalts we have of it are not primarily sensual. Instead, they are more like summaries or overall impressions.
I woke up one morning with the melody of "Samba Orfei" playing in my mind. I compared it to another song in my mind and decided that the melody was the same. The interesting point is that what played in my mind as I mentally rehearsed the melody was not the sound of an orchestra or singer, but a very crude representation of the tune. This was something generated by my mind, not the memory of the music itself being played. In other words, it was a gestalt based on an auditory memory.
I have what appears to be a visual image in my mind of how I suffered a back injury during yoga. Yet that image is not what I actually saw, but rather how another person might have seen the incident, ie it shows my body as a whole, not my body as I saw it with my own eyes. This is because the gestalt memory is a summary of what happened, rather than a direct sensual impression. All memories of events in the outside world (ie occurring outside our own mind) are based on sense perceptions. Initially, the memory traces are mainly sensory in nature, but as time passes the stored memory changes, becoming more like a summary impression than a sensory picture. The older the memory, the more compressed and less sensory its nature, though there are exceptions.
A third distinguishing quality of gestalts may be summed up as their subtlety and ineffability. Trying to elucidate a gestalt is somewhat like explaining a poem in prose. As one poet put it, "If I could have said it more clearly, then I would have done so." A gestalt may contain ambivalent or contradictory emotions, many shades of feeling, uncertainty, and vague impressions, all of which may be very difficult to express in words. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then so is a gestalt. In fact, neither a gestalt nor a picture can be fully described in words. We cannot even describe the colour of a person's skin precisely. Similarly, we cannot accurately describe the complex representation we have of their personality.
A major reason why gestalts are difficult to express or communicate is that they contain our feelings for the object, activity or person in question. It is often difficult to express our feelings in words. Our feelings towards our work, family members, other people, and even our own body, are often ambivalent, layered, ephemeral and only partially conscious. They can be conflicted, vague, messy and puzzling. Although these emotional nuances are encapsulated in the gestalt of the person or object that we hold in our mind, they are difficult to verbalise.
A fourth characteristic is that gestalts tend to be arranged hierarchically in our minds. Thus a physicist has a gestalt that is her mental image of the entire science of physics. This would naturally divide into the various parts of the discipline, such as electricity, atomic physics and astrophysics. In the discussion of A Long Way Home it was noted that the overall gestalt for the book could be mentally broken up into different parts of the story, suggesting that my mental picture of the book is hierarchical.
A simple rule in mathematics is the distributive law, which states that 2x( 3 + 5 ) = 2x3 + 2x5. My gestalt of this idea exists as a hierarchy of concepts. At the highest level, there is the notion that a number system should be well-behaved, ie similar to the numbers we are all familiar with. At the next level down, is the notion that addition and multiplication should interact in a natural way. Next down, is the idea that the product of a sum is the sum of the products. Finally, there is the symbolic level, ie the equation itself. Yet even this level is held as a gestalt, because the meaning of the equation is held in my mind as a concept.
Each of these levels encapsulates those below it. Non-mathematicians are not even aware of the distributive law, just as a native speaker is unaware of the rules of grammar, unless they have cause to examine them. People know that the distributive law is true without knowing of its existence. They see it as being a part of how arithmetic works. So for non-mathematicians, the distributive law is part of the mental representation of arithmetic, even if they never consciously think about it. Mathematicians have an additional gestalt at a higher level, namely that the distributive law does not hold in some strange number systems, such as the octonians.
Gestalts and the process of abstraction
On one occasion at squash, I recall having lost one game and winning the other. What was this memory? It was not sensory or verbal. Winning and losing are general categories that apply in many contexts. The notion of loss and win is a general pattern learnt by repetition. So the atom of memory seems to be a learnt pattern. The question becomes, how do we create patterns? We unconsciously create patterns in our minds that correspond to those we perceive in our experience. But what are these mental representations of patterns made of? Maybe the way to answer this is to ask what is inborn and what do one- and two-year-olds know.
It is interesting to look at how we conceptualise time, as well as at how we mentally measure its passage, eg thinking that an hour has elapsed. Given that time is an abstraction which we infer from experience, how do we think about it? Even though time is one of the most abstract of all ideas, it is so familiar to us that we all naturally form a gestalt for it. For me, it consists of the notion of regular change, or of space between events. Both these notions arose as a result of many repetitions of certain patterns, such as the regularity of mealtimes, or of news bulletins, not to mention looking at my watch. Our notions about time also involve such feelings as anxiety and the way we handle hurry and time pressure, including whether we see time as a problem in our lives. Many people report having the feeling that time is speeding up, eg that Christmas seems to come earlier each year. This phenomenon is only partially understood and highlights the complexity of our gestalt of time, which also includes awareness of our own mortality.
How do we abstract, ie isolate the essential features of something? How do we get ideas and perceive patterns; how do we learn? Even animals do it. Repetition allows us to identify the element or pattern that is being repeated, eg thunder followed by lightning. Once the basic link is established, we can notice other regularities, such as the connection between the loudness of the thunder and the delay between thunder and lightning. We learn elaborate patterns step by step, identifying the main features before we notice subtle variations.
I can think about the totality of the present essay without using words, nor are images of any use in this case. For instance, I can bring to mind what I regard as the strengths and weaknesses of my argument, again without spelling these out in words. Use of gestalt thinking can be distinguished from the use of mental imagery because the latter is rarely suitable for abstract thought. It's possible that gestalt thinking is even better adapted to abstract thinking than are words. Words are pre-existing symbols that limit what can be expressed, whereas gestalts are fluid and open-ended, as they do not rely on an established rule-bound vehicle such as language. Gestalts are freely moulded by our minds as we assimilate what we experience into mental constructs. The new constructs are based on pre-existing representations in our minds.
Take the concept of the bit in computing. How do we come to understand this basic idea? We may visualise it as being a one or a zero, but the concept is not really sensory or verbal. The concept is one of function, ie information storage. We may think of a bit as the most basic unit of information, ie an abstraction derived from the many kinds of information we know about.
What are gestalts actually made of?
Sensations are the data given by our senses, perceptions are the shape of that data after our neural system processes it and passes it to our awareness. Sensory data is edited, enhanced, summarised and organised into perceptions. When we see an object, such as a chair, this is a perception, not a sensation, which is just patches of colour. It is perception, not sensation, that gives rise to gestalts.
Is a gestalt simply a perception? It isn't. A perception is a coherent picture we receive momentarily of a thing in our environment. As such, it is fleeting and partial. A gestalt, by contrast, is a stable entity stored in our memory, being the summary and interpretation of many perceptions over a period of time. So a major difference is that a perception is a transient impression, whereas a gestalt is a permanent entity stored in our memory. Also, being a summary, the gestalt is not a sensory image, unlike a perception. Being based on multiple perceptions, the gestalt is in one sense richer than a single perception, yet at the same time it is poorer, in that it is a capsule summary, omitting details. However, the gestalt is much more than a summary of our perceptions. It is the result of high-level processing, ie normal thinking, which involves judgement, interpretation and emotional reactions. Unconscious processes also play a part in shaping the gestalt.
To see how much richer a gestalt is than a summary of our visual and auditory perceptions, think of the person you know best. Your mental representation of this person is incomparably richer and more complex than a summary of how they look and sound. When we create gestalts our minds add value to our perceptions, introducing elements that do not belong to the perceptions as such. The additional elements include judgements, intuitions, analogies, opinions, and emotional reactions. A gestalt is a rich pattern stored in the mind.
If words are made of letters then what is the alphabet that gestalt memories are written in? An illustrative example of a gestalt is the re-created memory of a song, which is a simulacrum of an auditory experience. In the case of washing my hands in cold water, many experiences are compressed into a summary simulacrum. Even if I have just washed my hands in cold water, I only remember a summary of the experience. What exactly is a gestalt - what does it consist of? Is it more than just a connected bunch of memories in summary form? Maybe that's all it is, but if so, then what does a summarised memory consist of? It seems that the alphabet in which gestalts are written are elementary patterns held in the mind.
The weakest part of my argument is my inability to give any description of the nature of a gestalt. When trying to define a gestalt, the best I can do is that it is a compressed impression, a stored item, that becomes our memory of the thing or event. It is an impression that evokes the thing in question, just as a summary of an article gives the main points. Like an abstraction, it is what is left when details have been removed.
Unfortunately, these characterisations stop short of saying what a gestalt actually is. It appears that trying to detail the nature of a gestalt is like consciousness enquiring into its own nature, an enquiry that usually leads nowhere. Gestalts are so basic and fundamental to our thought process that we cannot really examine them. We lack the tools. I conjecture that gestalts are irreducible to other concepts, just as consciousness is irreducible to other concepts.
Yet dreams provide a clue. Sometimes, on waking I have a vague notion of what my dream was about. This notion can be so diffuse that I am entirely unable to express it in words. It is too vague for that. Yet I do have some idea about my dream - it is not a complete blank. I cannot picture it either. So it is a gestalt, a pure one.
I define a "pure" gestalt as a mental notion that has no parallel verbal representation and no associated image. Whereas most gestalts are associated with images and can be described in words, some cannot. Vague memories of dreams are not the only pure gestalts. Any time we get an idea or recall a memory that we are unable to articulate or picture, we are dealing with a pure gestalt.
I conjecture that all pure gestalts are like the ineffable and diffuse memory of a dream, ie they are too vague to acquire a verbal or pictorial representation, unlike gestalts that we are able to examine properly. Perhaps vagueness and ineffability are the key to understanding the actual composition of gestalts.
Creativity is the generation of something new, that did not have a prior existence. I suggest that pure gestalts are the stuff of creativity. This is not to deny verbal and pictorial creativity. The point here is that pure gestalts, when they newly arise, are always manifestations of creativity.
Applications and ramifications
The notion that we think and remember mainly using gestalts has consequences for learning, teaching, decision-making, and for the study of memory. The gestalt model suggests that a good way to remember a set of facts is to set up an overall structure into which they can be fitted. It favours a top-down approach, ie moving from a general picture to the detail level, rather than the other way around. The idea is that a gestalt naturally arises as an overall pattern, rather than arising piecemeal from atomic data. It suggests that an effective way to teach a subject from scratch might be to use progressively more detailed summaries of the topic.
Another consequence is that an effective way to learn a new subject is to take on the role of teacher to a raw beginner, being just a step or two ahead of our pupil. This is because it requires us to elucidate our newly acquired gestalts that cover the topic. By explaining these gestalts to a person who knows very little about the topic, we are forced to translate our gestalts into words, something we may not otherwise do. This process of elucidation brings about a clearer understanding for us, even if, in some cases, it doesn't help the other person!
As for decision-making, the gestalt model hints that our decisions may be less well thought-out than we realise, since they are often based on thumbnail sketches. We have a simple mental image of things, such as of a country or profession, and these are what we use when we plan travel or career choices. The shape of our life depends, in large part, on the choices that we have made. These choices depend on the mental notions we form of alternative scenarios, ie on our gestalts. In many cases, these are quite simplistic. Politicians often have to make decisions involving major projects about which they may have only scant knowledge. One wonders whether they really know enough to make well-considered decisions.
Our reliance on gestalts for making decisions can lead us badly astray because our gestalts are often simplistic. Major political decisions, such as Brexit and Trump's election, are due to the fact that millions of people have made choices based on a simple-minded assessment of the situation.
In Born on a Blue Day, the autistic savant, Daniel Tammet, described how he multiplied numbers in his head. He did this by visualising each number as a characteristic shape (not necessarily related to its size) and then "seeing" the product as another shape. So he did not calculate at all in the normal sense of the word. This suggests that savants generate entirely different gestalts from normal people, allowing them to execute feats of memory and calculation that are not possible for the rest of us. It also suggests the possibility that non-savants could learn how to create these different gestalts and hence enhance their own mental abilities. The gestalt idea may also help in understanding the psychology of savantism.
Damasio writes persuasively about the crucial interdependence between thought and feeling. That link is embodied in gestalt representation, because in it facts, opinions and emotions are rolled together. By contrast, a description in words tends to make things appear neater and more sensible than the actual contents of our minds. In addition, verbal descriptions tend to omit the emotional aspects of a situation.
Finally, the gestalt idea has ramifications in epistemology. Not so much in the sense of "What can we know?", as in the sense of, "How is knowledge stored in the mind?" If the nature of gestalts is elucidated further then this might generate valuable insights into the mechanisms of both thinking and memory.
It seems strange that the gestalt mode has not been noted by other thinkers. If gestalts are the primary mode of both thinking and memory then it begs the question of why we are not normally aware of this. The answer is that we clothe our gestalt thoughts in words so quickly and automatically that the translation is not normally noticed.
It may be objected that this putative mode of thought is actually either sensory imagery or linguistic. It is up to the reader to check whether their own thinking conforms to my description or not. Certainly, we do think in a combination of words and sensory images much of the time. Yet the clearest expressions in words that we are able to fashion to convey some of our abstract ideas and non-sensory perceptions do not feel exactly right. This suggests that the process of linguistic expression is not the original one, but that it is preceded, or at least augmented, by something else. That whereas words give form to our pre-existing thoughts, they do not necessarily do so fully or accurately. My contention is that words give our thoughts their familiar form, but that before this happens the thoughts already exist in another state, which I call gestalt thinking.
My hypothesised gestalt mode is only one of the modes of thought. There is no need to deny the role of language nor that of sensory images. Instead, gestalt thinking is a proposed third mode. Of course, the picture is complicated by the three modalities - linguistic, sensory and gestalt - operating together. The other problem with identifying gestalt thoughts is that when we catch them this is normally after they have been rendered in words. The gestalt mode of thinking is somewhat like dreaming. When we wake up in the morning we sometimes have vague notions of what we dreamt about. However, these are notoriously hard to pin down and the dream itself is not directly accessible. As well as being visual or sensory, dreams also have indefinite qualities, eg something may be true and untrue at the same time. This is a gestalt aspect. Gestalt thinking is a little like dreaming in that it is hard to describe a gestalt directly. It is only by comparing our verbalised thoughts with what we perceive to be their original form that we are able to notice any differences.
Language was not created to be a vehicle of thought but for the purpose of communication. So the fact that we think so much of the time in the medium of language may be an accident, relying on the convenience of those ready-made and easily shareable symbols called words. Perhaps our gestalt thoughts are translated into words so readily because of our propensity for sharing our thoughts via speech. During a conversation we continually think things in our minds and immediately utter them as words. Because this process is so habitual, rapid, automatic and ingrained, it should not be surprising that our internal thoughts, most of which are not destined to be shared, are also translated from gestalts into language, and that this occurs quickly and almost imperceptibly.