Topic: “Humans are pattern seeking animals and we are adept at finding patterns whether they exist or not” (adapted from Michael Shermer).
Gestalt theory—German translation: the “organized whole” (Levy 5)—is a psychological approach began by Max Wertheimer in Germany in the early 20th century (Dwyer Ch 6). At some point in his travels, Wertheimer began to observe an illusory phenomenon in which his mind would recognize a moving pattern in individual, immobile structures produced in a sequence. His eyes were drawn, for example, to certain groupings of moving lights (as on a theater marquee or billboard sign), and his mind automatically assumed “apparent movement,” an effect he termed the “phi phenomenon” (Dwyer Ch 6). Essentially, Gestalt theory speaks to the mind’s ability to recognize holistic structures in otherwise disparate individual entities, provided they are grouped in such a way as to prompt the mind to associate the image with a distinct sensory phenomenon (e.g., in an unevenly-spaced, six-line structure, we recognize three groups of two lines instead of six distinct lines, when each pair is closer to its partner than to the next set of lines). Evidence of Gestalt psychological theory can be found when we observe fluid, downward movement of the stripes in a barbershop sign, or perceive a face on Mars in the rock structures, or a familiar shape of an animal in the clouds. This visual discernment of meaning in otherwise meaningless structures is called “pareidolia” (Kaplan), and it is easy to see how its application might be applied to other fields of research.

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In fact, Gestalt theory and the notion of pareidolia can also be applied to human evolutionary theories, including Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, to show how phi phenomenon perhaps aided human evolution through the brain’s ability to quickly and efficiently decipher the physiognomies of camouflaged predators; essentially, the ability to tell friend from foe in a survival situation perhaps may make the split-second difference between safety and death. In a Darwinian sense, those individuals who possessed greater pareidolia recognition in reflex timing likely survived longer to procreate than those who did not—a concept that stems from Darwin’s survival of the fittest. Most recently, Michael Shermer, author and publisher of Skeptic magazine, has made the connection between Gestaltian psychology and Darwinian selection. Shermer’s evolutionary discussions expand on ideas of pareidolia, toward something he terms “patternicity,” which directly relates to the Darwinian model and helps to understand how meaningless patterns can impact human survival.

Michael Shermer, author of the book The Believing Brain, makes the case that, “We are the ancestors of those most successful at finding patterns” (par. 2). Shermer’s implication is that those species most adept at recognizing harmful stimulus in the environment were also most successful at staying alive to be able to then pass on those advanced instincts to their progeny. Finding these patterns is surely a Gestaltian notion. However, Shermer takes the notion of Gestaltian pareidolia a bit further, as he expands the definition to include all stimulus, not just visual. This notion he terms “patternicity,” or “The tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise” (Shermer). Unlike pareidolia, patternicity can include stimulus perceived by other human senses, i.e., auditory, olfactory, tactile, etc. In The Believing Brain, Shermer shares the analogy of an ancient hominid who encounters a rustling in the brush (59). The hominid may not always see the danger visually—i.e., pareidolia, as in discovering a familiar face in the random patterns of the brush—but he may hear it, or smell it. In any case, it is the hominid’s ability to quickly distinguish, and reflexively react, to the one possible outcome that would result in death and dismemberment that makes for a true survivor. In Darwinian law, this individual would endure to pass on those superior reflexive and pattern-recognition genes to his progeny, who would, in turn pass it on to theirs. Those individuals who did not possess these superior attributes would presumably be eradicated and, therefore, unable to procreate. This model fits Darwin’s theories of natural selection, which posit that, “organisms possessing variations that enhance survival or reproduction replace those less suitably endowed, which, therefore, survive or reproduce in lesser degree” (Futuyma 282). It is clear, also, that this model fits in with Wertheimer’s Gestalt psychology, which can be considered the foundation for both ideas of pareidolia and Shermer’s patternicity.

In his discussion of the hominid in the above example, Shermer notes two types of errors in recognition, Type I and Type II (59). Type I errors—i.e., “false positives”—occur when the hominid misconceives the rustling in the brush as a dangerous predator, when the noise was merely the wind (59). Type II errors, by contrast, are more severe. These errors act in reverse of Type I, whereby the hominid distinguishes a sound in the brush and passes it off as the wind, when, in fact, it is a harmful predator. This latter error is far costlier to the sensing agent, as it costs the hominid not only its health, but likely its chances at procreation and advancing its genes: “Congratulation, you have won a Darwin award. You are no longer a member of the hominid gene pool” (59). Returning to our discussion of Wertheimer’s Gestalt theory, we see that while Type I and Type II errors are virtually indistinguishable for the theorist, they are critical for the survivalist. Herein lies the essential difference between Gestaltian thought and Darwinian application. In fact, in a Gestaltian sense, phi phenomenon itself presumes the Type II error and makes no claim that what the agent is actually seeing (i.e., the downward sinking of the barbershop stripes) is the actual physical “truth.” For the Gestaltian, the relationships between the perception and the physical form are intentionally false and illusory. When we see lights moving in sequence and perceive chronology and synchronicity where there is none, we are not necessarily making an error of perception, but an intentional overgeneralization. In fact, Wertheimer admits our mind’s complicity in perceiving the illusion. He terms phi phenomenon “apparent” motion, not actual motion (Ch 6). Therefore, can we ascribe Gestaltian theory to basic survival instinct? This paper contends that, yes, we can. Even though patternicity presupposes error models where Gestaltian thought would find mostly optical illusions, both refer to the same human sense and perception faculties. The same processes that discerns movement in otherwise static and individual patterns, are also the processes that our primitive ancestors may have used to avoid danger and to survive. Perhaps they are not separate facilities but one and the same, just different applications of one universal mode of perception.

Although there has been some debate as to whether the human brain’s proclivity to form meaningful structures out of seemingly random occurrences is instinctive or merely subjective— i.e., based purely on the interpretations of the sensing agent—there is no doubt that perception must play an instrumental role in instinctual reaction. Shermer’s patternicity and Wertheimer’s Gestalt psychology both serve similar function: our mind’s ability to form patterns and interpret sensory data in meaningful ways. Analysis of these two theories leads to the discovery of a direct correlation and application to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and reveals an impact on human evolution and natural selection.

  • Dwyer, Helen. The History of Psychology: Curriculum Connections. Brown Bear Books, 2011.
  • Futuyma, Douglass. Evolution, 2nd ed. Sinauer Associates, Inc., 2009.
  • Kaplan, Sarah. “How Your Brain Tricks You into Seeing Crabs on Mars, Not to Mention Jesus on Toast.” The Washington Post. 31 Aug. 2015, Morning Mix.
  • Levy, Jeffery. Adaptive Learning and the Human Condition. Routledge, 2015. EBook.
  • Shermer, Michael. “Patternicity.” Scientific American, vol. 299, no. 6, 12 Dec. 2008, pp. 48. EbscoHost. Accessed, 21 Dec. 2016.
  • Shermer, Michael. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. Macmillan, 2011. EBook.