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"The Whole is Other than the Sum of the Parts"

When the perceptual system forms a percept or gestalt, the whole thing has a reality of its own, independent of the parts. The Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka made a famous statement about this: "The whole is other than the sum of its parts." This statement is often translated to English as, "The whole is greater than the sum of the parts." Koffka did not like that translation. He firmly corrected students who substituted "greater" for "other" (Heider, 1977). "This is not a principle of addition," he said. The statement as originally worded was supposed to mean that the whole had an independent existence in the perceptual system.

What was Koffka's famous statement? Why did he often correct students?

We can look at a simple example that illustrates how the whole is "other" than the sum of the parts. Consider the white triangle shown next. It is called a subjective contour because no real triangle is there, but you can see the edges of a white triangle.

A subjective contour

How is Koffka's saying illustrated by the closure of the triangle?

The triangleness of the white area is an example of a gestalt. It is a form that you see because of your perceptual system, and it acts like an independent whole. It affects your interpretation of each individual component of the picture. Look at the circles in the corners. If you cover everything except one circle, it does not look like a white corner over a black circle. It looks more like the old video game character Pac-Man. When you view the triangle as a whole, it turns the Pac-Man shape into a white corner over a black dot. This is the type of phenomenon Koffka was talking about when he said the whole is other than the sum of the parts. The whole (in this case, the gestalt or form of the triangle) influences your interpretation of the parts. So it is true that (1) the arrangement of the parts determines which form you see, and (2) the form you see determines how you interpret the parts.

What did researchers discover about the brain's response to subjective contours?

Heygt, Peterhans, and Baumgartner (1984) showed that illusory contours such as the white triangle led to the same distinctive brain response as real shapes that had complete boundaries. The perception of a triangle leads to the same brain response whether there is a real triangular object in the outside world or not.

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