Gestalt: Hebb’s and Tolman’s Theories


Perception is a cornerstone of Gestalt. It establishes the process responsible for the processing of the information (Lefrancois, 2016). As such, it is likely that it had a profound effect on the development of cognitivism. The primary reason for that is the core component of the approach that requires a conscious thinking process driven by reason necessary to accommodate the received information. In other words, while a stimulus can produce a certain specific behavior, it is insufficient for developing a range of similar behaviors in response to the slightly altered input.

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The perception in gestalt, on the other hand, is a combination of the elements that only become valuable as a whole but would remain meaningless in separation. Such a principle is necessary for the cognitivist view on learning to be true. For instance, upon seeing a short part of the path that curves to the right and out of the view, an observer would assume that the shape is preserved in the unseen part.

Notably, the previous exposure to similar constructions is unnecessary for such a conclusion to be made, and it would be impossible to reach without processing the available information, assessing the probable pattern, and altering the behavior. A more elaborate example would be the recognition of a facial pattern: since all faces are essentially different, it would be virtually impossible to recognize the area as a face without the ability to use the principle of similarity or a tendency to perceive the expected shapes (Hoffmann, 2016). Thus, we can say that these principles of perception have contributed to the development of cognitivism.

As can be seen from the information above, the principles of perception offer shortcuts of a sort that make learning easier. Thus, an interesting question would be whether they also introduce challenges to perception (e.g. the false identifications such as optical illusions) and whether such challenges undermine the benefits of learning or are an acceptable tradeoff.

Hebb and Tolman

According to Hebb, learning is facilitated through the neurological process of activation of the cells in the nervous system. He suggested that mental processes are guided by the assembly of cells that form as a result of their simultaneous activity, where the resulting assemblies convey certain information and are able to reproduce it as necessary. Hebb’s theory establishes an important connection between neurology and learning by effectively tying the reception of a stimulus with the respective behavior through a physiological process (Lefrancois, 2016). Interestingly, the speculations used by Hebb have since been confirmed and used as a basis for the development of artificial learning systems.

Tolman’s theory is different from Hebb’s two core aspects. First, Tolman suggests that the formation of response involves the analysis of the received information whereas Hebb described it as a neurological process. Second, Hebb’s theory relies on repetition for the strengthening of behavior while Tolman’s view assigns its secondary importance. Tolman also introduced the concept of the cognitive map – an internal image of an external environment that enhances recognition capabilities. Its effect can be observed when people are able to recall the details of the location after visiting it once even when these details were not the focus of their attention during the visit.

Given the information above, it would be interesting to model a situation where the elements of a cognitive map proposed by Tolman would interfere with the effectiveness of navigation rather than aid it. How frequent are such scenarios in human society and do they pose risks due to their deceptive effect?

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Hoffmann, M. (2016). Cognitive, conative and behavioral neurology: An evolutionary perspective. Orlando, FL: Springer.

Lefrancois, G. R. (2016). Theories of human learning: What the professor said (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

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StudyCorgi. (2020) 'Gestalt: Hebb’s and Tolman’s Theories'. 2 December.

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