DESIGN GUIDES > Eyes vs Brain: How The Eyes And Brain Operate Together


Drawing of railroad tracks that meet on the distant horizon

Parallel railroad tracks viewed in perspective appear to converge in an apparent violation of Euclidean geometry. Gestalt explains perspective as the curvature of perceived space. Intellectually we know that they are parallel, yet our eyes tell us they bow and meet on the distant horizon.

The earliest known major painting using linear Masaccio’s The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John and Two Donors. Using ideas developed by the architect Brunelleschi The Holy Trinity was created on the cusp of the High Renaissance. Artists continued to perfect sophisticated representations of linear, atmospheric, aerial and other perspectives.

Trompe l’oiel
Renaissance masters composed art using trompe l’ oeil (trick the eye) techniques, compelling the viewer to experience the types of illusions that would be observed by the gestalt psychologists.some five centuries later.


The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John and Two Donors. A 1426 Masaccio fresco in the Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

The Roundel with Putti and Ladies Looking Down by Andrea Montegna is a trompe l’ oiel fresco painted on a palace ceiling. Montegna’s solution typifies the problems that challenged renaissance artists as they strove to solve mysteries of visual perception.

Persistence of vision ia a gestalt phenomenon that provides an example of how the brain and eye perceive and organize visual stimuli. Persistence of vision was first discovered in 65 B.C. by the Roman Lucretius and acknowledged by Ptolemy of Alexandria some 200 years later.

Motion Photography
Eadweard Muybridge achieved the first actual photography of motion in 1877 when he made instant still photographs of a running horse. Muybridge set up 24 still cameras in a row alongside a racetrack. As the horses passed, they tripped a string trip mechanism attached to the camera shutters and recorded stop-motion photographs. Muybridge’s pioneering effort set the scene for the emergence of moving pictures.

Thomas Edison invented his “Home Kinetiscope” in the late 19th century and by 1894 coin operated kinetiscope parlors were operating in New York City, London, and Paris.

Capitalizing on persistence of vision, entertainment industries such as kinetiscope and movie shows’ popularity soared. Movies, like the kinetiscope, consist of separate still pictures projected rapidly in sequence.

Although we perceive smooth motion in a movie, in reality the “moving” objects simply take a slightly different positions in rapidly projected successive still frames and a perceptual delay creates the illusion of movement. In 1895 the Lumiere brothers held the first public motion picture screening in a Paris cafe.

The Phi Phenomenon
Persistence of vision is an example of the phi phenomenon. The phi phenomenon is a term psychology pioneer Max Wertheimer coined to describe the illusion of movement created by presenting visual stimuli in rapid succession. For example, a theater marquee with lights appear to create motion around the sign as they blink in rapid succession. The light bulbs are stationary but working as a whole appear to move.


Trompe l’oeil fresco Roundel with Putti and Ladies Looking Down. Painted in 1474 by Andrea Montegna on the ceiling of the Camera degli Sposi (bridal chamber), Ducal Palace, Mantua, Italy

With the outbreak of World war II in Europe the leading Gestalt theorists Wertheimer, Koffka, and Kohler fled to the United States where their ideas were embraced by the Chicago “new bauhaus” artists. Gestalt ideas strongly influenced innovative graphic designers such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kadinsky, Josef Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

Gestalt is a branch of psychology which studies and theorizes the organization of consciousness. Founded in 1910 by Max Wertheimer, gestalt (German for “form” or “shape”) first surfaced in Europe as branch of cognitive psychobiology. Wertheimer and two other psychologists, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler, began to search for a way to explain how the brain organizes consciousness. They studied visual perception and sought to explain various visual phenomena and how innate tendencies influence the way people see. People use perceptual elements to build a world visual frame of reference. Gestalt explains visual perception as a process that reduces, compresses and simplifies complex visual information as an aid to world navigation. Many of these same phenomena have been observed for millennia and described by, for example, the ancient Greeks. Anchored by the principle that conscious experiences and perceptions are more than the sum of their parts, gestalt psychology paved the way for major advances in research of perception, problem solving and social behavior.

A photograph of a landscape is made of different parts: blue sky, water, green plants, distant mountains. The water element—by itself—is a simple patch of blue. Water combined with the other elements creates a compelling visual experience.
A poster is composed of type, color, line, texture. When arranged into a coherent whole the synergy of it’s separate parts interact to communicate a powerful message.
A graphic symbol made of orange dots becomes an arrow indicating direction. The collective gestalt allows each dot to reinforce the other dots to create a message.