Friday, June 6, 2008

Professor Max Wertheimer's Synergy

Seventy-five years ago, the New School for Social Research began its graduate program in psychology. One pillar of this program was Prof. Max Wertheimer, co-founder of Gestalt Psychology. The Wertheimers had just moved from Frankfurt am Main to New York at the time. Wertheimer was one of the many Jewish scholars who lost their academic appointments to the race regulation the Nazi's introduced in German public service in 1933. It took Germany up to the present to recover from the gigantic brain drain that ensued.

Professor Wertheimer spent many productive years as a faculty member of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main. The city had been a free city ever since Charlemagne's rule and has always been a free-spirited place that had comparably friendly relations with its Jewish community before the Nazis came to power. A bit more than one hundred years earlier the most prominent Jewish banking family of Frankfurt, the Rothschilds, had used their influence in France to save the City from plunder by the Napoleonic armies that were self-providing. Self-provision commonly meant that, at the least, there was no food left after the citizen soldiers were through. However, the French government had borrowed heavily from the Rothschilds for the war effort and the head of the household requested in a letter to the French commanding generals that the troupes please kindly pass Frankfurt by. The French granted the request and the City was spared one more time.

The Mertons were another Jewish family of importance, particularly to Professor Wertheimer. This family made a fortune with a now metal trading business that recently fell victim to fraudulent derivatives trading (die Metallgesellschaft) and raised funds for a Business School around the beginning of the last century. A few years later, state government took over and The Johann Wolfgang Goethe University where Wertheimer would teach grew from this seed.

I am certain that many Frankfurters were saddened by the forced departure of so many good citizens, colleagues, friends and neighbors. The City had been governed by Social Democrates during the Republic of Weimar. Support for the Nazis was not running very deep. Three years after the Wertheimers had left, der Fuehrer paid the City an official visit. A rally was to be held in the largest in-door venue (die Festhalle) on the City's fairgrounds. The multi-purpose sports complex could hold more than 30,000 people. Der Fuehrer arrived by train at the Main Train Station downtown and proceeded in an open convertible along the avenue that led from the station to the hall. It is a short distance. You can walk it in 15 minutes. But it was more impressive for der Fuehrer to ride in a procession. Masses of supporters and spectators lined the street. As usual, the affair was highly choreographed. Heavy security ensured that any opposition did not stand a chance of disrupting the event. Plenty prearranged public jubilation was put on display. On arrival at the hall, der Fuehrer walked up the podium set up high and began to speak. At a certain point, disturbance erupted in the crowd. Hecklers started shouting. Cat calls rang out. Der Fuehrer broke off his speech. The calls rang louder. He folded his script, turned round and left the podium without a word or looking back. He never returned to the City of Frankfurt. The incidence was hushed up. The hall, which is architectonically impressive, survived the war.

After the war, the Jewish community began to return to the City. It would take many years of reconstruction and healing before any Jewish academic would consider living and working there. Yet, ever so slowly times changed. Thirty-six years after the incidence with Hitler's speech, The Rolling Stones gave a series of great concerts in the very same hall. Mick Jagger sang "Sympathy for the Devil" and the Frankfurter audience chimed enthusiastically. Professor Wertheimer might have had a ball, had he been able to witness this.

Professor Wertheimer was born and raised in Prague He began studies at Charles University, but moved on to continue at German universities. He completed his doctorate at Julius Maximilians University in W├╝rzburg. History has it that his most famous idea struck him while he was traveling by train across Germany in 1910. From the rolling train, he watched the sequential blinking of twin red lights at railroad crossings and discovered that when the speed was right, the separate red dots fused into one dot racing back and forth. He deduced that the perceived whole, that is the dot in motion, was more than the sum of the pieces and conceived a series of psycho-physical experiments on the perception of motion to test his fresh hypothesis.

He mused about simple motion pictures like the crude flip book shown in the clip below.

Viewing a single picture frame does not reveal the action. The frames have to be viewed in a particular sequence. The presentation speed needs to be constant and in the appropriate range to project meaningful action.

By the time the train reached Frankfurt, he was supposedly so excited that he abandoned his trip, hastened to the University's Department of Psychology, where he parlayed his ideas into a job. Gestalt Psychology was born.

Although it is unlikely that the events unfolded precisely like that, they make a great story of discovery. Years ago, I had the opportunity to retrace Wertheimer's steps described in E. G. Boring's History of Experimental Psychology.
The path is still there. But the ambiance changed.

Figure 1: My Vaterstadt!
The photographs in Fig. 1 show from top left counterclockwise, a view of the modern City from the opposite bank of the Main River, the interior of the Main Train Station, the composer quarters, and Wertheimer's destination. The Professor would have been astounded to see the skyline of the modern city. Much of what he must have been familiar with perished on a weekend in late 1943. The Rothschilds' old family seat and 19th century mansion went with it. The Professor would have recognized the shed of the train station, though. It is still the same as in his day. However, the trains have changed. He would have been enthralled by the white high-speed ICE trains of today. At 200 miles/h, the red dot he saw would have raced at hyper speed.

Embarking from the Main Train Station's North side, it is an easy walk of about 25 minutes to Wertheimer's destination, half ways following the route der Fuehrer took 30 years later. But before we reach the multi-purpose hall, we veer right into the composer's quarter of Frankfurt's posh Westend. On the third picture, we find ourselves in Schumannstrasse, the street he most likely walked westward toward the University until he reached Kettenhofweg across from the old university campus. At the intersection of Schumannstrasse and Kettenhofweg we find the address where Wertheimer must have knocked on the door. The last picture shows the villa. The building has survived and still houses a part of the Department of Psychology. I saw no plaque of commemoration. But, this must have been the cradle of Gestalt Psychology.

Professor Wertheimer's idea on the train applies far beyond Gestalt Psychology. In organic chemistry, molecules are known to possess the same sum formula, that is they are composed of the same atoms. Yet, they exhibit distinctly different chemical and physical properties depending on the differences in structural formula, that is the arrangement of the atoms. For example, propionaldehyde and acetone are composed of three carbons, six hydrogens and one oxygen atom.

Figure 2: Proprionaldehyde
Figure 2 shows a molecular model of propionaldehyde. The carbons are gray, the hydrogens white, and the oxygen is red. The oxygen is bound to a carbon at the end of the molecule.

Figure 3: Acetone
Figure 3 shows a molecular model of acetone. The oxygen is bound to the carbon in the middle of the molecule. The molecular models were rendered with BallView (Moll and others, 2006).

The difference in arrangement of the pieces, that is the atoms, leads to distinct differences in properties of the whole, that is the molecule. To highlight one difference, propionaldehyde melts at -81° C, whereas acetone melts at -94.9° C. In other words, the qualities of the whole result from the relationships among its pieces.

In analogy, the dynamic reorganization of connections among nerve cells in the brain produces changes in behavior, although the nerve cells remain the same.

  • Amos Elon wrote a concise and compelling early history of the Rothschilds in Frankfurt entitled "Founder: A Man and His Time" (03/03/10).
  • Cinematography captures motion. As Max Wertheimer recognized, the temporal sequence of still pictures bestows a new quality on the ensemble, weaving a tapestry of visual language depicting action. No one is better positioned to describe the fundamental impact of movies on our mind's eye, their harnessing of time and their power of witnessing history to unfold than the distinguished film director Martin Scorsese in his National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the JFK Center of Performing Arts in Washington, DC, with the title "Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema" delivered Apr. 1, 2013. Watch the snippet of a British movie describing the discovery of motion pictures at the beginning of Scorsese's presentation. While the clip is concerned with the method of recording motion on film, Wertheimer on his train ride was pre-occupied with our mind's perception of motion. Presentation and perception constitute crucial components of cinematography. Martin Scorsese devotes his lecture to the importance of preserving old films. He emphasizes that motion pictures so powerfully resonate our zeitgeist that they must be preserved as part of our cultural heritage for generations to come (09/02/2013).

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