Gestalt Psychology: History And Contemporary Applications

By ReGain Editorial Team|Updated July 12, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Robin Brock , LISW

Gestalt psychology is a school of psychology that has greatly impacted contemporary psychology practices as we know them today. But what exactly is Gestalt psychology, and how does it still affect the theories and treatments that psychologists and therapists use today?

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Here, we'll explore what gestalt psychology is, provide an overview of its history and method, and examine its contemporary applications in modern therapy.

What Is Gestalt Psychology?

Gestalt psychology is a school of psychological theory based on the idea that what we see and experience is more than the sum of its parts, otherwise known as gestalt theory. It is humanist psychology that draws on the gestalt laws of perception.

Gestalt theory builds on the accepted notion that humans react to comprehensible input from the world around them. We rely on said input to form, meaning that what we can understand is more than what our senses are perceiving alone. This school of psychology played a significant role in developing the history of modern psychology and therapy as we recognize it today.

Gestalt psychology, in short, is a type of humanistic psychology based on gestalt principles. The gestalt principles are a series of rules written to explain the design of all things—quite an ambitious effort! According to the gestalt principles, people view designs as a totality rather than a series of parts or components.

When these rules were applied to human psychology, they became known as the principles of gestalt psychology. As with gestalt design rules, these principles of gestalt psychology emphasized the whole experience as greater than the sum of its parts. "gestalt" comes from the German word for "form or shape." So, it's an apt word to describe the gestalt approach, which seeks to add form and shape to a series of experiences or problems.

A Brief History Of Gestalt Psychology

Now, let's look at the fascinating history of the gestalt psychology school, founded by Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffa, and Wolfgang Kohler. These psychologists sought to understand the "intrinsic nature of the whole" when approaching behavioral therapy and psychoanalysis.

In essence, a gestalt psychologist believes that social psychology depends on understanding how a person's perception works. One founder of gestalt psychology, Kurt Koffa, also drew on his expertise in perception and hearing impairments. At the same time, Wolfgang Kohler took a problem-solving approach and structural contribution to the history of psychology. Most notably, he opposed behaviorism while still adhering to his beliefs in a humanistic and holistic approach to human psychology.

While the psychologist Max Wertheimer is widely considered the father of gestalt psychology, many contributed to its development, including Koffa and many others, including Kohler and Fritz Perls. According to Wertheimer, gestalt psychology needed its Institute. The many proponents of gestalt psychology founded their own Institute following his vision.

This led to the eventual establishment of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, where many of these founders' contributions to psychology have been researched and implemented. The Institute's opening led to increasing research on the gestalt approach and thought in psychology.

Several years later, Fritz and Laura Perls further contributed to the development of gestalt psychology. They had fled Nazi Germany in 1933 to South Africa, where they continued their research and worked on the general principles of this area of psychology. Perl, who was initially trained in Freudian psychoanalysis but didn't accept all the theories and methods, set out to develop a more comprehensive method of psychotherapy based on Wertheimer and Kurt's gestalt theory of psychology.

1951, Fritz Perl published Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, which laid out his theories and methods for treating patients with gestalt therapy. He had plenty of help from his fellow gestalt psychologists, Paul Goodman and Ralph Hefferline. Together, they laid the groundwork for becoming one of the leading psychotherapy methods that are still often used today.

Gestalt Laws And Perceptual Organization

Much of the gestalt school of thought is based on laws that seem to govern people's desire to see things organized. To explain this, gestalt psychology proposed some laws of perceptual organization. These laws state that when people see things in groups, they think and behave as if they "belong" together. Or, when objects resemble one another based on a series of different characteristics, such as color, position, or degree, they're viewed as a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

For example, people might see similar shapes organized in a line and see a "column" or "row" in addition to just the group of shapes. These principles and gestalt laws further developed gestalt psychology and eventually led to its application in therapy and treatment.

Gestalt psychology suggests that humans' propensity to see order and form in place of separate items gives insight into people's problem-solving capabilities. When it works, gestalt psychology seeks to apply this same propensity for the order to a patient's experiences to help them solve their problems.

This big-picture perception works for a person who wants to approach their problems in a way that jives with their experiences as a whole. So, human psychology suggests order naturally, and this perceived order emerging from separate components helps patients apply the same patterns to their thoughts and perceptions.

Applications Of Gestalt Psychology In Contemporary Treatment

One of the most notable ways gestalt psychology is applied to treating patients today is through gestalt therapy. You've probably seen this method of psychotherapy depicted in popular culture: the patient explains their problems while the therapist listens. Then, the therapist asks guiding questions to help the patient draw their conclusions and come to their solutions for the problems they have described.

Because the gestalt movement is based on the underlying belief that a person's experiences are defined by an organized whole that is more than the sum of its parts, there is a big emphasis on the patient's experiences. This field of psychology has given way to an experiential therapy that focuses on the patient's freedom, awareness, and self-reflection.

Gestalt therapy could be further classified as a phenomenological approach since its focus on the patient's perceptions of reality outweighs the importance of the patient's ability to describe reality accurately. This means that by describing the world around us, gestalt therapy taps into our side of the story to look for bias and eventual solutions.

Furthermore, the gestalt movement is defined as existential since it remises and redefines the self. This means that patients are expected to extract and form meaning based on their experiences and use their expressions of these experiences to build up their meaning and purpose in their lives. Even if a patient hasn't put a lot of thought into psychology, they'll be propelled by the desire to create meaning for their life.

In the midst of all of this verbal processing, one of the key aspects of gestalt therapy is that the therapist has unconditional acceptance. This means that the patient can give no wrong answer, and the gestalt psychologist doesn't pass any unnecessary judgment on what the patient is sharing. In this way, the gestalt psychologist seeks to bring the patient from emotional sharing to one of realization.

The patient should play an outsized role in discovering the solution to their problem, and then this emotion serves as a basis for concrete change in the patient's life. In this way, the therapist can help draw a straight line from the patient's emotions to their desired behavioral change.

In all forms of practice, the goal of gestalt psychology is to help the patient move from a need for environmental support to one where they can rely on their support. Ultimately, the therapist wants to see the patient reach their conclusions about their problems, form the better part of their solutions, and work towards concrete behavioral change to implement these solutions.

Gestalt therapists will also deploy phenomenological inquiry as a primary method of drawing information from their patients. This means that they prefer asking "what" and "how" questions rather than "why" questions. This helps the patient focus on the present and discuss specific experiential factors contributing to their problems and solutions. Although the answers to these questions may initially be difficult to define, the psychology, including the desire to see order, wins out over time, and the patient can extrapolate their solutions to their problems.

One thing that gestalt psychology seeks to root out is what therapists call "unfinished business." Unfinished business refers to any hatred, anxiety, anger, guilt, or shame that cloud the experience of the present moment. This unfinished business often roots in bad experiences or fallout from unhealthy relationships or reactions. So, the therapist might have to revisit some of these experiences.

While doing so, the therapist will always listen to accept the patient's version of the event as they perceived it. There is no right or wrong way to explain the events that led to the unfished business, as long as the patient is honest and the therapist exhibits unconditional acceptance. This practice first requires that the gestalt psychologist precisely identifies the unfinished business.

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There are a few ways that gestalt psychologists can target problems that need solving in a patient's life. Gestalt therapists are trained to look out for the following signs of problems, which may include unfinished business:

  • Introjection means accepting others' beliefs and standards without assimilating them to make them congruent. For example, a patient may blindly accept the word of a friend or loved one, even if the information that they receive is false or ultimately hurtful. Instead of trying to counter this false or hurtful information, they accept it as true and let it dictate their further thoughts and actions.
  • Projection: This means disowning certain aspects of the self by assigning them to the environment. For example, a patient who feels insecure or inadequate might spend a lot of time pointing out the inadequacies of the things and people around them.
  • Deflection: This means distracting the self or veering off course so that it's hard to maintain a sustained sense of contact. For example, a patient may – knowingly or subconsciously – steer clear of certain sensitive topics when talking with their gestalt psychologist. This is especially clear when the deflection comes from the therapist asking a direct question about the touchy subject. Deflection can take many forms, from dismissing or joking about the matter to flat-out refusing to discuss it.

Gestalt psychologists are also trained to look for specific language patterns while their patient speaks. These patterns, especially patterns of depersonalization, can give insight into the patient's insecurities. For example, when a patient doesn't use first-person pronouns but instead describes things in terms of "it," "they," or "you," the gestalt psychologist may interpret this as the patient depersonalizing. Other key phrases, like "maybe," "perhaps," or "I guess," can also signal uncertainty in the patient. In these cases, the patient is likely deflecting.

With these expressions of deflection and uncertainty, the therapist can sense unfinished business. A common way to address this unfinished business in gestalt therapy is the empty chair technique. This is an exercise where the patient spends time talking to an empty chair representing someone with unfinished business.

Conclusion

Gestalt psychology and gestalt therapy can be useful tools in a therapist's toolbox. If you find that you could help address your problems, gestalt therapy might be a good fit. Speaking with a licensed counselor through BetterHelp will help you find the best therapy for you from the convenience of your home.

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