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?
Here, we'll explore what gestalt psychology is, provide an overview of its history and method, and examine its contemporary applications in modern therapy.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Gestalt theory in psychology?
The theory that we see the effect of the whole as something greater or beyond the sum of its parts is called Gestalt theory. Gestalt, meaning pattern or form, was used to describe this theory.
What is a Gestalt psychology example?
Here's an example of Gestalt psychology. Suppose you see a drawing of a circle that was never completed. It isn't a complete circle, but you recognize it as a circle anyway.
What are the 5 Gestalt principles?
The five Gestalt principles are:
These visual Gestalt principles are also called principles of grouping or Gestalt laws of grouping. These principles are organized ways in which people perceive objects. In Gestalt, perception is considered the most critical element of human experience.
According to Gestalt psychology, we group multiple smaller things and make a larger meaning when we see multiple smaller things. When we see similar or close things, we view them as a group rather than several individual objects. Those are the principles of similarity and proximity. When we see an incomplete picture, our minds complete the picture to make the closure. When we see a line that seems to establish a specific direction, we see it continuing in that direction, which means continuation. As for the Gestalt principle of connectedness, this law says that we see objects as if they are one thing when they are connected using visual means such as colors, frames, or lines.
What is Gestalt explained?
Gestalt is a German word for which there is no direct English equivalent. Gestalt means something similar to "whole," but it also includes the idea of form or pattern.
In psychology, Gestalt is related to perception. It refers to how we see objects as an organized whole instead of individual parts. And when we see this organized whole, what we perceive is something greater than the simple addition of each of those parts. For example, if you see a square, it has more meaning than the four individual lines that it is made up of.
Who is the father of Gestalt psychology?
Max Wertheimer is considered the father of Gestalt psychology.
Although the foundations of Gestalt go back at least as far as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and even before, the development of Gestalt psychology specifically started with Max Wertheimer's publication of "Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement." In this publication, Wertheimer introduced the Gestalt theory of psychology. Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler worked with Wertheimer on the studies described in that work, and together, the three Gestalt psychologists launched the Gestalt school of psychology.
An early book is known as the "sourcebook of Gestalt psychology," compiled by Willis D. Ellis in 1938, including 34 articles and a book defining and describing Gestalt psychology, the principles of Gestalt, and early research on Gestalt concepts. The sourcebook includes these psychologists' early works – Gestalt theory papers and books – that they and others in the movement produced between the inception of
Gestalt psychology from 1912 until1929. This compilation was referred to often in the first explanations of Gestalt therapy.
What is the main focus of Gestalt therapy?
The main focus of Gestalt therapy is perception and experience in the present moment. What matters is what is going on right now rather than what happened before, what will happen, what could happen, or what should happen.
A secondary emphasis is placed on personal responsibility. Gestalt therapy recognizes that individuals have choices and bear personal responsibility for the actions they take within each moment.
What is the difference between Gestalt psychology and Gestalt therapy?
Gestalt psychology was founded first, and Gestalt therapy was later developed based on the ideas in Gestalt psychology. However, experts disagree on how much the two are related.
Gestalt psychology views the human mind and human behavior as one complete whole, and Gestalt therapy addresses the individual as a whole person. In Gestalt psychology, the main idea is that everything that happens in our minds is arranged in Gestalt.
While Gestalt psychology is about understanding how humans perceive and act on the world, gestalt therapy was designed to help people overcome obstacles that interfere with their functioning as a whole person in the present moment.
The International Gestalt Journal contains information about Gestalt therapy, while other publications focus on Gestalt psychology.
What is the gestalt effect?
The Gestalt effect happens in the brain when it encounters groups of lines, curves, or shapes and how the mind uses these individual images to form a complete whole.
What are the 7 Gestalt principles?
The seven Gestalt principles are:
What techniques do Gestalt therapists use?
Gestalt therapists use many different techniques, called exercises and experiments. They include:
In the empty chair technique, a Gestalt experiment technique, the therapist asks you to sit across an empty chair. You then imagine that a person is sitting across from you in that chair. The imaginary person might be your friend, relative, partner, boss, or even a part of yourself. Whoever the person is, it's someone you have issues or conflicts with, and you seek to understand and resolve those issues. The therapist guides you in a dialogue between yourself and the person you imagine sitting in the empty chair.
Role-playing is similar to the empty chair technique in that it involves using your imagination. You take on a role you usually don't take and act it out. For example, in family therapy, you might take on your mother's role to empathize with her more fully.
The exaggeration exercise might seem very simple, but it can be beneficial. In this exercise, you exaggerate an expression, such as frowning, or a movement, such as bouncing your leg. This helps you connect with your actions in the present moment.
The goal of identifying the location of an emotion is to increase your awareness and stay focused on the present moment. If you say you are sad, your therapist might ask you where you feel the sadness.
Observing body language is nearly always a part of any therapy. However, it's especially well-suited to Gestalt therapy because it allows your therapist and you to become more aware of underlying feelings that may be happening in the present moment even though you aren't talking about them.
How does Gestalt therapy work
Gestalt therapy is a type of talk therapy. As such, you and your therapist will talk about your issues and experiences. In Gestalt therapy, the therapist and the client work together to help the client increase their present moment awareness. The way it works is that, first, you recognize what is happening in your mind right now, and second, you challenge any obstacles preventing you from healing or making beneficial choices.
Gestalt therapy is a complex therapeutic modality, and your therapist will use Gestalt concepts to create an overall approach to helping you deal with your issues. The aspects of Gestalt therapy that set it apart from others include the following.
What is Gestalt therapy good for?
Gestalt therapy can help with a wide range of mental health issues and disorders, including:
What are the benefits of Gestalt therapy?
There are many benefits of Gestalt therapy. This type of therapy helps you to:
What is a gestalt switch?
A Gestalt switch is something that happens when you see an ambiguous image. It's a quick shift between seeing something one way and seeing it in another. At first, you might see the image one way. But then, as the Gestalt switch happens, you see it as something else. Gestalt switches often take the form of an optical illusion. For example, you might look at a picture and see two vases, but you suddenly see two faces when the shift happens.