Overview Of Gestalt Psychology

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The German word "Gestalt" generally translates to the way parts can form together as a whole. In psychology, Gestalt involves a quest to understand how the brain perceives different experiences.

Do you feel an imbalance that’s difficult to describe?

The Gestalt approach has played a role in several areas that seek to better understand the brain and social behavior, including human sensation, making it a valuable contribution to theoretical perspectives in psychology. Among other uses, counselors can employ Gestalt techniques to help people focus on the present instead of feeling consumed by the past.

What is the definition of Gestalt psychology?

Gestalt psychology suggests a school of thought that perceives a whole psychological system as more significant than its single parts and that you cannot simply focus on a part in its simplest form. Providing a framework for the study of perception, Gestalt theory posits that the attributes of the whole can't be deduced by analyzing any of the parts on their own.

Gestalt researchers proposed the laws of perceptual organization to better illustrate how human perception works and how humans tend to perceive objects, including the laws of similarity, proximity, continuity, inclusiveness, closure, and connectedness. These laws are the principles of Gestalt psychology and may explain how our brains group things to help us interpret the world

  • The law of similarity refers to grouping similar parts together to make a pattern of parts that belong together. 
  • Proximity means grouping parts together according to how close they are in space. 
  • Continuity means grouping parts together based on patterns to create a whole figure. 
  • Inclusiveness suggests that we see all elements of an image before seeing various parts. 
  • Closure refers to seeing part of an image and being able to mentally fill in the gaps of what we assume should be there. 
  • Connectedness means that when we see objects moving in the same direction and at the same rate, and that we tend to perceive them as a single object.

The principles of Gestalt can be used to learn more about how the human mind may perceive things, such as events or experiences in our lives. The Gestalt school of thought involves looking at experiences or feelings as part of a whole, rather than individually. 

How did Gestalt psychology develop?

With gestalt as a German word, it’s no surprise that Gestalt theory originated in Austria and Germany. It is a reaction to associationism and structuralist schools of thought. 

Associationism theory suggests that pairs of thoughts may connect based on experience. Structuralism, one of psychology's first schools of thought, is founded upon breaking down mental processes into basic components. 

Gestalt psychology principle states experiences and thoughts are connected, and we need to look at the big picture. Gestalt concepts focus on the opposite of structuralism. It may involve looking at wholes as transcending their parts. The "wholes" in Gestalt psychology includes the study of consciousness, the objects of direct experience, and the science of phenomena.

Early researchers were unsettled by what seemed to be a sterile approach to the scientific study of mental health processes. Gestalt psychology was developed partly to add a humanistic element to the study of perception. Researchers in Gestalt psychology brought the qualities of form, meaning, and value into their work, whereas previous researchers had ignored them.

Who is the founder of Gestalt psychology?

Max Wertheimer founded the Gestalt psychology movement and became the first Gestalt psychologist. Additional credit may go to psychologists like Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, Kurt Goldstein, and Fritz Perls, all of whom founded Gestalt psychology in practice. Later researchers in Gestalt psychology were Kurt Lewin, Rudolf Arnheim, and Hans Wallach.

Max Wertheimer wrote "Experimentelle Studien über das Sehen von Bewegung" (Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement) in 1912, which became an eminent "textbook" of Gestalt psychology. Wertheimer worked in conjunction with psychologists Köhler and Koffka to develop the theory. Wertheimer also proved how Gestalt principles could be used to explain problems in ethics, the nature of truth, and political behavior.

The trio then applied Gestalt psychology theory to issues of perception, including problem-solving, learning, and thinking. Wertheimer, Köhler, and Koffka had all relocated to the United States by the mid-1930s and became professors. One of the original Gestalt psychologists, Wolfgang Köhler, is most famous for his quote, “The whole is different from the sum of its parts.”

Later, and primarily by Kurt Lewin, Gestalt principles were also applied to motivation, social psychology, personality, aesthetics, and economic behavior.

Who is the founder of gestalt therapy?

In 1926, Fritz Perls, a German psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, went to Frankfurt to become the assistant to Kurt Goldstein at the Institute for Brain-Damaged Soldiers. Goldstein was also a researcher in Gestalt theory. Perls had become disenchanted with specific Freudian theories and methods and sought to develop a new system of psychotherapy. 

In Frankfurt, Perls came under the tutelage of many psychologists, and psychoanalysts, all of whom had direct or indirect roles in Gestalt psychology principles and therapy. At the Institute for Brain-Damaged Soldiers, Perls met his wife, Laura, who was also a student of Gestalt therapy.

The goal of Gestalt therapy is often to help clients become aware of their primary sensations and environment so they can respond more effectively in the present moment. Therapists guide clients to focus on the "here and now" instead of past experiences. Once clients can fully experience the present, they may more easily confront past conflicts or, as Perls called them, "incomplete Gestalts."

What are examples of Gestalt psychology?

You may be able to find examples of Gestalt psychology in your daily life.

Have you ever had a flipbook of animated drawings where you run the pages of a small book through your fingers? Each page is a separate drawing a small component of the whole object, but when you flip them in rapid succession, you have the illusion that the subject is moving even though the pictures are stationary objects. This illusion of perceived motion is an example of continuity, where the whole is made up of the contents, Gestalt psychology attempts to do this with human experiences and consciousness. 

If you've ever looked closely at an oil or acrylic painting of a landscape, you may notice that the painting is made up of varying brush strokes or effects from a palette knife that don't make sense when viewed up close. However, if you back away from the painting, you may perceive the brushstrokes as grass, trees, and solid ground. This is an example of the Gestalt law of similarity. When we are able to see a pattern of parts that belong together, the law of similarity helps us perceive the brushstrokes similarly to how we might see plants in nature.

When you enter a restaurant, and a group of people is standing by the bar in proximity, you may assume that they are a group of friends because they are close together. This is an example of the law of proximity, where minds tend to group things by how close they are to one another. We perceive objects that are near each other as belonging together.

What about Gestalt psychology today?

Today there are just over 60 Gestalt therapy institutions of learning around the world, and the number is growing. These institutions study natural sciences associated with Gestalt theory and nearly all major cities within the United States have at least one Gestalt institute. 

To date, there is no national organization devoted to Gestalt psychology. As such, there are no standards for the institutes to follow nor standards for trainers or trainees. Each institution develops its curriculum on Gestalt psychology and has its own criteria for selecting students. 

As a relatively modern development, for potential clients seeking to benefit from Gestalt therapy, each person may come to their own conclusions about Gestalt therapists' training and whether this type of therapy is the best treatment for them. You may ask a potential therapist how they would apply the principles of Gestalt psychology in your sessions or how they think the Gestalt laws could be used to support your mental health.

What can I expect from Gestalt therapy? 

Gestalt therapy techniques emphasize personal responsibility for attaining one's psychological and physical needs. A Gestalt therapist may consider issues like freedom and responsibility, the immediacy of experience, and your role in creating meaning in your life. They may use the Gestalt principles in conjunction with other treatment methods to provide the greatest benefit from your sessions.

Therapy using Gestalt psychology is often a holistic approach that may aim to resolve conflicts and ambiguities stemming from the inability to integrate various personality features.

Do you feel an imbalance that’s difficult to describe?

Participants may be urged to discuss memories and concerns using the present tense in therapy. The therapist might dramatize conflicts to help participants make sense of their problems. For example, a therapist could ask clients to act out situations to bring out thoughts and perceptions they may have repressed. 

Is Gestalt therapy effective?

Studies show that therapy using Gestalt psychology can be effective. A recent study showed patients significantly improved in personality dysfunction, self-concept, and interpersonal relationships. For many individuals looking to try this counseling method to change their perception, online Gestalt therapy is a beneficial option. 

Online therapy has been found equally effective as its in-person counterpart regarding phobias and other conditions where counselors might apply Gestalt principles as primary treatment approaches. In addition, online therapy offers lower pricing than in-person therapy because online therapists don't have extra costs for office rent or parking.

If you're curious about trying an online modality of Gestalt psychology, consider signing up throvugh a platform such as BetterHelp. BetterHelp offers a vast database of counselors specializing in various treatment modalities.  

Takeaway

Gestalt can be a complex area of psychology. The research in this area has been instrumental in explaining human thought processes and behavior. By understanding how they can alter their perceptions, participants in Gestalt therapy may experience a more significant sense of agency and empowerment. 

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