Gestalt therapy is a type of psychotherapy based on Gestalt psychology, also called the Gestalt theory of the Berlin school. Gestalt therapy focuses on the totality of functioning, behaviors, experiences, and relationships at the present time, rather than on separate aspects of current life or past history. It is one of several standard approaches in modern psychotherapy and is often incorporated into an “eclectic” therapeutic approach. Rather than a defined set of therapeutic techniques, Gestalt therapy utilizes guiding principles that are open-ended and questioning, with the active, involved participation of the therapist and focused on the present.
“Gestalt” is German for “whole” or “essence.” Because there is no exact English equivalent, “Gestalt” is often capitalized as it is in German. Gestalt psychology views psychological phenomena as a coherent whole— rather than a collection of individual elements—with the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Thus, Gestalt therapy generally examines the totality of thoughts and feelings in the present moment and within the context of current relationships. It sometimes includes the “empty chair technique,” in which clients speak to a chair as if it were another person or an aspect of themselves. Gestalt therapy also stresses the relationship between therapist and client and the importance of bodily sensations associated with strong emotions. It views therapy as a laboratory for solving problems and a safe environment for trying out experimental approaches to personal relationships. In recent decades, the concepts of Gestalt therapy have been incorporated into a variety of different therapeutic approaches.
Gestalt psychology was founded in Germany in the early twentieth century by Max Wertheimer (1880–1943), Kurt Koffka (1886–1941), and Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967), who began collaborating on studies of perception. For example, while studying “apparent perception” —such as creating an illusion of continuous motion by flashing lights in quick succession (as in motion pictures)—they realized that the subject perceived the lights as a single moving light. These types of experiments led them to conclude that the brain does not simply record what it perceives, but rather it imposes an organizational pattern on perceptions. Therefore, it is the mental “whole” or “Gestalt” that is significant, rather than its component parts or strings of associated perceptions and sensations, as had been argued by Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920) and other contemporary researchers. Wertheimer outlined this new approach in a 1913 lecture series.
That same year, Ko¨ hler began applying Gestalt theory to animal perception and learning. In a famous experiment, he trained chickens to peck from lighter or darker sheets of paper. He then gave them a choice between the original sheets or sheets that were even lighter or even darker: the chickens trained on the light sheet preferred the even lighter one, and those trained on the dark sheet preferred the even darker one. Ko¨ hler argued that this demonstrated that the chickens had learned an association with a relationship rather than with a specific color, contradicting behaviorist theories of the time. His discovery became known as the Gestalt law of transposition—subjects transpose what they have learned to new circumstances.
Another important Gestalt concept was the perceptual interdependence of figure and background: a figure in a field gets most of the perceptual attention, but the figure and the background are dependent on their contrast and therefore are an inseparable whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. A common example is the Rubin vase, which can be perceived as two dark profiles on a white background or a white vase on a dark background.
Over the following years, Gestalt researchers defined additional rules of perception:
Gestalt studies had a major influence on later theories of perception, motivation, learning, problem solving, memory, and other cognitive processes. Working with primates, Ko¨ hler experimented on insight learning, in which a problem is solved by suddenly seeing it in its totality, rather than through trialand-error or reward-driven conditioning. His results suggested that learning results from higher cognition that reorganizes information to create a new way of visualizing a problem.
Gestalt psychology conflicted with most of the popular psychological schools of the first half of the twentieth century, especially structuralism, which viewed the mind as consisting of separate elements that could be mapped and studied in different combinations. In contrast, Gestalt psychology viewed mental experience as the organizing and patterning of perceptions and experience, rather than the simple combination of elements. Therefore, the Gestaltists argued that behavior must be examined in its total complexity, rather than as separate components. Likewise, perception, learning, and other cognitive functions must be viewed as structured wholes. Gestalt psychology was also in conflict with introspective psychology and the psychodynamism of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and his followers, although it did support “phenomenology,” an unstructured type of introspection. One of Gestalt therapy's most radical ideas was its dismissal of therapist objectivity and its focus on the establishment of an egalitarian relationship between therapist and client. Gestalt psychology attracted North American followers throughout the 1920s, but by the early 1930s, it became overshadowed by its American antithesis—the behaviorism of B. F. Skinner (1904–1990) and John B. Watson (1878–1958).
Goodman, better known as the author of Growing Up Absurd, contributed much of the theoretical basis to Gestalt Therapy, including an interactive model of the therapist-client relationship. It viewed the therapeutic process as a testing of boundaries, in which the therapist and client developed new awareness of the present and worked together to develop practical solutions that furthered their goal of individual autonomy.
Another major figure in early Gestalt psychotherapy was the Gestaltists fellow refugee from Nazi Germany, Kurt Lewin (1890–1947), who introduced “sensitivity training” in his “T-groups” (for “training groups” ) at the National Training Laboratories. These group therapy or training groups were designed to improve communication skills and interpersonal relationships. Sensitivity training ultimately influenced the development of the human potential movement.
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