Gestalt Psychology

Looking at Behavior and the Mind as a Whole


Created by Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koka, and Wolfgang Kohler in the 1920s, Gestalt psychology is a school of thought based on the notion that behavior and the intricacies of the mind should not be studied separately but looked at as a whole, because this is often how humans experience events.

Gestalt psychology claims that the whole is not simply the same as the sum of its parts. Through this notion, Gestalt psychologists were able to break down the perceptual organization into a series of principles and explain how small objects can group together to create larger objects. Using this same idea, Gestalt therapy looks at behavior, speech, and how an individual experiences the world around him or her in order to help the individual become whole, or more aware.

In trying to express the notion that the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts, Gestalt psychologists created a series of principles, known as the Gestalt principles of perceptual organization. These principles, which are actually mental shortcuts that people perform in order to solve a problem, successfully explain how objects that are smaller can group together and become objects that are larger, and show that there is a difference between the whole and the various parts that make up the whole.

People tend to group together items that are similar. In the following image, people usually see vertical columns made up of circles and squares.

In German, “pragnanz” means “good figure.” The law of pragnanz states we view objects in their simplest possible form.

For example, in the following image, instead of seeing a series of complex shapes, we see ve circles.

The law of proximity states that when objects are near one another, people have the tendency to group them together.

In the following image, the circles on the right appear as if they are grouped together in horizontal rows, while the circles on the left appear as if they are grouped together in vertical columns.

Figure-ground shows that people have an innate tendency to recognize only one part of an event as the figure (also known as foreground) and the other as the background. Even though this is a single image, either a vase or two faces can be seen, but never at the same time.

Drawing upon the work of early Gestalt perceptual psychology, as well as several other influences such as the work of Sigmund Freud, Karen Horney, and even the theatre, husband and wife Frederick and Laura Perls created Gestalt therapy in the 1940s.

Much like Gestalt psychology focused on the whole, Gestalt therapy focuses on the whole being of a person through items such as behavior, speech, posture, and how an individual encounters the world.

A common technique used in Gestalt therapy is that of role-playing. This helps an individual work out a resolution to an otherwise unfinished situation or problem. The most common role-playing technique used is the “empty chair technique,” where a person will talk to an empty chair as if someone were sitting in it. This technique not only allows one to vent, but also helps a person and new ways to solve their problems.

Gestalt therapy also places great emphasis on dream analysis, believing that dreams can bring out the psychology of an individual as well as any trauma from the individual’s past. A technique commonly used in Gestalt therapy is to have an individual write their dreams down for two weeks, choose one that feels particularly important or significant, and actually act it out. This allows a person to reconnect with parts of their experience that have since been disowned.

Another common technique used in Gestalt therapy is hitting a sofa with soft bats or padded sticks to release feelings of anger. By visualizing what you are angry about and hitting it with the bats or sticks, you can release unproductive anger and move on to focusing on your true self.

Lastly, one of the most famous Gestalt therapy techniques is also one of the simplest. Because the idea behind Gestalt therapy is to become self-aware, one must first increase their awareness. This can be done by saying “I am aware that … ” and defining oneself in that way. You can say, “I am aware that I am sitting at my desk,” “I am aware that I feel sad right now,” and so on. This technique helps keep a person in the present, separates feelings from interpretations and judgments, and helps produce a clearer vision of how that person understands himself or herself to be.

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