Gestalt therapy is a therapeutic approach in psychology that helped foster the humanistic theories of the 1950s and 1960s and that was, in turn, influenced by them. In Gestalt philosophy, the patient is seen as having better insight into himself or herself than the therapist does. Thus, the therapist guides the person on a self-directed path to awareness and refrains from interpreting the patient’s behaviors. Awareness comprises recognition of one’s responsibility for choices, self-knowledge, and ability to solve problems.
Its originators, Frederick S. (Fritz) Perls (1893–1970) and Laura Perls (born Lore Posner, 1905–1990), were born in Germany and studied psychology there. They fled Germany during the Nazi regime, moving to South Africa and then to New York City. They were both initially influenced by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic approaches and by Wilhelm Reich’s Orgonomic psychotherapy. Their later ideas on Gestalt therapy broke with the psychoanalytic tradition, moving toward existentialism and, ultimately, humanism.
In New York City the Perls founded the Gestalt Therapy Institute in 1952. Their novel technique in therapy was to face the patient, in contrast to the typical Freudian technique of sitting behind a reclining person. The face-to-face positioning permitted the therapist to direct the patient’s attention to movements, gestures, and postures so the patient could strive to gain a fuller awareness of his or her immediate behaviors and environment.
Another well-known approach introduced in Gestalt therapy is the so-called “empty chair technique,” in which a person sits across from and talks to an empty chair, envisioning a significant person (or object) associated with psychological tensions. By using these techniques, the Perls believed, the patient would be able to gain insight into how thoughts and behaviors are used to deflect attention from important psychological issues and would learn to recognize the presence of issues from the past that affect current behavior.
The aim was for the patient to experience feelings, not to gain insight into the reasons for them, as psychoanalysts favored. In the evolution of their therapy, Laura and Fritz Perls differed in some of their approaches. Laura emphasized more direct, physical contact and movement than Fritz did, and the contact favored by Fritz Perls was more symbolic than physical. Gestalt therapy took its name from the school of academic psychology called Gestalt psychology. Perls asserted that Gestalt psychology had influenced the development of his ideas, but the Gestaltists laimed that there was no connection between the two. Later scholars suggested a common substrate linking the academic Gestalt psychology of Max Wertheimer (1880–1943), Wolfgang Kohler (1887–1967), and Kurt Koffka (1886–1941) and the Gestalt therapy of the Perls and their collaborators Ralph Hefferline (1910–1974) and Paul Goodman (1911–1972). This commonality involved appreciation of the whole rather than a reductionistic approach to understanding psychological phenomena and behavior. Gestalt therapy took form in the 1950s and 1960s, when humanism first flourished.
The optimistic theory promulgated by the Perls was quite compatible with the ideas of other humanistically oriented psychologists such as Carl Rogers (1902–1987). Its influence has waned since the 1980s, although current therapies have been influenced by the humanistic and optimistic outlook of the theory and by some of the interactive techniques developed by the Perls and their followers. Gestalt theory, a major school of psychology during the first half of the twentieth century, was an influential counterpoint to the other mostly atomistic psychological systems of the time: structuralism, functionalism, and behaviorism.
While its controversies with these other systems during the “age of schools” in psychology have receded into history, its major tenets once again became salient toward the end of the twentieth century in such fields as social psychology, cognition, personality psychology, and visual neuroscience. Gestalt psychology proposed a radical revision of the atomistic view that had prevailed for centuries in Western science and social science. Natural wholes, according to the Gestalt view, are not simply the sum total of their constituent parts.
Rather, characteristics of the whole determine the nature of its parts, prescribing the place, role, and function of each part in the unified whole. The Gestalt principle of Pragnanz, furthermore, asserts that the organization of any whole will be as “good” (i. e. , balanced, simple, integrated) as the prevailing conditions allow. This insistence on holistic processes applies equally to all integrated wholes, from physical systems such as electrical fields, magnetic fields, and soap films to psychological systems such as cognitive processes, the organization of perception, personality, and social phenomena.
The Gestalt movement is generally viewed (Ash 1995; King and Wertheimer 2005) as having been launched by a series of experiments by Max Wertheimer (1880–1943) on apparent movement published in 1912, although clear indications of a Gestalt perspective were already evident in two earlier publications of Wertheimer on musical structures (1910) and on aboriginal thinking about numerical issues (1912).
Two of Wertheimer’s colleagues who served as observers in these experiments, Wolfgang Kohler (1887–1967) and Kurt Koffka (1886–1941), became his collaborators during the next decades in promulgating the new Gestalt approach (Kohler 1929; Koffka 1935). A typical experiment in Wertheimer’s series involved, for example, exposure of a short vertical line in the visual field, followed after a brief interval by exposure of a second similar vertical line a short distance away from where the first one had been exposed.
If the time and distance relations are appropriate, observers see a single line moving from one location to the other. The experience is indistinguishable from watching an actual short vertical line move from one location to the other; in both cases, the perception of motion is immediate and compelling. The prevailing alternate theoretical orientations, maintaining that percepts always correspond with their correlated physical stimuli, could not explain the perceived motion when the actual stimuli are two stationary lines successively exposed.
The whole, the experience of motion as a Gestalt, cannot be derived from a combination of the “component sensations” of the two stationary stimuli. The Gestalt school became prominent in European and American psychology. Its principles of perceptual organization have been summarized in almost every introductory psychology textbook; Wertheimer’s book Productive Thinking. (1945) challenged the computer models of the late twentieth century to try to account for the ubiquitous cognitive processes of insight and understanding.