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What is 'gestalt' about Gestalt Therapy?

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 39 - April 1999

My article on Fritz Perls and Gestalt Therapy (P.H. 34, Nov. '98) raised questions from readers who wanted to know more about the origins of gestalt therapy and its relation to the earlier experimental school of Gestalt Psychology.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Many people have confused the two – I recall some years ago when Perls was very popular, book stores were full of the old scholarly works of Wertheimer and Köhler. Either by mistake or design, readers purchased these books, but I doubt if many were able to plough through any of them. My favourite of these volumes is the slim one authored by Köhler with the beautiful title, The Place of Value in a World of Facts (orig. 1938, re-publ. By Mentor Books in paperback, 1966). Unfortunately, few readers are able to understand this complex study of scientific method.

Gestalt psychology traces its origin to 1912, when Wertheimer studied "phenomenal movement" – e.g., the way the cinema operates.

So-called "moving pictures" do not really move, but we see movement; thus, we impose our perception on a series of pictures flashed in rapid succession. This is an example of gestalt organisation. See Figure 1, for a well-known image of figure/ground configuration – a 'gestalt'. We don't merely respond passively to the world, rather we interact. I can choose to organise the picture by focusing on the vase, or I can turn it around (reverse the figure/ ground) and see two profiles.

Our environment is a field, not just physical reality, but also subject to our perceptions – the gestalt laws of organisation, figure/ground, closure, good form, open form, etc..

Max Wertheimer (1880-1943) was the leader of the movement, but was not such a prolific writer. All three of these German professors moved to the USA – Wertheimer teaching at The New School for Social Research in New York, where I later studied and also lectured. Wolfgang Köhler (1887-1967) who wrote several books, including the well-known study The Mentality of Apes in which he demonstrated that primates use 'insight' to solve problems. Kurt Koffka (1886-1941) is best known for The Growth of the Mind.

These academic gestalt theoreticians made available contributions to perception and cognitive psychology, but they neglected the wider realms of personality, psychopathology, psychotherapy (except for some of the social-psychological work of field theorist Kurt Lewin).

Perls' goal was to base a new school of psychotherapy on these gestalt principles. Just as psychoanalysis is based on association theory (viz. 'free association') and behaviour therapy rests on stimulus-response conditioning models, it was the aim of Perls to construct a new method utilising the gestalt psychological principles.

What is gestalt about gestalt therapy? Notice again in Figure 1, that we are able to change our perception of it. It is not necessary to conjure up an unknown 'unconscious' as an explanatory factor; merely to point out the possibility of reversing the figure/ground structure. So a major focus of gestalt therapy is its focus on the on-going experimental structure of the 'Here-and-Now'. This concept is often misconstrued in psychotherapeutic circles. Many today claim, "Well, don't we all work here and now?". But this facile generalization blurs what is different about gestalt therapy: by here-and-now we do not mean that the patient talks about his current problems with his wife, his teacher, his boss. Nor is he encouraged to ruminate about the past – last week or even next year.

(The psychoanalytic work of digging up the past... though it may be for some a valuable archaeological enterprise cannot be construed as working in the 'Present'.

What is special about gestalt therapy is its stress on the structure of the experimental moment. By here and now we mean concrete actuality, how the person contacts his existence at this very instant – his awareness, posture, breathing, tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions, etc.. Although many therapists talk about treating the whole person, in actuality they seemed to be concerned primarily with verbal material, or in some cases biographical data or psychodiagnostic classification of test protocols. In gestalt therapy, the face to face encounter fosters this working with the whole person. Focusing on the 'gestalt' – how the person forms his figures and grounds. And helping him become more aware of it.

In gestalt psychology terms, this means the application of the phenomenological method: looking at 'what is', not at some abstract theoretical explanation. The crucial therapeutic tool used by Perls in his reworking of gestalt theory is just this ability of the person to contact his on-going presentness. Focus attention on immediate experience. Following the principles of gestalt formation, attention turns from one aspect of consciousness to the next, depending on one's needs and feelings. By staying with this experience, it is possible to explore the 'continuum of awareness' by noting what is focused on and what is omitted.

One primary task of the therapist is to aid the person in his attempt to stay in the immediate present, to become aware of resistance – see what interferes, blind spots, fog, parataxic distortions, unfinished situations, rigidity (a fixed figure/ground pattern), confusion, boredom, avoidance of certain parts of the field, and so on. By beginning with a direct sensory, phenomenological exploration of where he is at (his capacity to contact himself and his environment), the person discovers his resistances... how he avoids being in the Now.

Each individual forms his own 'gestalt', he determines the structure. The therapy largely consists of helping him become more aware of the manner in which he structures his on-going experience of reality.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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