The Gestalt Psychology Historical Origins Psychology Essay

23 Mar 2015

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Gestalt psychology was founded by Max Wertheimer along with Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka who were also considered as cofounders of this school of psychology. Max Wertheimer studied and investigated the apparent movement by conducting experiments and later termed it as Phi Phenomenon. Koffka was the first to introduce Gestalt psychology to America. Kohler studied on the problems of perceptual grouping and developed new gestalt principles. Fundamental concepts of gestalt psychology and therapy such as law of Pragnanz and figure and ground were also discussed. Some of the key gestalt principles such as similarity, continuity, proximity, and closure were extensively discussed with appropriate examples. Gestalt therapy was also discussed as one of the contributions to the broader field of psychology. Gestalt therapy's influence to the psychiatric nursing practice was also discussed to some extent with regards to how it benefits them and their clients.

Gestalt Psychology: Historical Origins, Principles and Contributions to Psychology

Gestalt psychology is a particular form of psychology that pays close attention to whole, intact segments of cognitive experience and behaviour (Hergenhahn, 2009). This discipline has originated from and had its roots in a number of philosophers and psychologists. Thus, this essay would discuss the historical origins of Gestalt psychology, its principles and its contribution to the broader field of psychology.

It all began when a group of young German psychologists rebelled against Wilhelm Wundt's experimental program concerning the elements of consciousness (Hergenhahn, 2009). They argued that consciousness cannot be reduced to elements and that it should be seen as a meaningful unified structure or configuration instead. Since then, the German word for "whole" or "configuration" was known as 'Gestalt' and this led to the rise of gestalt psychology (Hergenhahn, 2009).

Gestalt psychology was attributed to Max Wertheimer along with Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka who were also considered as cofounders of this school of psychology (Heider, 1968). Wertheimer launched Gestalt psychology whereby investigating whether the way we perceive things differ from the sensations that comprise them (Hergenhahn, 2009). According to Heider (1968) Wertheimer explored this notion whereby flashing two lights alternately at differing speed. It was perceived that his subjects would experience two separate entities, but it was not to be (Heider, 1968). Subjects instead experienced seeing two lights whereby only one seemed to move while the other remained fixed, or one of the lights seemed to move towards the other without making any contact, or both the lights never appeared as separate entities (Heider, 1968). He described the apparent movement as phi phenomenon. Wertheimer believed that the analytical method was to be blamed as psychological events were broken down into parts and examined separately when in fact the parts were actually related to one another and had meaning when seen as a whole (Newman, 1944). An article he published in 1912 titled "Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement" featured this phenomenon and it marked the beginning of Gestalt psychology (Hergenhahn, 2009).

In 1935, Koffka published "Principles of Gestalt psychology", which was known to be a precise presentation on Gestalt theory (Hergenhahn, 2009). Kohler extended and experimented new gestalt ideas in the areas of perception and memory. He studied on the problems of perceptual grouping and developed new gestalt principles. Kohler stated that perceptual organization comprised of recognition, recall and association (Asch, 1968). Recognition is obtained through pair-formation which is comparable to perceptual grouping that depends on similarity (Asch, 1968). Recall is associated with perception. Lastly, association is a product of interaction and it occurs only after organizing information (Asch, 1968). Asch (1968) postulated that till an individual has organized the parts, only then they can comprehend and gain more knowledge on the relationship between the different parts.

One of the key fundamental concepts in Gestalt is law of Pragnanz, whereby how an individual organizes his or her perception in the simplest possible experience (Hergenhahn, 2009). The tendency to interpret complex objects in the simplest possible ways and to perceive figures as regular, orderly, symmetric, and simple with minimum cognitive effort. Hergenhahn (2009) stressed that cognitive experience will always mirror the essence of a person's experience rather than its fragmented aspects.

Wong (2010) postulated that gestalt principles explain how one organizes visual information. They are commonly known as the principles of similarity, continuity, proximity, and closure. The principle of similarity states that people often use colour, size and shape to group them into categories (Wong, 2010). People perceive similar objects as a group or pattern. For instance, football teams who wear different coloured jerseys stand out as two teams on the field and will be perceived by people as two different teams.

Hergenhahn (2009) described the principle of continuity as when stimuli have continuity, they are seen as related parts of a complete or perceptual unit. For instance, points that are connected by straight or curving lines are seen as belonging together and will be perceived as the simplest smooth path compared to a complex one.

Wong (2010) described principle of proximity as when objects are placed closed to one another they are seen as a unit. For example, when three small squares are placed closely to each other both vertically and horizontally, unity occurs and they are seen as one group. Lastly, principle of closure, the tendency to see incomplete objects as complete because the brain alters the shape as a whole unit.

These principles simply explain how one's perceptions of elements are organized into configurations. Hergenhahn (2009) ascertained that one's conscious thoughts and reactions towards any given situation are resulted from their brain rather than from the physical world. According to Hergenhahn (2009) field theory is whereby electrochemical forces in the brain causes the sensory data to be modified and this sensory data also changes the structure of the field comprising of electrochemical forces. Thus, the underlying meaning that an individual understands from observing fragments is actually due to changes that occur in brain activity.

Gestalt's major contribution to the broader field of psychology is commonly known as gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy was developed by Frederick "Fritz" Perls and his wife Laura Perls during the 1940s (Howatt, 2000). Harman (1974) postulated that gestalt therapy is whereby a healthy individual is seen as a whole organism rather than being disoriented or disorganized. Integration and unity are also seen as key components for an individual's personality as one would be disorganized without them (Harman, 1974). Another key concept for gestalt therapy and psychology is for the individual to form figure and ground. Figure is a process whereby identifying the figure from the background and it is something the individual gives importance to as well (Harman, 1974). Harman (1974) stressed that as new needs surface, new figures are formed and if these needs are satisfied the gestalt is destroyed, allowing new gestalts to be formed. Destruction of gestalts are seen as a key aspect in gestalt therapy as it is important for the survival of the individual and it helps them to pick and choose which figure to focus on (Harman, 1974).

Gestalt therapy focuses on helping clients to become aware of their present state and prepares them for learning new behaviours (Howatt, 2000). It also helps one to regain their potential (Bernard, 1986). Howatt (2000) also stressed that its main aim is to help one to be aware of "what" and "how" they are doing as having present experience brought into awareness creates insight for clients and is known to be of therapeutic benefit for clients.

Gestalt therapy's influence has also been applied to the psychiatric nursing practice whereby nurses are trained and taught to apply gestalt therapy with their clients (Kelly & Howie, 2011). As a result of gestalt therapy training, nurses reported that they are more reflective and have developed more confidence in their ability to work with their clients therapeutically when they are in distress (Kelly & Howie, 2011). Furthermore, nurses also take more responsibility for the impact they have towards their clients, and it also helped them on a personal level whereby to have a broader way of looking and dealing with things and management issues (Kelly & Howie, 2011).

In conclusion, gestalt psychology has placed great emphasis on the belief that our brain organizes our perceptions of the world in terms of wholes or meaningful patterns. Gestalt psychology has also attracted some criticism whereby critics have said some of its key concepts are difficult to exemplify through experimentation (Hergenhahn, 2009). For instance, it is unknown why there are differences in perceptions among individuals despite having the same stimuli presented to them. However, gestalt psychology has still provided new and interesting insights in the understanding of human essence and experience.

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