What Is Gestalt Psychology?

What Is Gestalt Psychology?

Let’s discover the principles and nature of Gestalt psychology.

The definition of Gestalt boils down to the overall impression of something, the full experience of it. For example, the Gestalt of a person is not just how they look, but also the energy they give off, the sensations one has when one walks away after meeting them (Mann, 2020).

Importantly, a Gestalt is a whole impression – it is not seeing things in pieces, but rather experiencing something as a complete, single entity. And in this sense, it is much more than the sum of its parts – it is a unique experience that cannot be had by looking just at the parts alone (Perls, 1992).

Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt psychology takes an idea that originated in the world of perception research and applies it to understanding the mind (Greenwood, 2020). Just as we can and do perceive a melody in its entirety, rather than as a series of notes, we can look at the mind as a whole entity, rather than a collection of parts. The originators of Gestalt psychology applied the idea of the Gestalt to psychology because they were discouraged by some of the trends in psychology at the time. In particular, they disliked the prevailing belief that we could best understand complex things – such as human experiences – by breaking them down into their component parts and studying those individually (Rock & Palmer, 1990).

For example, psychoanalytic thinking taught us that unconscious experiences could be studied in isolation in therapy, with a psychoanalyst doing the interpreting. By contrast, gestalt psychology proposed that people’s consciousness should be studied as a whole, with the person themselves playing a central role in the interpretation.

At the same time, gestalt psychology does allow for things that are whole to be parts of the bigger picture (Greenwood, 2020). For example, the figure in the forefront of a painting would be considered as a Gestalt in and of itself, but the painting as a whole – figure and background together – also constituted its own Gestalt.

“Each of us is a “cell” of the Absolute Mind. If we can expand our minds, we can tune into Absolute Mind, the Mind of God. We ourselves, if we can harness Absolute Mind, can become God.”
― Michael Faust

Gestalt Therapy

A gestalt therapist is focused on increasing the awareness of the client regarding how they perceive the world with the goal of helping the client respond to and effectively change their perceptions (Perls, 1992). In contrast to psychoanalysis, it works from what are called experiential and humanistic approaches. The client is put in the driver’s seat and the therapist remains more active and emotionally engaged with the client than in psychoanalysis. The therapist gives the client space to articulate and set their own goals as well.

In all of this, therapist and client focus on the here and now, rather than trying to understand the past. After all, perception of one’s environment is happening in the present, so much of the work of gestalt therapy is to slow down and determine what one is actually experiencing in the moment, with an effort to step away from interpretation and into present-moment awareness (Mann, 2020).

In Sum

Gestalt theory is a refreshing counterpoint to the focus that other psychotherapies put on pinpointing problems in very specific cognitive or emotional patterns. For example, it may not be enough to simply challenge and critique thoughts and feelings in isolation. Rather, it will be more effective to think about the totality of our experiences: what are we feeling? Where are these voices coming from? What happens if we put the whole picture together?

Hopefully, this dive into Gestalt psychology has been informative for you. With its focus on becoming aware of and accepting the wholeness of our experiences, the principles of gestalt therapy in particular may be helpful in getting us to tap into underappreciated aspects of our daily experiences.


● Greenwood, J. D. (2020). On two foundational principles of the Berlin school of Gestalt psychology. Review of General Psychology, 24(3), 284-294.

● Mann, D. (2020). Gestalt therapy: 100 key points and techniques. Routledge.

● Perls, L. (1992). Concepts and misconceptions of Gestalt therapy. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 32(3), 50-56.

● Rock, I., & Palmer, S. (1990). The legacy of Gestalt psychology. Scientific American, 263(6), 84-91