What is a gestalt in psychology and why to close it?

What is the popular direction in psychology Gestalt therapy? About her techniques, the consequences of incomplete gestalts in relationships and the benefits of closed gestalts.


Gestalt therapy is a fashionable psychological direction, the beginnings of which appeared in 1912. Gestalt is literally “form” or “figure” in German. The concept itself was introduced by the Austrian philosopher and psychologist Christian von Ehrenfels in 1890 in his article “On the Quality of Form”. In it, he insisted that a person is not able to contact material objects directly: we perceive them with the help of the senses (primarily vision) and refine them in consciousness. 

The scientist did not engage in further development of the theory, and the idea of ​​Gestalt was taken by three German experimental psychologists – Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Keller and Kurt Koffka. They studied the peculiarities of human perception and asked themselves the question: why does a person single out something specific, “his own” from the whole variety of events and circumstances? Thus was born the direction of Gestalt psychology,  the main principle of which is integrity!

Despite the fact that everyone liked the new direction, due to the political mood, it did not develop. Two of the founding psychologists, Jewish by origin, were forced to emigrate from Germany to the United States in 1933. At that time, behaviorism reigned in America (the study and change of human and animal behavior through incentives: rewards and punishments. – Forbes Life), and Gestalt psychology did not take root.

Other psychologists returned to the idea of ​​Gestalt – Frederick Perls (also known as Fritz Perls), Paul Goodman and Ralph Hefferlin. In 1957 they published Gestalt Therapy, Arousal and Growth of the Human Personality. This monumental work marked the beginning of the real development of the direction.

Where do gestalts come from?

Let’s go back to Gestalt psychology. It appeared in 1912, in an era when the methods of modern neuroscience did not exist. Therefore, to understand what exactly is a gestalt and what is its nature, it was possible only conceptually. Nevertheless, Gestalt theory dominated the study of perception throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Since the late 1950s, neurophysiologists David Hubel and Thorsten Wiesel began to record individual neurons in the visual cortex of cats and monkeys. It turned out that each neuron responds strictly to some property of the image: the angle of rotation and orientation, the direction of movement. They are called “feature detectors”: line detectors, edge detectors. The work was extremely successful, and Hubel and Wiesel were awarded the Nobel Prize for them. Later, already in experiments on humans, neurons were discovered that respond to more complex stimuli – detectors of faces and even specific faces (the famous “Jennifer Aniston neuron”).

Hubel and Wiesel Cat Experiment
Hubel and Wiesel’s cat experiment

So the idea of ​​Gestalt was replaced by a hierarchical approach. Any object is a set of features, each of which is responsible for its own group of neurons. In this sense, the whole image that the Gestaltists talked about is simply the activation of higher-order neurons.

But not everything was so simple. More recent experiments have shown that we often grasp the whole picture much earlier than individual elements. If you are shown the initial picture of a bicycle for a fraction of a second, then you will confidently report that you saw a bicycle, but you are unlikely to say whether it had pedals. The conclusions spoke about the presence of a gestalt effect. This went against the idea of ​​a cascade of neurons recognizing signs from the simplest to the most complex.

As an answer, the theory of the reverse hierarchy arose – when we look at something, the neurons responsible for the big picture react the fastest, and those that recognize the details are pulled up behind them. This approach was closer to the Gestalt concept, but still left questions. Theoretically, there are infinitely many options for what may appear before our eyes. At the same time, the brain seems to know in advance which neurons to activate.

What is a gestalt in psychology and why to close it?

This “in advance” is the key to understanding gestures. We are talking about one of the most breakthrough ideas in understanding the work of the brain at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries – predictive coding. The brain does not just perceive and process information from the outside. On the contrary, he predicts what is happening “outside” and then compares the prediction with reality. Prediction is when higher level neurons send signals to lower level neurons. Those, in turn, receive signals from the outside, from the senses, and send them “upstairs”, reporting how much the predictions diverge from reality.

The main task of the brain is to minimize the error in predicting reality. The moment this happens, the gestalt occurs.

Gestalt is an event, not something static. Imagine that the “upper” neurons meet with the “lower” neurons and agree on what the reality is in a given place at a given time. Having agreed, they shake hands with each other. This handshake is a few hundred milliseconds long and will be a gestalt.

The brain will not necessarily change predictions. He may also ignore reality. Remember Gestalt therapy and needs: they can exist at the most primitive level. In the distant past, recognizing an object meant seeing a predator in time and not being eaten, or finding something edible and not dying of hunger. In both cases, the goal is to adapt to reality, not to describe it with great precision.

Predictive Model — breakthrough model for gestalt psychology

The predictive model is a breakthrough model for Gestalt psychology

If the predictive model works, the organism receives positive reinforcement. Hence, there are two possible situations where the gestalt effect can occur:

  • The prediction is correct – we suddenly have a whole image, there is an “aha” effect. This is reinforced by the release of dopamine. When you recognize a familiar face in the crowd or finally understand what you could not understand for a long time – this is the very “aha” effect. On it is built art that constantly violates our expectations.
  • The prediction remains the same – we, as it were, automatically see imaginary objects, the same triangle. There is also logic in this – the brain does not spend extra energy to correct the model of the world. This has been shown in experiments. Gestalt effects coincided witha decrease in activity in the corresponding areas of the visual cortex.

Images that show the gestalt effect, like many other optical illusions, use these mechanics. They kind of hack our perception system. The “Rubin Vase” or “Necker Cube” force the brain to constantly correct predictions and provoke a series of “aha-effects”. Imaginary triangles, volumes, perspectives, on the contrary, are so deeply rooted in perception and have worked so well in the past that the brain prefers to rely on them rather than reality.

Drawings showing the gestalt effect
Drawings showing the gestalt effect

The idea of ​​Gestalt opens a window into the structure of our perception. Recent advances in brain research suggest that the world for each of us is a kind of controlled hallucination. It is not so important whether our internal “map of the area” is consistent with the territory of reality, if it allows us to satisfy all needs. If it does not allow, the brain makes the necessary adjustments.

What is a gestalt in psychology and why to close it?

Scientist Anil Seth talks about the so-called “guided hallucinations”

Gestalts arise on the border of contact between our model of the world and reality. They help to perceive the world in its integrity.

Gestalt therapy also speaks of an integral perception of reality and the boundary of contact with the world. But unlike Gestalt psychology, it is not about the perception of triangles or even faces, but about more complex phenomena – behavior, needs and problems with their satisfaction. Thanks to recent advances in brain research and sophisticated computational models, we have a better understanding of the nature of gestalts.

There is a chance that in the foreseeable future this will help people solve problems that are really important to them and close old gestalts.

What is gestalt

“Gestalt is a kind of holistic structure, an image consisting of many parts, signs, combined into one figure,” says psychologist, gestalt therapist and teacher Olga Lesnitskaya. She explains that a great example of a gestalt is a piece of music that can be transposed into different keys, which will cause all the notes to change, but you will not stop recognizing it – the whole structure will remain the same. When a piece of music is played out, the listener has a feeling of completeness, the integrity of the form. And if the musician ends his performance on the penultimate, usually dominant chord, then the listener will have a feeling of incompleteness, suspension and expectation. “This is an example of an unfinished, unclosed gestalt,” the specialist emphasizes. 

An example of an incomplete gestalt is a performance for which a person has been preparing for a long time, but did not dare to go out and show himself

If we transfer this musical metaphor to life, events and situations are most often called gestalts: closed gestalts cause a feeling of satisfaction, which later frees up attention and energy for the new; unclosed – continue to occupy a place in the mind, spending psychic energy. 

Therefore, any unrealized process, desire, intention, something that did not end in the desired way and did not cause a corresponding experience, is called an unclosed gestalt by psychologists in Gestalt technique. “If the experience was strong, then over time, the person’s mental defenses suppress and force him out, the severity of the experience decreases, the person may not even remember the situation,” explains Lesnitskaya. An example of an unfinished gestalt is a performance for which a person has been preparing for a long time, but has not dared to go out and show himself. Or failed relationships that could be if a person decided to say words of love. “Also, for example, it can be an insult to parents for some event, which now seems to have been forgotten, but at that moment it became the starting point for increasing the distance.

The whole is more incredible than the parts

What is a gestalt in psychology and why to close it?

There is a picture in front of you. If you don’t have neurological or screen problems, then you see a bike. It is the bicycle as a whole object, and not its separate parts. Psychologists say that the brain tends to form a holistic picture –



At the beginning of the 20th century, a group of experimental psychologists – Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka – studied the features of human perception. They were interested in how we manage to adequately perceive this seemingly chaotic, stimulating and unpredictable world. The result of their work was a new direction – Gestalt psychology.

“Gestalt” literally translates from German as “form” or “figure”. In Russian it sounds more like “integrity”. We perceive, say, a melody precisely as a melody, and not as a set of separate sounds. This principle—it is called holism—is central to Gestalt psychology. As Kurt Koffka wrote, the whole created by our perception is fundamentally different than the sum of its parts. Not just more, but qualitatively different.

From the whole mass of signals, our perception singles out a certain image, and the rest becomes its background. Surely you have come across the “Rubin Vase” – a classic example of circulating figures.

Rubin's vase — classic depiction of revolving figures used in Gestalt psychology

The Rubin vase is a classic depiction of revolving figures used in Gestalt psychology.

In it you can see either a vase or two profiles, but not both at the same time. The figure and the background enter into relations with each other and give rise to a new property.

Gestalt is a holistic image that we “grab” from the entire surrounding space.

“Figure and ground” is not the only principle of human perception that Gestalt psychologists have described.

Gestalt principles

Gestalt principles

  • Similarity:objects of the same size, color, shape, shape are perceived together.
  • Proximity:We group objects that are close to each other.
  • Closure:we try to complete the drawing so that it takes on its full shape
  • Adjacency: itis enough for objects to be close in time or space for us to perceive them as a whole image.

Gestalt principles work well, for example, in design. When a web page or

application is poorly laid out — wrong fonts are chosen , objects are misaligned or grouped incorrectly — you will have the feeling that something is wrong here, even if you are not a professional designer. For example, as in this paragraph.

What is a gestalt in psychology and why to close it?

What do you need to know about Gestalts

  • Gestalt is a holistic image created by our perception.An image, a person’s face, a melody or an abstract idea, we perceive immediately and entirely.
  • Gestalt psychology at the beginning of the 20th century described many features of our perception.For example, how do we group objects that are similar to each other or are just close together. Today, these rules are actively applied in design and art.
  • In the 21st century, the idea of ​​gestalt is once again attracting interest, this time in the context of brain research.Gestalt in a broad sense shows how the brain creates a model of the world. Through neural feedback circuits, the brain constantly compares predictions with reality. Renewal of the model of reality gives birth to gestalt. Thanks to this, we perceive the world as one and whole, and not as a chaotic set of incentives.
  • Gestalt therapy is also about a holistic perception of the world and contact with the environment.Only here we are not talking about neural circuits, but about the psyche, behavior and needs. The human psyche strives for integrity, balance, but for this it constantly needs to satisfy needs and come into contact with the environment. When a need (anything from going to the toilet to implementing a multi-year plan) is satisfied, the gestalt is said to be closed.

What does it mean to close a gestalt

“It is important for us that the image is whole, complete,” says psychopractitioner, Gestalt therapist Maria Kryukova. “For example, a picture in which a triangle has no corners, or a word written with omission of vowels, we will still perceive as a whole and understand what the author had in mind, automatically bringing it to a complete image. We “finish” the missing. It is this principle of wholeness, also called holism, that is central to Gestalt psychology.

That is why we hear music as a melody, and not as a set of sounds, we see the picture as a whole, and not as a set of colors and objects. According to the Gestalt approach, in order for the perception to be “correct”, it is important to complete it, complete it, find a place for the missing puzzle and find the puzzle itself. Sometimes closing a gestalt is vital. “Imagine a situation in which you are very thirsty. And a glass of water is what you need now, – he gives an example of the importance of closing Kryukov’s gestalts. – You will look for this glass of water, simultaneously imagining the desired image on the machine – a glass or a bottle, cool or warm, with a slice of lemon or already any, in the end, if only water. And if there is a table in front of you, laden with your favorite dishes, your eyes will still look for water. Food will not satisfy the need for water. But when you drink the need will be satisfied, the gestalt will be considered complete, complete. The desire to drink will lose its relevance. And a new desire will arise.

Incomplete gestalts in relationships

As is often the case, unclosed gestalts also occur in personal relationships. One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon is the experience of parting or losing a person, when something remains unclear, unspoken. “And then it’s quite difficult for a person to let go of the image of a loved one, to survive a breakup,” explains Lesnitskaya. “He replays the parting situation over and over again, picks up words that he didn’t say, his attention and energy are occupied with this process.” According to the psychologist, in the event of a loss, when a loved one passes away, prolonged mourning of one and a half to two years is a normal process that takes time. But if mourning stretches for five, seven, 10 years, we can talk about an unfinished cycle of loss, about getting stuck on it. “There is a difficulty in closing the gestalt, because the person is no longer there, but the words that he wants to say are there.

When parting with a partner, one can also talk about getting stuck and an unclosed gestalt, if the years go by, and the person continues to remember and experience old feelings, scroll through the options for parting that has already happened, or scenarios for resuming relationships. “Parting with someone in the middle of a sentence, without an end to a relationship, understatement – all this can remain with us for the rest of our lives, get stuck in our memory and become a bleeding wound,” says psychopractitioners.

Often there are incomplete gestalts in parent-child relationships

An unclosed gestalt in family relationships can be, for example, a delayed and unfulfilled desire to have children, Lesnitskaya gives another example. When, for example, one partner is not ready or does not want to have children, and the other agrees, although for him, in fact, it is important to become a parent. Then the one who made concessions, over and over again meets with resentment, irritation and doubts about the value of the relationship and the correctness of his choice. 

Often there are incomplete gestalts in parent-child relationships. “Situations arise in which an adult cannot find a common language with his parents precisely because of incomplete gestalts,” says Kryukova. “It happens that at some point in an adult, feelings of anger and resentment suddenly become more active, he feels some negative emotions in himself in relation to his parents,” adds Lesnitskaya. — For example, when a client was a child, his parents didn’t come to visit him for Parents’ Day at the camp, or once they didn’t pick him up from kindergarten. And now he, already an adult, sharply feels resentment and even anger. Although, it would seem that the situation happened a long time ago. 

Unfinished Gestalt: Example and Influence

Consider, using the example of relationships, what an incomplete gestalt is. Parting, which occurs at the initiative of one of the partners, always causes a violent reaction from the second. In most cases, such breakups fall on a person unexpectedly and as if knocked down, forcing them to constantly think about what happened, return to the past and analyze what went wrong. Self-flagellation can last quite a long time and turns into a depressive state.

This is an incomplete gestalt in a relationship , since the abandoned partner made plans for the future, which collapsed in an instant, not at his will.

The sooner this gestalt is closed, the sooner a person will be able to return to a full life and start building new relationships without the negative impact of the previous ones.

Any gestalt strives for its completion, therefore, over time, it makes itself felt through our subconscious. Incomplete situations hold the psychological energy of a person, and therefore control his actions.

This happens as follows : in new situations, a person begins to react according to old patterns, recreating the old problem. The most dangerous are the emotionally rich, unclosed gestalts that remain after a breakup.

What is a gestalt in psychology and why to close it?

Why are unclosed gestalts dangerous?

Experts talk about the danger of unclosed gestalts. “Let’s say a person experienced rage, but he did not manage or did not dare to express this rage adequately and targeted. I couldn’t defend myself, protect myself, show strong emotion,” says Kryukova. – As a result, the need to express it will remain unsatisfied, and the gestalt will remain incomplete. A feeling of rage that has not been lived to the end, taking on hidden and insidious forms, will haunt a person. An irritation will sit inside him, which will constantly ask to come out, a person will look for situations (or even provoke them) in order to express aggression, the psychopractitioner explains. “And, most likely, he will express aggression towards people who have absolutely nothing to do with this,” adds Kryukova and gives an opposite example – “encapsulation” of emotions in himself, when a person with an open gestalt understands that the people around are not to blame for anything, and does not want to take it out on them. But such a “canned food” will poison a person from the inside. Moreover, persistent and prolonged rejection of some of their feelings, desires and relationships, in the end, leads to neurosis.

No less detrimental are the consequences of incomplete gestalts in personal relationships. “If a couple fails to talk, discuss, look for ways to fulfill the needs of everyone, close gestalts and move on to new ones, then over time, feelings of dissatisfaction, hopelessness, meaninglessness, inaudibility — and therefore feelings of their own uselessness — accumulate,” says the gestalt therapist Lesnitskaya. She explains that for someone this means the end of the relationship – the person distances himself and leaves them. For others, there may be several scenarios of development: for example, physical presence, but emotional withdrawal, accompanied by an increase in psychosomatic diseases. Another scenario is quarrels that arise out of the blue due to accumulated pain, family wars, open or with a touch of passive aggression, etc.

An incomplete gestalt will affect a person, his health, quality of life. There may be neuroses, problems with sleep, concentration. “But the most important thing is that incomplete processes are dangerous – they do not allow moving forward,” sums up Kryukova.

How to close a gestalt

“The good news is that closing a gestalt is not necessary with a specialist,” says Lesnitskaya, but adds that it can be done much more efficiently with a specialist, because if the gestalt is not closed, then something was not enough to complete it. “For example, skills, abilities, resources, support. Usually what was missing lies in the area of ​​​​a person’s blind spot. And it is the specialist who can see this and help restore clarity, ”explains the psychologist.

The development of gestalts is not a quick matter, it requires certain strengths, knowledge and will, but the result is worth it.

So, how do you close the gestalt yourself? One of the techniques is the “empty chair”. If there are unexpressed feelings for another person – mom, dad, brother, ex-partner, boss, departed relatives – then they can be worked on with the help of this technique. Choose a time and place where no one can disturb you, put two chairs opposite each other at a distance of one and a half to two meters, sit on one of them and imagine that a person is sitting opposite you to whom you want to say something. When you’re ready, start saying whatever you have: you can scream, swear, cry, ask questions. Then sit on his chair and imagine yourself in the role of this person, answer the claims and questions. After that, return to your chair and become yourself again, listen to what the interlocutor said to you and answer him. Maybe, 

“This technique can lead to the closure of the old gestalt, or it can be the first step to entering psychotherapy – each case is individual, it is important to be aware of this,” Lesnitskaya comments on the technique. “If very strong traumatic experiences come up, I would recommend contacting a Gestalt therapist and continue working with the help of a specialist.”

According to Kryukova, the development of gestalts is not a quick matter, it requires certain strengths, knowledge and will, but the result is worth it. “Working with gestalts destroys automatisms, that is, the habit of acting in a certain way in situations of the same type, without thinking about what, how and why you are doing. As a result, your thinking changes, you begin to behave differently and feel differently, ”the specialist sums up.

Gestalt therapy: what is it, who needs it

The purpose of Gestalt therapy : to teach a person to realize himself as a whole person, to feel his desires, needs, physiological and emotional processes in the body.

There are several basic gestalt therapy techniques that help to close the past situation that affects daily life in the present.

A fundamental concept in Gestalt therapy is awareness . This is not only awareness of yourself and your needs, but also the world around you. This term is interconnected with the so-called “here and now” technique, which allows you to let go of past grievances, not to adapt to someone’s interests, but to be yourself.

In turn, awareness brings a person to responsibility, which is also an important part of therapy. A person who takes responsibility realizes that life is formed on the basis of his decisions and actions. Working through deep-seated grievances, as well as situations that did not have their logical conclusion, helps to go the way to awareness and responsibility.

What to Expect from a Gestalt Therapist

The Gestalt therapist selects optics so that you can deal with the situation and look at it from a different angle. Together you explore what emerges in space—not just the client’s feelings, but the therapist’s reactions.

Also, the Gestalt therapist can and should share his or her response to the story. This is to make you aware of the spoken feelings better.

What is Gestalt Therapy?

Do you close gestalts?

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