History

In recent years Gestalt Therapy has attracted increasing attention both from clinicians as well as researchers. Research support for some of Gestalt Therapy’s most important theoretical concepts have come from such diverse fields as neuroscience, cognitive science, new studies on emotion, and the current research on the importance of the therapeutic relationship. Perhaps what accounts for this surprising concurrence lies in the manner in which Gestalt Therapy developed and the rich intellectual diversity of ideas which were integrated.

Fritz Perls, a psychiatrist, was exposed to some of the most advanced concepts in the neuroscience of the time through his work as an assistant in the laboratory of Kurt Goldstein (one of the founders of neuroscience) who was studying the cognitive and neurological characteristics of soldiers who had sustained brain injuries during World War I. From this experience Perls drew some of his concepts regarding organismic self regulation and wholism. Perls drew some of his existential and humanistic concepts from association with the relational/dialogic philosopher Martin Buber and Christian theologian, Paul Tillich. From Buber also came the concepts of the importance of ‘I-thou’ and authentic dialogue in psychotherapy. These two influential strands account for the current affinity of the gestalt approach with current cognitive neuroscience and humanism at the same time. In addition, Perls was trained as a psychoanalyst at the Berlin Institute after which he developed an affinity for the dissident analysts such as Karen Horney and Wilhelm Reich. The latter of which created in him an interest in body function and expression in psychological life. Other influences included the famed psychologist, Kurt Lewin and statesman, philosopher, Jan Smuts, the father of wholism.

Lore (Laura) Perls, brought to this duo an equally rich background. She received here doctorate at the Frankfurt/Main University where she studied with both Kurt Goldstein and Max Wertheimer, the primary founder of Gestalt Psychology where she was exposed to gestalt theories of perceptual organization and learning. She also studied with Martin Buber and Paul Tillich. Her supervisor in her psychoanalytic training was Otto Fenichel and her personal analysis was with Frieda Fromm-Riechman (distinguished by her fearless willingness to work with severely ill and psychotic patients), and Karl Landauer.

As the clouds of Nazism descended on Europe, Ernest Jones, the English psychoanalyst who arranged passage to South Africa for now married, Fritz and Lore Perls who had met at the Frankfurt Psychological Institute where Fritz was working as a laboratory assistant to Goldstein. In South Africa, Fritz and Lore collaborated on Ego, Hunger and Aggression in which they first broke with what they saw as the scattered associational and “historical-archeological” of the Psychoanalytic approach of the era to one which was wholistic as well as ‘existential-experiential.’

Until after World War II when Lore and Fritz Perls moved (anticipating the sinking of South Africa into Apartheid, this time with the help of Karen Horney) to New York, this approach was simply a somewhat dissident approach to Psychoanalysis. It was their collaboration with Paul Goodman who was instrumental in organizing the ideas (and adding material of his own) of that the couple had distilled from their varied backgrounds, many of which Fritz had written in an unpublishable form, which resulted in Gestalt Therapy, the now classical but seriously dated text in Gestalt Therapy. Its publication marked the emergence of a new approach to psychotherapy which was influenced by a richer academic and philosophical background than other therapies had been to this point. Added now were ideas such as the emphasis on the “here and now” focus on current experience (including of course the current experience of the past) from Zen introduced by psychologist Paul Weisz. Shortly to follow were, Behavior Therapy (Wolpe) and what is now called Cognitive Behavior Therapy (Ellis, Beck), also with a more academic albeit somewhat more narrow background.

For a number of ensuing years, both Fritz and Lore Perls were involved in different ways in teaching this new approach. Lore primarily in New York with occasional training trips elsewhere, while Frits and Isadore From became more involved in taking this new approach to other places beginning with Cleveland and then many other settings.

Fritz took his ideas to Los Angeles where he and Jim Simkin founded a training program out of which grew a plan to build a major Institute (with land, architectural plans). While this plan was interrupted by Perls’ death, the training program survived through both local (Los Angeles) programs as well as the European Summer Residential Training Programs described on this Web site.

Back to where we started, the current renewed interest in Gestalt Therapy. Many of the original ideas in Gestalt Therapy have infused Current Psychoanalysis, Dialectical Cognitive Behavior Therapy, indeed it is difficult to find a therapy that is not currently influence by the original ideas. As validational research continues to come from experimental psychology, other scientists such as Les Greenberg, Larry Beutler, Susan Johnson (using terms such as Process-Experiential, Emotionally Focused to describe the current evolution of Gestalt Therapy) have shown the remarkable effects of Gestalt and Gestalt related approaches to psychotherapy. Effect sizes that are comparable with therapies such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy and others have place the Gestalt approach as one of the Evidence Based Therapies as recently noted, for example, in Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change. Even more exciting is evidence that the generalization and continued positive change set Gestalt Therapy apart form other current therapies. In particular, there is an interest on the part of many Cognitive Behavior Therapists who appreciate the power of that approach but would like to incorporate something more human in their approach. They like the method but miss the “soul.” This has been an easy transition for many, as Gestalt Therapy overlaps in many ways with good Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

GATLA is proud to be a part of this cutting edge as psychotherapies become more integrative.