What is a Gestalt?

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Developed by Fritz Perls, Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman, between the years 1940s and 1950s, Gestalt therapy, was named after the work of the Gestalt psychologists.
So what is ‘Gestalt’? Allow me dear readers, to explain the meaning of the word ‘gestalt’ through a story.

It is a story often told. Many of us have heard it as children. And many of us have heard different interpretations of it. The one I am about to narrate is purely my interpretation of it – my version of the story. And so here it is – the story of The Five Blind Men and the Elephant.
Five blind men set out to experience what an elephant feels like. On reaching the elephant each of them proceeded to touch a different part of the great animal.
One blind man touched the trunk of the elephant and said “ Elephant is like the branch of a tree.” Another one touched the ear of the elephant and said, “No, elephant is like a fan.” In response, the third one who touched the stomach of the elephant and said, “ You both are wrong, the elephant is like a drum!” The fourth blind man touched the leg of the elephant and said, “ The three of you are wrong. The elephant is like a pillar.” The last blind man touched the tail of the elephant and said, “You are all fools! The elephant is like a rope!”
A sighted man who was passing by, happened to hear their squabble and stopped on his tracks. He went near them and explained, “ None of you are wrong. And yet, none of you are right either! The elephant is not simply the parts you mentioned. It is made up of the parts combined together, the like you mentioned, and more. These parts come together in a certain pattern, and the whole of it is perceived in a certain way, which comes under the label, the concept of an elephant, for people.”

The blind men did not understand him fully. So, one of them beseeched him, “ O’ wise man. We did not understand fully well what you mean. What do you mean when you say the elephant is like the parts we mentioned and more, and yet not like them?”

The sighted man replied, “ The elephant is a unified whole made of individual parts, the like of which you mentioned. But the elephant cannot be described, and its properties cannot be derived by summing up its parts. An elephant is not simply a collection of ears, a trunk, or stomach, or legs. Or in your case as you said, a fan, a branch, a rope, a drum, or a pillar! Also, none of you felt the tusks of the elephant. The tusks are like solid pipe. You didn’t touch the head, the eyes. Besides, we are only talking about the physical parts that make up an elephant. Even, beyond the physical parts, there is so much more that creates the elephant. Its memory, its feelings, its perceptions, its smell, its consciousness and so on. All these elements come together in a particular pattern to create something else, a unified whole, which is completely different from the individual parts that create it, and has a life of its own.”

Another blind man spoke up saying, “ Thank you O’ wise one we understood. I have more questions though. What did you mean when you said “perceived in a certain way”. What other way is there to perceive an elephant? And what did you mean when you said it all ‘comes under the concept of an elephant’?”

The sighted wise man smilingly replied, “Not just an elephant. What I am saying applies to everything and everyone in life. There are many ways to perceive something. But for now, taking the example of the elephant, each of you after touching the separate parts of the elephant described it based on your previous experiences and associations to various objects. Each of you came up with something different.

For all you know, another blind man will come up with a completely different interpretation of the same part! If the stomach of the elephant seems like a drum to you, because you touched both the sides, for another person who touches just one side it could be like a wall! I just mentioned that the tusks are like solid pipe, but for another man who touches them they could appear to be like small spears!

To answer the second part of your question, about the concepts, well we human beings match what we see to familiar patterns and concepts stored in our memories, even if what we see isn’t a perfect fit. Our brain always finds a near match and fills in the gaps of what we think we should see.

For example, if the elephant we see in front of us has a ear, tusks, or the tail, missing, we human beings still have the concept and pattern of an elephant stored in the brain. So, even without the missing parts, our brain fits this pattern we see into our stored concept, and pattern, of an elephant. Our brains will automatically fill in the gaps to fit the object into the concept of an elephant. And so an elephant it is.

I am pretty sure you will be confused once I bring a tapir for you to touch, and interpret how you perceive it. ”
“ What is a tapir?” asked one of the blind men.

“Ah! Now, as for that, wouldn’t it be interesting to find out from your perspective what is a tapir?!” replied the wise man. “You came up with some very interesting interpretations of the elephant’s parts. I am sure your interpretations of the tapir will be even more engaging and interesting, now that your brain has stored a concept and pattern of an elephant. But that’s another story!”
And so dear readers, for now, this story ends here.
Or wait …does it end here really? Are there more interpretations of this story of the blind men and the elephant?
Actually, yes there are. There are many ways to interpret this story. And this is one of the ways I interpret it, for in this way, it brings out brilliantly for me the meaning of the word Gestalt or the underlying concept of Gestalt theory.


The word Gestalt has been borrowed from the German word ‘Gestalt’, which, according to the English language ‘loosely’ means, “form”, “shape”, “build”, or ‘completeness’.
The verb of Gestalt is ‘gestalten’ which can be translated as, “to shape something/someone’s personality; to give significant structure to, to create, arrange, organise, and to build.”

So the word Gestalt means any perceived whole which has a meaningful structure and a boundary, and is made up of individual parts placed together in a specific configuration. The properties of this whole cannot be derived by simply summing up the parts.
This new whole is completely different from the individual parts which created it, and has a life of its own, an independent existence. The elephant, in the story above, is a gestalt.

In our lives at any given point in time, anything and anyone can be a gestalt. It can be, a voice, car, a bus, a movie, a wall, a dog, a biscuit etc. They are all gestalts, points of focus in our awareness, perceived in a certain way. They arise out of our contact with the environment, contact with something other than ourselves. They are all made up of parts which constitute a whole and exist in our reality, as much as we exist in theirs. Infact these gestalts constitute the elements of our realities in which we exist.

A gestalt always comprises of a figure with definite boundaries which is the point of focus for a person’s awareness at any point in time, against an unformed background.
The gestalt here comprises of the main figure,the elephant, all the other parts or elements by which we understand an elephant is the ground (background).

This brings us to the next section of Figure / Ground.

You can also see the Main Aspects of Gestalt Therapy.

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