Notes on Field Theory in Gestalt Therapy

The field theory is a gestalt therapy term that warrants interest. Psychotherapy practitioners who consider the field and know how to use this insight in their clinical work can expect better outcome. Lately, there has been “ripples in the field” among gestalt therapy researchers on the topic of field theory and treatment of psychopathological symptoms like anxiety (Francesetti, 2007).

The challenge is in understanding the concept of field in gestalt therapy. The word “field” is associated with different levels of meanings as highlighted by Staemmler (2006). When we consider fields of corn, a football field, a professional field, we may understand the nuances of meaning the word brings. In the scientific arena, we think of magnetic field in physics. In psychology, the field implies mutually interdependent facts or phenomena. The notes below is a summary of the Staemmler article plus my reflections on it.

Field-Staemmler-notes

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In the article there is an attempt at formulating an understanding of “field” in gestalt therapy with the use of lexicon of English words. What ultimately happens is a kind of looping of ideas and argument on the subject.

Another approach to understanding Field

My preference at understanding abstract psychological concept like “field” in gestalt therapy is to use metaphor or what I am calling here “isomorphic universes”. Isomorphism are structurally similar processes that underlie our lived experiences. Observing isomorphic universes, we may be able to understand our human experiences better. This is a way of understanding by feeling as opposed to understanding by explanation with words.

I got this idea to use ants and ant nests as an isomorphic universe to illustrate the field in the world of human experiences after reading Hofstadter’s (1981) charming story, Prelude… Ant Fugue.

Gestalt Therapy Field Theory according to Ants

First is to observe and understand ant colonies:

In this video, the organized nature of an ant colony is compared to human societies except that “this organization does not arise from higher level decisions, but it is part of a biological cycle.” Consider that the field in gestalt therapy is also described as “biological knowledge” (K. Goldstein) and “intra-orgamismic” (Perls and Heferline). This could imply that as humans, we make decisions consciously and are also maneuvered by biological knowledge outside our consciousness.

Ants observed as individuals seem to be autonomous. However when we get a chance to focus on these creatures as a colony, we can appreciate the structure of their “field”. Individual ants as part of the colony react to stimuli from the environment. In contact with a food source or danger signals, the individuals in the colony react somatically. These individuals spontaneously produce pheromones and move their bodies in response to these stimuli. Pheromones and physical contact with each other affect individual ants in the field, which in turn respond and affect the other ants.

Another video about ant colonies.

The understanding of “field” according to the ant colony can be appreciated as mutually interdependent processes that connects the organism and the physical environment. Since it involves mutual interdependence of individuals, we can also see the social aspect of colonies.

When we look at human communities, can appreciate how a person is “of their own field”. Kurt Lewin (1951) used the term “life space (L)” ; the combination of the individual organism (P) with their psychological environment (E) as it exists for this individual.

L=P+E

Consider that for each individual ant (and human) there is a continuous flow of data dynamically being received and presented at the same time from the field and to the field.

Human communities form what Hofstadter (1981) terms “representational systems”, which are “active, selfupdating collection of structures organized to ‘mirror’ the world as it evolves”, like countries, organizations, cultures, families. These systems appear to define themselves through psychological decision making of individuals. Psychological decisions made are in response to environmental and social interactions. The environment and societies return feedback. The environment and societal influences affect the individual (P) physically. Individuals act in a way motivated by own needs in response to their psychological environment (E). The presence of this individual in the field is their life space (L).

5 Principles of Field in Gestalt therapy

Parlett’s (1991) 5 principles deepens our understanding of field in Gestalt therapy. These are the principle of

1. Organization, 2. Contemporaneity, 3. Singularity, 4. Changing process, 5. Possible Relevance.

In our ‘representational systems’ as with ants in ant colonies, we can perceive how the field 1. organizes societies and individuals in their roles. We can see 2. how individuals in the system act in the here-and-now, as consequence to the field. This is not a matter of cause and effect, but rather a consequence of being of or belonging to the field. 3. Each individual’s life space is unique to each situation. 4. the field changes continuously (the time element). 5. Everything that the individual does and feels has possible relevance to the field. Everything in the here-and-now is inherently relevant.

“The five principles laid out above are overlapping and not discrete. Rather they are five windows through which we can regard field theory, exploring its relevance in practice.”

Parlett

The 5 principles are useful in for our work in gestalt therapy. The therapist stays in the here-and-now of the session, and is aware that everything observed is of the field.

Using the Field in Practice

A therapist’s ability to use the field is an asset that contributes positive client outcomes.

Consider again ants. If an ant would decided to abandon colony life, what would its fate look like? The field around this ant changes. It leaves the physical environment of the colony that supports its source of food and protection. This isolated ant is not expected to thrive.

Human beings, unlike ants, have more complex psychological structures. We are able to introspect and reflect on ourselves. We have a sense of self. Often this sense of self or identity leads us to deny the existence of the field. Remember that the field is not the same thing as a community or a system. An individual may be active in a community or a group but be simultaneously in conflict with the needs that emerge from the field. This happens out of awareness.

The field includes the mutually interdependent processes that form or create — the word in German is incidentally, gestalten — the representational system or community.

A person who is not adequately or appropriately supported by the field creatively adjusts to their environment.

Psychopathology in relation to the Field

Like many of my gestalt therapist colleagues, I am no fan of diagnosis. The term psychopathology used here is necessary means of describing symptoms experienced by clients seeking therapy. However, let us consider the following symptoms and their inter-relation between organism and it’s field.

The experience of being separated from the system: The organism finds itself as part of an over-exposed and unprotected field. There is a pervasive feeling of anxiety and panic.

The experience of being abandoned and forgotten by the environment: The organism finds itself part of a lacking, unsupportive, unnourishing field. The experience may feel like depression.

The experience of being in an intrusive environment. The organism finds itself of a field of isolation as a means of protection from being sapped of resource. The experience is of being isolated and schizoid.

The experience of being in a hurtful or dangerous environment. The organism finds itself of a fearful field. There is a need to dissociate the self from the field.

The experience of being squeezed out or non-existent in the environment. The organism finds itself of a field in which the needs of the organism are unworthy of attention, because survival the system is more important. The experience may feel like co-dependency.

Observing the field in gestalt therapy as a way to understand psychopathological states requires the therapist to engage in aesthetics. This is counter-intuitive and often a odds the medical model of psychiatry. Using the field, we do not diagnose the client as a person in isolation. We take the holistic view of the field and the organism as part of it.

Application of Field Theory in Practice

There exists writings on how the field theory in Gestalt therapy is experienced in psychotherapeutic practice, on how the pathos of the field, emerges during the therapeutic encounter.

In my recent papers, I have taken on Francesetti’s illumination on sensing the “aesthetics of the field” in therapy. These papers can be accessed below:

Pain and beauty: from the psychopathology to the aesthetics of contact1
Gianni Francesetti

Bibliography

Francesetti, G. (Ed.). (2007). Panic Attacks and Postmodernity. Gestalt therapy between clinical and social perspectives. FrancoAngeli.

Hofstadter, D. R. (1981). Prelude… Ant Fugue. In The mind’s I: fantasies and reflections on self and soul. Dennett, D. C., & Hofstadter, D. R. (Eds.).Harvester Press. p. 149.

Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science: selected theoretical papers (Edited by Dorwin Cartwright.).

Parlett, M. (1991). Reflections on field theory. The British Gestalt Journal1(1), 69-80. URL: http://itgt.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Reflections-on-Field-Theory-Parlett.pdf

Staemmler, F. (2006). A Babylonian Confusion?: On the Uses and Meanings of the TermField’. British Gestalt Journal15(2), 64.

How Bobby Mcferrin explains Gestalt Theory with this Act

Bobby McFerrin  is famous for his hit song, “Don’t Worry Be Happy”. In this video, he demonstrates how the crowd intuitively synchronizes to the pentatonic scale. Ferrin says, “What’s interesting to me about that, is, regardless of where I am, anywhere, every audience gets that.”

How can we use this act to explain the Gestalt therapy theory?

    • Closing the Gestalt. The brain of most humans find completion in the pentatonic scale. This is a pattern of notes one would hear when one plays only the black keys on the piano. To the human brain, this note-pattern closes itself in a harmonious way (i.e. it just sound right).  This is how McFerrin is able to rely on the crowd’s intuition to “play” the music.

  • Field Theory. The crowd, the men on stage and the atmosphere make up the field. McFerrin harnesses and motivates to make a unified sound. If, for example, something in the middle of the performance distracts the crowd (for example, an explosion, or if the electricity breaks down) the focus of the crowd would be dissipated, and there would be, instead of a unified presence, chaos.
  • Phenomenology. McFerrin does not push the crowd to play the music like he would push piano keys. This would not be possible. In order to get so many people to sing in the same tune, he has to judge when the right moment is to act (to jump, or to say something or to make a mimic). This sensing of the crowd is the sensing of the phenomenology of the field.
  • Contact. When we can “tune in” to the other, we make contact. Each member in the crowd sings with his own voice and tone. Each is different, but together they are in contact.

McFerrin says, it works all the time. Yes. The theory of Gestalt Therapy is more than humanistic. It is a theory of phenomenon and contact. The other men on stage says that there is some neuro-biology involved. Yes. There is. This is how the theory of Gestalt therapy functions, through contact leading to physiological change.

On Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy is a modality of psychotherapy which is founded on philosophical principles to guide the practicing therapist towards meeting and supporting the client authentically for who he/she is.  The pillars of Gestalt therapy theory include: the field theory, contact process, phenomenology, and the closing of the gestalt.

The therapeutic aspect of Gestalt therapy happens when the client is able to come into contact with his/her disowned aspects of his/her personality (“the dark side”, some would say). Often these are realities that are too painful or shameful to acknowledge, but are at the same time ever-present in the the life of the person. The effort (usually unconscious) of putting away these disowned parts of the self, utilizes a lot of energy, and is the source of inner conflicts, stress, depression and in severe cases, psychosis.

The Gestalt therapy work is to provide the patient a safe environment to play out, and experience these disowned parts of the self. In the process, the patient learns about these parts, and is given the ability to integrate these parts in their present lives. The net result is a better, less stressful quality of life and also better relationship with others.