The Gestalt School of Psychology and it’s influence on how the discipline of Psychology evolved

The Gestalt School of Psychology is the topic of week 3 of the course Introduction to Psychology. Like Psychoanalysis and Behaviorism, this was also an important school of Psychology in the early twentieth century with a totally different origin in the field of science as opposed to mental health and illness in the case of Psychoanalysis and Philosophy in the case of Behaviorism. It did not survive as a school and is largely unknown, although sometimes confused with the method of therapy call Gestalt Therapy although there is no relationship between the two.

Psychoanalysis and Behaviorism: two major schools of Psychology 20th Century

Before moving on to the topic of the Behavioral School of Psychology (first half of the twentieth century) I want to make a brief comparison between the two competing schools, the former emerging from the field of Mental Health and Mental Illness, and the latter emerging within the field of  Science. Both were a departure from traditional dualist models of mind, the key difference is that Psychoanalysis began as a theory of both mind and behavior, while the Behaviourists focused exclusively on behavior believing that it was impossible to study the mind directly in the scientific sense because it was not objectively observable or measurable.

In a sense both were right but they were also both wrong. Here’s how:

  1. Freud’s theory (Psychoanalysis) was theoretical, derived mainly from experience and case study research. Although it’s arguably the first bio-psycho-social theory, it relied predominantly on the theory of the unconscious mind which tells us nothing about how the mind works in a scientific sense. Freud’s theory of development attempted to explain the mind at a time when no one actually knew anything about the nature of the human mind in terms of how it actually develops and how it functions. Assumptions led to a focus that was  exclusively on childhood, resulting in a lot of blaming of parents, especially mothers. Actually, infants come into the world with biological traits and predispositions to develop in particular directions and although childhood is a critical time for development we continue to develop throughout our lives. Freud was wrong about personality, and his concept of ‘ego’ or ‘self’ is not supported by scientific research. Nonetheless, Psychoanalysis was certainly a move in the direction of science having been influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution. It was a complete theory that attempted to explain everything and remains popular to the present day, although not in the mainstream of psychology which is now a scientific field. It has continued to exist as an independent school of Psychology greatly influencing therapy, social science, and the arts.
  2. Behaviorism also fell short of how we carry out scientific research today. It started with a belief that all human behaviour is learned and conditioned through the environment, and set out to demonstrate how this works. Nowadays, scientists test theories and attempt to disprove them rather than the other way round. In a sense, Behaviorism was more like Psychoanalysis than contemporary Psychology. Both were strongly influenced by the same cultural view of human nature. Yet the Behaviorists only focused on one side of the equation. In fairness, the famous Behaviorist John Watson wrote in 1913 that psychology researchers would eventually discover methods to study phenomena like mind and language. Similarly, Freud maintained that internalised behaviours were essential so that people could adapt their natural inclinations to the needs of society allowing them to function effectively in the world.  Behaviorists were able to explain how this internalisation works but in time psychologists and scientists discovered that there’s a lot more involved and Behaviorism did not survive as an independent school of Psychology. However, their discoveries, which have been greatly refined by testing, remain important in the field of psychology today.

Psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, what’s the difference?

Teaching Psychology evening classes over the years I’ve become  very aware that the majority of people don’t understand the different psychological professions so here are three definitions that should be useful for those attempting to understand Psychology in the context of mental health and working through life problems. I will provide more specific information  as we proceed through the course but for now here are some of the basics. Please feel free to comment if you disagree and I’ll review what I’ve written. As a Psychologist, I’m writing this from a particular point of view and I’m always happy to receive feedback.

  1. Psychology, as taught in Universities in Ireland, Europe and America is defined as The scientific study of human behaviour and how the mind works. Mainstream Western psychology is a scientific field. Psychologists must have a degree or post graduate diploma in Psychology as recognised by the professional associations. In Ireland, it’s the PSI (Psychological Society of Ireland). Psychologists specialise in different fields of Applied Psychology in their post-graduate training. A primary degree or diploma is required to be a member of the PSI. Clinical Psychology, Counselling Psychology, and Neuropsychology are the areas of Applied Psychology  mainly involved in the fields of mental health, psychological and life problems, and disability.
  2. Psychiatry is a specialist field of medicine. Psychiatrists must have a medical degree before specialising in the treatment of mental illnesses and serious mental health problems. They often work alongside Clinical Psychologists in hospitals, and like other psychological professionals, they often work in private practice.
  3. Psychotherapy is a third independent profession with a particular type training. Psychotherapists mainly work in private practice in Ireland in one on one therapy with people who have mental health problems and life problems resulting from stress, trauma, and early life. Most psychotherapists have a primary degree before going on to train as psychotherapists. Usually, this involves three years of training leading to a Diploma with an optional fourth year to upgrade to a Masters. However, the training of psychotherapists is quite varied and some go straight into training without a primary degree. There are about a dozen different widely used types of psychotherapy. These are often referred to as modalities. Some psychotherapists work with a particular modality and are sometimes referred to ‘purists’. Others  integrate two, three or more modalities, often referred to as an integrative approach. There are also psychotherapists who specialise in particular mental health problems for example eating disorders. It can be a good idea to question a Psychotherapist on their training and what modalities they work with.

Freud’s theory and Autism

Before talking about Autism it’s important to understand something about what happened to Freud’s psychosexual theory of development and his theory of ‘how the mind works’.

Freud’s theory about children’s development has not been supported by scientific research and has been rejected by mainstream psychology. The scientific field of Children’s psychological and behavioural development is massive. We now know a lot about what’s best in terms of children’s development including an understanding of how to work best with children who have behavioural difficulties and mental health problems. This is not often reflected in mainstream culture, which is a sad reality. Parents are not required to have training and many teachers continue to believe in traditional practices that are not supported by research. Many therapists are left to pick up the pieces of the broken lives of people, knowing that many of their problems originate in childhood. I would argue that this is not the fault of Freud or any other theory from Psychology that has been demonstrated to be unsound. Ironically, many therapists recognise how the individual’s development has been stalled in childhood and work through a process to help the person develop and grow.

I would argue that this is not the fault of Freud or any other theory from Psychology that has been demonstrated to be unsound following years of testing. The most important legacy of Freud was his discovery of the value of talking therapies and the therapeutic relationship. Science has identified how unconscious much of our mental processes are although the scientific view about how the mind works is radically different to Freud’s theory which is now often regarded a social science theory of mind rather than a scientific theory about how the mind works.

One of the saddest stories, where Freud’s theory has been wrongly applied in the treatment of children, is in the case of autism. Psychologists and psychiatrists who followed Freud’s beliefs that the ego develops in children through a series of psychosexual stages in which parent-child relationships (particularly the mother-child relationship) is key. Based on this belief, autistic children were institutionalised in large numbers in order to separate them from their mothers who were believed to cause autism in children, condemning a generation of autistic children to a lifetime of psychosis and mental illness. Now we know that autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder with a strong genetic basis. Through scientific research, many autistic individuals live normal lives. Special education is now recognised as the key treatment for autism,

Freud’s Theory of Mind

Freud believed that our conscious mind is only the tip of the iceberg and that deep in the unconscious there was a dynamic mind that played a central role in behaviour. He described the structure of the unconscious mind in terms of the id, the ego, and the superego. Simply stated, the id can be understood as corresponding to biological instincts, and drives such as the sex drive. On the other hand, he maintained that we internalise social behaviours that are necessary to live in the world. He called this the Superego. The individual’s Ego, or personality, develops to manage the needs of the id so that the person can live successfully within society. The id is said to be pleasure-seeking, while the ego represents a reality principle. In other words, our needs must be met within the reality of the world we live in. Based on this theory it could be argued that conformity is necessary for social cohesion.

In the contemporary world, there are many debates about ‘personal freedom’, which appears to be very important to us individually.  Questions about human nature and the impact of unreasonable demands are often seen in terms of oppressive social conditions that impact on our capacity to develop and thrive. Sigmund Freud is reputedly the most famous of all psychologists. He Psychology emerged in a world where freedom, human rights and democracy opened up new and unimagined possibilities for human development. Although Freud’s Psychology has largely been overtaken by science, his influence continues to be widespread in counselling and psychotherapy and indeed, throughout western culture throughout the social sciences and the arts. Although the existence of the unconscious mind, as described by Freud, is disputed by science and scientific psychology, it remains controversial, and popular for many people.

Influences on Freud’s Psychology

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a medical doctor who became  interested in mental illness in a time when it was common to lock up anyone who’s behaviour was considered deviant, in large institutions where the conditions were usually appalling. Most people believed that mental illness was untreatable. However, there was an important medical debate in that time which questioned whether, so-called abnormal behaviour, was caused by organic brain disease or whether there could be psychological causes. Freud’s research led him to believe that many psychological problems have psychological causes and therefore it was possible to develop psychological treatments. Freud became part of an intellectual medical group, of doctors and neurologists, know as the Nancy School (because it originated in Nancy, a town in France).

Influenced by Charles Darwin, Freud created a school of Psychology called Psychoanalysis based on a biological view of the mind. He believed that instincts played an important role in human behaviour. He developed his theory about how the mind works to explain how the personality develops in childhood to help the individual to balance their instinctual drives and desires with the need to live together with others within society. This is probably the first bio-psycho-social theory about ‘mind, self and behaviour’.

Course title: Introduction to Psychology

Course description

This course follows the main developments in Psychology from the beginning of the twentieth century until the present day. Each week a different topic is introduced beginning with three major schools of psychology from the first part of the twentieth century, Freud, Behaviourism and the Science of the Mind. These schools laid a foundation for psychology as we know it today. Week by week new topics will be introduced, topics that are typically found in a standard Introduction to Psychology textbook. The course promotes friendly conversation and there is an opportunity to get to know other students and make new friends. Each session will include a 50-minute lecture which will present the key points of a topic while leaving lots of room for questioning and discussion. This will be facilitated by a range of activities aimed to be enjoyable and engaging. Everyone will be free to opt in or out of any activity while still being able to take part in or sit back and listen to discussions. Handouts will be provided with a summary of the session content and recommended reading for the week. Links to online supporting resources including videos, articles and books, plus copies of the PowerPoint presentations will be made available online. Print copies of PowerPoint presentations can be provided on request.