Relativistic Quantum Field Theory - Implications for Gestalt Therapy



   It may be an opportune time in the evolution of Gestalt theory to address how Gestalt therapy and physics have developed the terms “field” and “field theory” and the interrelationships between the two approaches. Gestalt therapist Malcolm Parlett among others has noted certain advances in physics that have moved beyond Maxwell’s initial formulation of the electromagnetic field. These include the quantum field, the relativitistic quantum field, and most recently Bohm’s and the work of others on relativistic quantum fields. These advanced notions of field are beyond the original field theory speculations of Smuts, Lewin, Wertheimer and some Gestalt therapy theorists. The possible implications of this expanded  perception of the field in physics for Gestalt therapy are outlined below both theoretically and clinically.



What are Nature and Self?

What are the field and its Knower,

knowledge and the object of knowledge?

Teach me about them Krishna.



I am the Knower of the field  (I think this is Krishna)

in everybody Arjuna.

genuine knowledge means knowing

both the field and the Knower

                              The Bhagavad Gita



              This paper is offered as a heuristic device to better understand the impact and application of field theory in Gestalt therapy and to refresh and enrich the dialogue between Gestalt therapy and other domains, specifically physics. In particular, to what extent are the terms ’field’ and field theory’ used as an epistemology (i.e. as a method of obtaining and validating knowledge) and as an ontology (i.e. expressing the nature of being),with the understanding that each term is not exclusive of the other.

              In the present state of physics there is an acceptance of ‘field’ as an ontological reality, although many Gestalt therapy writers relate to ‘field’ epistemologically as a metaphor or method. Parlett (2005) has  hinted at the exciting implications for Gestalt therapy in re-visiting the science that originated field theory conceptualisation, and, by extention, to consider the current state of relativistic quantum field theory.

Physics began with the simple concepts of mass, force, vectors and inertia that described the mechanics of the world and of the universe. This classical Newtonian physics posits that there are separate objects and separate forces that act on these objects. Similarly, psychology began with theories of inner and external forces that acted on or in the individual through drives, unconscious processes, reinforcement, will and motivation.


              In physics a new concept appeared  - the field. Beginning with electromagnetism and then light, the concept of field proved experimentally successful in describing and predicting reality. The field was seen at first as a way of representing vectors of force in a schematic drawing of forces (such as gravity), and as such purely a representation of reality.


Field as Representation


              The first stage of developing a field perspective of reality was to visualise and map the force that was operating in a field as vectors. At this point the field was used simply as a device, or method to assist with conceptualisation. By drawing these lines of force such as gravity, physicists were able to note the direction of the force, but not use it as a way to explain gravity. At this point it seemed fruitless to attempt to make the field more than a representation or model. (Einstein and Infield 1938). Thus, the field remained an epistemological tool - a field theory or method.


Field as Real


              It was the eventual scientific work with electricity, magnetism and then electromagnetism that began to establish the field as a reality.  While Newtons laws defined the motion of the earth as affected by the force of a far away sun, Maxwell’s theory was about a “here and now” field  as a whole - not two widely separated events. To Einstein and Infield (1938), this new  field conceptualisation was the most important discovery in physics since the time of Newton. With the advent of Maxwell’s four equations describing the structure of the electromagnetic field, there was born, in Einstein’s words, “a new reality”. 


“The electromagnetic field is, for the modern physicist, as real as the chair on which he sits”  (Einstein and Infield, 1938, p.151)


               Thus, the field had shifted from being simply an epistemology to an ontology - no longer just the field as theory, but the field as real.


Field and Matter as Real - the Relativistic Quantum Field


              Einstein and others had hoped that the shift from theory to reality would lead to a unified field theory, with matter conceptualised as points of concentrated energy in the singular field. Having integrated energy and matter, he now looked for matter as a concentrated form of field. However Einstein believed it was impossible to imagine a surface distinctly separating mass and field. This, and the advent of experiments requiring an acceptance of discontinuous quanta of energy and matter, left Einstein with the unacceptable conclusion that he was left with two realities matter and field.

“The theory of relativity stresses the importance of the field concept in physics. But we have not yet succeeded in formulating a pure field physics. For the present we must still assume the existence of both: field and matter.” (Einstein and Infield, 1938 pg 245)

              The existence of these two realities, field and matter, as described in relativity theory and quantum physics together, led to the naming of such as Relativistic Quantum Field Theory (Bohm & Hiley, 1993). Separately neither relativity theory nor quantum theory fully explains the phenomenon of light although together, as relativistic quantum field theory, they do. 


Field theory in Psychology and Gestalt therapy


              While physics en masse re-invented itself from the frame of Newtonian physics to that of relativistic quantum field theory, the majority of psychology remained more in the framework of the reductionist world of Descartes and Newton, wherein separate individuals can be measured, experimented on and predicted.


              Some psychologists, like Lewin, adopted an understanding of the field perspective viewing field as a representation or epistemology. Others such as Wertheimer, saw field as an ontological reality. Gestalt therapy contains both notions of field theory . In the following section we will consider these earlier theorists who described field theory in psychology and their influences on Gestalt therapy’s development. 


William James


              James, often considered the father of American psychology, was one of the earlier psychological pioneers to consider the field as a concept  relevant to psychology. He used the term field as a way of understanding the structure of consciousness and sugests that there were “fields of consciousness” rather than the traditional reductionist units of thought, memory,or idea. He states -

“… it (field of consciousness) is nevertheless there, and helps both to guide our behavior and determine the next movement of our attention. It lies around us like the ‘magnetic field’, inside of which our centre of energy turns like a compass needle, as the present phase of consciousness alters into its successor.”  (James 1902 in 1977  edition p. 233)


James began the speculation that classical Newtonian reality was not sufficient to understand our reality, particularly in psychology.


Gestalt Psychology


              Experimental Gestalt psychology and the work of Wertheimer, Koffka, Kohler, Fuchs, Gelb and others had a strong influence on Fritz and Laura Perls. This included  The later work of Kurt Goldstein in neurophysiology and Kurt Lewin in social science expanded that influence (Ellis 1938; Bowman 2005). The focus of the Gestalt school was on perception and related areas such as animal experiments, thought, psychical forces, and pathological phenomena (Ellis 1938). In studying the original theory as outlined by Wertheimer, the connection between this and the 1951 work of Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (PHG) becomes clear.

The fundamental formula for Gestalt theory, as outlined by Wertheimer (1938) provides a description of the field that is in every way consistent and agreeable with the work of Smuts and PHG:


“ There are wholes, the behavior of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole” (Wertheimer, 1925 in Ellis 1938, p. 2)


              Wertheimer saw clearly that Gestalt psychology was not a separate entity in itself, but rather a convergence of scientific and philosophical standpoints. It was equally as functional as mathematics, wherein a formula, whether mathematical or psychological, had a dynamic functional relationship to the whole. This included Gestalt psychology’s view of the ego, which was seen as a functional part of the total field, with the whole operating in the field and affecting behavior.


              The connection to subsequent Gestalt therapy theory is also explicit. The organism is part of a larger field of organism and environment, and the behavioural concepts of stimulus-sensation are replaced by alterations in field conditions and the total reaction of the organism (Wertheimer, 1925).Wertheimer goes further in a statement predating the concept of self in Gestalt therapy by talking of the meaningful, functioning whole of a group of people, such as children or South Sea Islanders. In such situations the “I” rarely stands out alone given that it is the wider organism of the group that exists. Finally, he puts out the challenge that mathematics need not only deal with piecemeal situations but also with the mathematics of the whole. In a somewhat predictive fashion he suggests that quantum physics may force mathematicians to consider developing a mathematics of the whole situation.


Kurt Lewin


              Lewin (1951) described Field theory as an epistemology (or methodology) in that it is simply a way of understanding reality and not the reality itself. He equates it more to a handicraft, in that methods like field theory can only be understood, learnt and mastered by ongoing practice.

“Field theory is probably best characterized as a method; namely, a method of analysing causal relations and building scientific constructs”. (Lewin, 1951, pg 45)

Behind Lewin’s field theory is a desire to express human behavior in scientific, mathematical terms.  Borrowing from physics, he talks of psychological force, power fields and the direction and velocity of behavior noting the parallel between time-space quanta and his own notion of “time-field-units” (Lewin, 1951, pg 52)

“I am convinced that these concepts which we use for the representation of psychological facts, like region, spacial relationship in life force, connectedness and separateness, belonging, etc., are real spacial concepts in a strict mathematical sense. It is very important for psychology to use these concepts in a strict and consistent way”  (Lewin, 1936, pg 42)

Lewin believed the strict and consistent use of these psychological concepts in mathematics was equivalent to the mathematics of physics. However, he intentionally avoided the use of models from physics since models involve serious dangers. They contain much that is purely arbitrary which goes against the required strict definitions. Hence, it makes sense to Lewin that field theory is a method and not a model.


              This aversion to the use of models from physics is perhaps one reason why there is a virtual absence of physics in his work. Lewin makes scant  passing reference to electromagnetic and gravitational fields, although he mentions having discussed his work with a leading theoretical physicist.

Lewin notes that physics and philosophy have not done enough analysis of field theory to be helpful to psychology, while psychologists like himself,who have an interest in field theory, have not been successful in making it clear.

“The only excuse I know of is the matter is not very simple”. (Lewin, 1951, pg 43)

              It is less the physics of fields and more mathematical modelling that inspired Lewin’s field theory as a vehicle (or to use his word, “method“), to hold his quasi-scientific methodology of the mathematics of behavior. The lack of validity for the quantification in numbers of the mathematical terms and formulae he uses is the flaw in his approach.  He draws these life spaces and field forces in a similar way in which physicists draw vectors of force. This is clearly not the organism/environment field theory PHG, though it may have influenced it. There is no mathematics of behavior, or topological drawings in PHG nor any indication that Gestalt therapy is purely scientific epistemology.


Jan Smuts


              Smuts (1926) provides significantly more detail than Lewin in outlining the scientific ground used to build his theory. He describes electromagnetic and biological fields and returns his work to connect with relativity and the beginnings of quantum physics. There is no emphasis on the mathematics required to do this. Instead, Smuts uses a language of connection and holism that is strikingly similar to PHG.

Smuts pays significant attention to physics, and particularly to the work of Einstein. He believes that while the work of physicists is “a terror to the uninitiated” (Smuts,1926, pg 26), it can be simply and intelligently discussed by distinguishing between the viewpoint and the difficult mathematical processes. This pre-dates the very work Einstein did ten years later in making his theories clearer without mathematical formulae. (Einstein and Infield, 1936).

Smuts places the concept of “field”  within the history of science and brings an epistemological cohesiveness and integration to physics, biological and psychological field theory. In doing so Smuts demonstrates a very erudite understanding of the field theory of physics and psychological field theory.

              In ways more like in PHG than in Lewin’s description of organism and field, Smuts speaks of “the system of organic regulation,” “co-ordination amongst an indefinitely large number of parts,” “self restoration,” and the “system of co-operation amongst all its parts which makes them function for the whole”. (Smuts, 1926, pg 65). It is by moving beyond mathematics to wholeness as described in Smut’s term “holism“, that one can appreciate his influence on the theory of field presented in  PHG - an influence imbedded in physics and biology. Smuts’ later work brought  physics theory to a level capable of understanding the field of Life and Mind, not only Matter.

In writing akin to the Wave-Particle duality of physics, Smuts writes -

“ A natural whole has its “field” and the concept of fields will be found most important in this connection also” (Smuts, 1926, p. 96).

This is strikingly similar to the current view of the wave-particle duality in quantum physics that views matter-field phenomenon as a particle (natural whole) accompanied by its wave function (i.e. field). As Bohm states -

“… electrons enter the system one by one. Each one will have its own quantum field…” (Bohm & Hiley, 1993, pg 410)

It is in his conceptualisation of Holism that Smuts synthesises the work of quantum theory and what would eventually become Gestalt therapy.

“The Field is the source of the grand Ecology of the universe. It is the environment, the Society - vital, friendly, educative, creative - of all wholes and all souls. It is not a mere figure of speech or figment of the imagination, but a reality..”  (Smuts, 1926, p. 369)


Field Theory and Gestalt Therapy


              There are numerous influences on Gestalt therapy and the theoretical and philosophical ground is indeed rich. Few would disagree that field theory is a core philosophical underpinning. Athough the construct of field theory has not been well understood, discussed or applied to practice. In Gestalt therapy there is no clear indication as to whether field theory is predominantly a theory and method of understanding reality (i.e. epistemology) or a description of that which actually exists and is real(i.e. is ontological) or an integration of both.


              From the various influences that have shaped its development Gestalt therapy carries both possibilities: field theory is both an epistemological method and an ontological reality. Few gestalt therapists have dared to venture further to relativistic quantum field theory or the holographic field of Bohm (1993) or Sheldrake’s (2003) morphogenic fields. It is in the current writings of Parlett(2005) where we see this call for further explorations of field theory.

“No discussion of the field in the specialized and relatively small scale arena of Gestalt therapy should ignore the general scientific beliefs of the day. (Parlett 2005 p.61)

              Parlett suggests that it would be ironic if Gestalt therapists were to turn their back on these scientific developments since they might well confirm the emphasis that Gestalt therapy has placed on field theory.

The need for such  dialogue is the key issue raised herein. Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951) offer an ontological description of the field as a whole - an organism/environment field. In essence this is not a field theory, simply that there is the field, a conceptualisation similar to Smuts, wherein the field explains the nature of the ontological reality of wholes and holism.

              Taking PHG as the starting point of relevant literature in Gestalt therapy, it is clear that Gestalt therapy could be defined as “field-theoretical” from its outset. While there is no listing of “field theory” in the index or the content page, the book is awash with the conceptualisation of an  “organism/environment” field,  proposed as a reality (ontology) and not only a theory or model (epistomology). It may be fair to argue PHG is less field theoretical and more field ontological - in short, a description of the field as it exists - “… the original, undistorted, natural approach to life” (Perls, Hefferline and Goodman,  1984 edition, pg viii).Yontef (1993) argued that by the 1980s there was no clearly cogent description of field theory and that people espoused being “field theoretical” and talk more about dialogue and phenomenology saying little if anything about field theory itself.

“Frankly I think I am clearer when I discuss phenomenology or Gestalt psychology, even about aspects of field theory, than when I discuss field theory directly. So, out of a good sense of tactics, cowardice, laziness or ignorance, I often teach phenomenology and dialogue and less often directly discuss field theory” (Yontef, 1993,p.292)

              Joel Latner (1983) Malcolm Parlett (1993, 1997) and Yontef have reversed this trend of sparse writing on field theory. Parlett (1993) in particular, presents as an advocate for the work of Kurt Lewin. Later works by authors such as Zinker (1994), Wheeler(1991), Resnick (1995), Crocker (1999), Philippson (2002) and others have brought field theory more into the foreground of our literature. By many accounts field theory is the most challenging area in our conceptualisation, training and practice of Gestalt therapy.

“Talking and reading about field theory and understanding it is very difficult, perhaps the most difficult aspect of Gestalt therapy theory to discuss” (Yontef, 1993,p.286)

               Robine (2001) points out that there also a variety of ways in which people have used the term field theory:  the organism/environment field of Perls and Goodman; referring to a background or environmental context; the Lewian field of forces; and a phenomenological field. Robine also mentions Sheldrake’s morphogenic field in which a field creates form.

Francis (2005) lists some current uses of field: the field of experience; the field of the soul;  the erotic field; the phenomenological field: and the pre-phenomenological field. He also mentions the work of Sheldrake and Bohm.


The Field - Model, method, metaphor or reality


              At times some theoreticians are led to the edge of wondering if this is simply a theory they are describing or something more. Malcolm Parlett draws close to this edge:

“ One of the confusions that arises for newcomers to field theory relates to what ‘the field‘ actually is. Is it simply a metaphor or analogy, or this there an imputation of some actual ‘energy field‘. In the author‘s view the status of the concept is generally metaphorical.“ Parlett,1997, p. 19)

              Parlett immediately begins the next sentence with “However..” and goes on to list revolutionary and awesome developments in modern physics and other sciences that indicate a reality to the field. Lewin viewed field theory as method and no more, and Smuts clearly saw this as a way of defining reality. These two influences on Gestalt therapy may been seen in our literature. For instance, PHG is principally an ontological definition of an existing organism/environment, while the work of Yontef(1993) leans more towards the Lewinian notion of an epistimological definition. It is, however, Parllett who offers a challenge to the purely epistimological nature of field theory in urging us on to consider the implications of recent advances in physics and biology.

              Obviously, there are divergent views of field theory in the Gestalt therapy literature, differences that can perhaps be understood in a number of ways. Yontef (1993) in his response to Latner’s (1983) work on linking quantum physics to Gestalt therapy, defines three types of field theories in Gestalt therapy: Linear, which is seen to be a mechanistic form of field theory using Newtonian language; Non-linear, which is a more “right brain” universal language field theory, with a spiritual flavour; and the Integrated approach, found in Gestalt psychology that allows for differentiation and wholes conjointly.

Latner, as critiqued by Yontef(1993), used a typology of Newtonian and post Newtonian field theory, and also earlier in the article used a typology of field theory linked to the Gestalt therapy training centres and their various approaches. Yontef was quite critical of this lack of consistency preferring instead a typology based on “conceptualisations and not geography”(p.384).


              Relativistic Quantum Field and Gestalt Therapy - A Lived Wisdom

              Quantum theory and quantum mechanics have been developed to understand a number of experiments which demonstrate the dual nature of reality. Taking light as a prime example, there are times when light behaves as if it were made up of particles or photons (such as the photoelectric effect), and times when it behaves as a wave phenomenon (such as the bending of light around an object).

              More interestingly there are times when light behaves as both a wave and a particle. Sometimes the nature of light as particle or wave is dependant on whether it is observed or not. This has become known as the “wave-particle duality” (Einstein and Infield 1938, Bohm & Hiley, 1993, Lightman 2000). The quantum view of reality derived four points that challenge relativity and the classical view of reality: the wave-particle duality just mentioned; the uncertainty of measurement; the nature of the observer in determining reality; and non-locality. These four issues in Quantum physics have important correlations with some of the theoretical foundations of Gestalt therapy.


 The Wave Particle Duality.


              In the famous Double Slit Experiment originated by Thomas Young, a very dim light is passed through two slits in a board onto a screen that produces a pattern, demonstrating light acting as a wave phenomenon. However, when noninterfering glass monitors were attached to the slits, they recorded each photon as they passed through the slits. Hence the photon is acting as a particle, as matter instead of field. When the photon is observed it acts as a particle, yet when not observed, it is a wave phenomenon (Lightman, 2000).  A wave-particle duality is one in which identity is both matter and field. This resembles the struggle in Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951, 1984 edition) in understanding the ‘system of contacts” and “agent of growth’ duality in the nature of self, although as Crocker (1999) notes, this was not clearly articulated in PHG. Hence  Gestalt theory struggles with a similar duality of relativistic quantum theory. We are a particle (agent of growth) and a wave phenomenon (system of contacts in the organism/environment field). PHG’s original notion of self correlates with that of physics - we are field and matter, aware of our unique nature and intrinsically part of an organism/environment field - both the field and the Knower as described by the Bhagavad Gita at the beginning of this article. In PHG more attention is paid to the field than to the nature of self. Later formulations of  Fritz Perls, evidenced in his Gestalt prayer, focuses on the individualistic, particle nature of self - “ You are you, and I am I” (Shepherd, 1976, p.3).


 The Phenomenon of Non Locality


              The EPR experiment, named after Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen is the most emphatic description of a quantum experiment in its challenge to both classical physics and to the theory of relativity. This famous experiment presents a connection between two seemingly separate halves of a molecule spinning in opposite directions and at large distances apart. The results of this experiment found that when one half is measured it causes an immediate shift in the other. This result demonstrates “action at a distance” indicative of a wave phenomenon. However this effect occurs at a speed that is instantaneous and therefore seemingly violates the universal constant of light, something later explained by Bohm (1993) as a field phenomenon where active information in the field connects each to the other.

“It is as if the two particles were in instantaneous two-way communication exchanging active information that enables each particle to ‘know’ what has happened to the other and to respond accordingly” (Bohm & Hiley, 1993, pp 203)

              This field connection exemplified by the EPR experiment, is at the heart of Martin Buber’s original work I-Thou, that provided another lens with which to understand his deeply mystical and personal style of writing. His work has been the ground for the development of dialogical psychotherapy, now a strong influence in Gestalt therapy.  As Buber writes:

The human being is not a He or She, bounded from every other He or She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world; nor is he a nature able to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. But with no neighbour and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the universe. (Buber,1958, pg 8)

In Gestalt therapy this supports and explains the experience of I-Thou”  in the language of physics as separate individual awareness shifts to an  awareness of its field nature rather than is particle nature, or as Hycner states:

By the very recognition that there is something larger present in the therapy situation than just the sum of the total of the individuals physically there, this is already a recognition of the more than personal’” (Hycner, p.97).

              In a fashion similar to the two halves of the molecule in  the EPR experiment, such awarenesses are separate yet are mysteriously connected.  Hycner describes the Hasidism story of the holy sparks, that are separated and contained in all things, yet of the common source of wholeness. To paraphrase this, the meeting  as people (containing the holy sparks), is like the two separate molecule halves being nonetheless connected. It is this connection we experience as the between.”


Ontology and the Phenomenological role of the Observer


              Bohr felt that the indivisibility of the wave and particle nature of a quantum of energy meant that the entire phenomenon had to be regarded as a single un-analysable whole. It is this whole that constitutes the entire quantum phenomenon. (Bohr, 1961 in Bohm 1993)

Thus, in quantum physics we cannot discuss the properties of a particular system apart from the context of the entire experimental arrangement that allows for the observation of such properties that includes both the observer and the measuring apparatus.

              The basic and most fundamental aspect of the newly developed quantum theory  is that the whole is  more than the sum of the parts. This of course has significant correlation and support for the Gestalt therapy perspective on the human personality. In an attempt to explain the connections between the wholeness of the quantum phenomenon and the separateness of classical Newtonian physics,  Van Neuman (Bohm 1993) developed the notion of the “many worlds,” a theory that states that before a phenomenon is measured, it has existed in many different potentials, or worlds, and that the very process of measurement, observation or awareness creates one of these worlds.

              Others physicists found “many worlds” untenable. Instead they  describe this process in phenomenological terms as the “many minds” theory. Hence, each of the possible measures of the phenomenon represented a certain perspective of mind, and there are an infinite number of phenomenological quantum level realities that are possible. (Bohm 1993) This supports the Gestalt therapy ontologically-based theory of interpersonal realities that are, on one level co-created, while simultaneously being uniquely individual. In phenomenological terms, our phenomenological field is a special case of the wider existing quantum field potential. Awareness by and of itself has an effect, and as we become aware of each other, we change each other.


 The Uncertainty of Quantum Control - Individuals and Crowds


              As Einstein pointed out, the laws of quantum physics are statistical and therefore cannot measure or control an individual system (Uncertainty Principle) but instead imply a series of repeated measurements. This lead him to believe that:

“Quantum physics deals only with aggregations, and its laws are for crowds and not for individuals” (Einstein and Infield 1938 p286)


This implied that physicists had to let go of the predictive control of classical Newtonian physics, in deference to the statistical approximations of quantum physics. Likewise in Gestalt therapy, as opposed to other schools, we do not try to measure or control the individual as a separate phenomenon. Rather, we study the operation of the contact boundary in the organism/environment field. In line with Bohr, Gestalt therapy works with wholes . Earlier, non field theorists talked about Gestalt therapy and the need for the therapist to exercise control of the therapeutic situation, often defined as “the therapist being able to persuade or coerce the patient into following the procedures he has set” ( Fagan and Shepherd, 1970, pp. 91-92)

More current theorists like Hycner (1993) describe this as a more paradoxical process of a searching for balance between choice and acceptance. This is perhaps best described in the original text of PHG as the “middle mode”  of being the space in between active and passive functioning, where the person is accepting, attending and growing into the solution, and the substitution of readiness (or faith) for the security of apparent control(Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, 1951; 1984 edition).


Initial clinical and theoretical of the relativistic quantum field theory for gestalt therapy


              The support given to the holistic and “esoteric” world view of the gestalt therapist, as compared to so many other “research driven” or “scientific” modalities in psychotherapy is the most useful aspect of quantum field theory.  While gestalt therapy has not traditionally paid  much attention to the scientific validation of its theories, it is comforting to realise that the principles of Gestalt therapy are supported by the relativistic quantum views of reality. As we have seen, gestalt therapists have been operating and espousing a reality of dialogue, phenomenology and field which are well supported by current world views of physics. In many ways some traditional scientific approaches found in Cognitive Behavior Therapy and other approaches are operating within a classical Newtonian framework that is at best a special and limiting case of the wider reality as described in relativistic quantum field theory. Like quantum physics, Gestalt therapy now calls for a new way of research and new consideration of outcome studies.

              Quantum mechanics has shifted from a world where the physicist could justifiably stand outside of that which was being measured, to a world where the measurement and act of measuring determine the nature of that which is being measured. Hence, the observer has become part of the mathematical equation and this has led to a mathematics of awareness in which the awareness of one observer (person or computer), is defined as an equation. This leads to a description of the classical physical world as a special limited case of quantum reality with the notion of any other independent existence, as stated in PHG, an illusion. In essence, the quantum world is subtle and is the ultimate ground of existence out of which the classical world arises and becomes manifest and relatively autonomous through awareness. It is like a figure which emerges from the ground in a seemingly permanent way, similar to our own consciousness.

              The important role awareness plays in linking matter and field, manifest and subtle realty, highlights some of the crucial functions of the therapist. Consistent with Gestalt therapy theory, awareness by and of itself has an effect on reality. Our ability to be aware of bridging these two realities, field and matter, means that, in effect, we are, instruments of the field. If indeed quantum and field theory implications are assumed realities, how might we operate as therapists? What follows are some preliminary possibilities offered in an heuristic way as encouragement for further discussion and conceptualisation.


 Active Information and quantum fields - Group Experience


              In the Double Slit Experiment described above, the motion of the particle passing through a slit is determined by information in the quantum field as a whole, as that there exists what is described as “active information” in the quantum field. As the particle reaches certain points in front of the slits, it is “in-formed” to accelerate or decelerate accordingly, sometimes quite violently (Bohm & Hiley,1993, p.37). Hence, the information in the quantum field that accompanies a particle that has passed through either slit is available to the other particles as they pass through. This is a field phenomenon that in essence explains non-locality. Furthermore, there is information in the field as a whole that is accessible to individual particles which in turn influences them.

This has rather startling yet observable implications when applied to groups specifically and the gestalt notion of the group as a wider self or “whole”, similar to quantum phenomenon. This can be paraphrased as follows:

If the field (group) has already learnt something, the particle (person) in the field will have its motion determined (make choices) from quantum fields that have already experienced the phenomenon. Such choices are formed from the current field (group) that also includes the field’s (group) previous experiences in which the particle (person) was not present.

              This information gives us a wider view of the group as a “self” that goes beyond classical Newtonian reality in which each person affects the other in the immediate environment in a way that is similar to systems theory. In addition, quantum field theory simultaneously envisions  the group as a whole phenomenon that carries active information. Hence changes in the field affect others, even in their absence and later when returning to the group. In this ense we can expect to influence more than our immediate environment when a greater “whole” exists.

              I have seen Gestalt therapists put these phenomena into action. I recall one example at a conference in which the wider community had split over a dispute. The therapist in one of the small groups began the group by saying that if we are true to our principles, we will accept that whatever work we do here will affect the wider field. The group accepted this idea and worked with it, not only for themselves but for the community as a whole. This effect was particularly appropriate since it was an Experiment in Community building.

              Sheldrakes (2003) work on morphogenic biological fields adds further support to the notion of action at a distance (non-locality) and the whole phenomenon affected by the field including those parts that are distant.

Hence, such new scientific theories inform our understanding that if the group has already learnt something, the person in the field will make choices from  fields that have already experienced the phenomenon (e.g. from the current group field which includes its previous experiences in which the person was not present). This is a structuring of the ground, not only passively but actively as a process that both provides information and directs action.


              As therapists we can initially tune ourselves into being aware of such active and passive processes of information in the field (patterns). We can then feedback these patterns to the group, couple, family or individual, finally offering experiments involving such patterns. Knowing that active and passive forms of information exist in the field supports our work as therapists in looking at the wider patterns of the “group as a whole” and notice what happens as the more passive or “implicit” patterns are made active or “explicit.” In many ways, the reality of quantum physics supports what we, as Gestalt therapists, already know and in addition adds a supportive space to encourage more learning and dialogue with physics and physicists to discover these deeper connections. The examples given are primarily used to encourage further dialogue and interest and to build on the work of others such as Parlett and Bohm.


 The Effect is in the Form of the Field not the Intensity Couples


              One phenomenom of quantum fields that is often overlooked is that an effect generated in a field is determined soley by its form rather than its intensity. This is much different from the classical reality theory wherein the effect, or ability to do the work, is in direct relation to the available force. For example, moving a ship requires a considerable amount of energy. However, in the quantum field theory, a very weak field can produce a full quantum effect since it is attributed solely to the form and not to the intensity of the field. In many ways this is like the effect of a radio signal telling a ship where to go, wherein the radio wave is not directly pushing or pulling the ship that it guides. (Bohm 1993, pp 37) Action of the Quantum Potential depends only on form not magnitude and therefore its effect may be dominant even when the intensity is small.

              We can now consider the direct application of this dynamic in couples counselling (although it applies equally well to groups, families and communities).

When a couple attend for counselling there are certain forms or patterns of interaction which can configure the field and direct the action. Probably the most notable of these in Gestalt therapy is what Lee (2004)  has termed the Shame Cycle or Shame Driven Contact Styles. In an Australian context, shame is not as culturally worded,and I have found it more acceptable to explain this to couples as a Blaming Cycle.

The interesting phenomenon I have observed in working with couples is that independent of the intensity of the issue they are dealing with, the form of these blaming or shaming cycles has the same effect. As in physics, it goes against common sense and intuition to believe that a low intensity issue, such as painting a wall or even buying a box of tissues can have such a strong effect on a couple. Once the typical contact style/blaming cycle begins to form,and independent of the issue itself, the couple can precipitate an argument and feel as hurt over a box of tissues as over a deep betrayal of trust. At the same time, a couple can learn to trust and heal over little issues as much as big issues. From these implications, we as therapists, can begin to notice the form and to watch for changes in the form of contact style rather than the intensity of the individual issue with which we are dealing. This applies equally to work with families and groups, where the work with one or more persons can affect the wider system or self of which they are a part.




              Relativistic quantum field theory presents a view of reality and self closely akin to that of Gestalt therapy, particularly to the seminal text of PHG. As Bohm points out, rather than consider the differences between quantum theory and relativity, the clue to convergence maybe found in commonality. The key element shared in common is the notion of unbroken wholeness.

Clearly echoing the writing of Smuts and PHG, Bohm states -

“ The forces between particles depend on the wave function of the whole system, so that we have what we may call ‘indivisible wholeness’… Thus there is a kind of objective wholeness, reminiscent of the organic wholeness of a living being, in which the very nature of each part depends on the whole.” (Bohm,1993, pg 177)

This is strikingly similar  to PHG when we read -

“The greatest value in the Gestalt approach perhaps lies in the insight that the whole determines the parts..” (Perls, Hefferleine and Goodman, 1951, pg xi)

This encourages us as therapists to move beyond the individual, reductionist nature of current psychology that sees only the separate nature of the therapist and client contact. To move beyond this point is to develop an awareness of the “self” of the therapist/client dyad, the “self” of the couple, of the ’self” of the group and of  the community. Such a perspective supports us in seeing patterns of these larger wholes at work, patterns of homeostasis, polarisation and growth. We can apply the cycle of awareness or the Contact Episode (Polsters 1973) as a map to the active information processes underlying the apparent chaos of these aggregates.

              As we stretch to these larger selves of couples, families and groups we enter the world of quantum physics. Interestingly to Bohm as to PHG, it is contact that denotes identity, an identity in which the basic elements are constantly forming and dissolving in succession. Finally, with the challenges proposed by Parlett, Gestalt therapists can bring the needed framework and methodology to provide more than a reductionist “cure” for the ills of both the individual and society. For it is through field theory, as originally formulated in PHG, that we are encouraged to realise the impact of a life lived, not only in therapy sessions in a consultation room, but in the way we teach, live and affect the wider field. 

There is a trend in certain aspects of Gestalt therapy to engage as private practitioners and as such to be just one more school of therapy.  Instead, we can take up and live the challenges of our founders and be agents of growth, change and radical development in society at large.

In the state of the world today, we clearly need more of both, in particular the latter.







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