A fascinating new historical article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry reviews the aesthetic and perceptual aspects of the Rorschach inkblots and proposes a role for them in understanding pareidolia, the phenomenon of ‘seeing’ objects in amorphous shapes (Schott, 2013). The Rorschach test was developed by handsome Swiss psychoanalyst Hermann Rorschach as a Psychodiagnostic method and only later used as a "projective test" thought to reveal unconscious psychopathology. Although still in use today, it has been widely discredited and shown to be an invalid instrument for assessing personality and mental illness (e.g., see What's Wrong With The Rorschach: Science Confronts the Controversial Inkblot Test).
Rorschach himself viewed the test as perceptual (p. 16 of Lemkau & Kronenberg's 1951 translation of Rorschach, 1921 - PDF):
Almost all subjects regard the experiment as a test of imagination. This conception is so general that it becomes, practically, a condition of the experiment. Nevertheless, the interpretation of the figures actually has little to do with imagination, and it is unnecessary to consider imagination a pre-requisite. ...
The interpretation of the chance forms falls in the field of perception and apperception rather than imagination.
Rorschach denied that it was projective in nature (p. 123, ibid):
The test cannot be considered as a means of delving into the unconscious. At best, it is far inferior to the other more profound psychological methods such as dream interpretation and association experiments. This is not difficult to understand. The test does not induce a «free flow from the subconscious» but requires adaptation to external stimuli, participation in the «fonction du réel».
Schott (2013) views the inkblots as both artistic entities (noting that Rorschach was a "gifted draughtsman and an excellent art critic") and as visual stimuli for scientific study. Perceptual features of the inkblots are considered in detail:
The pivotal graphic features which constitute the blots, and which give rise to the blots’ perceptual effects, include:
- form: their amorphous shape
- the perception of movement: ‘Movement without Motion’
- the blank spaces: figure–ground relationships
- the use of colour
Finally, the article summarizes several neuroimaging experiments that have used the inkblots as stimuli. For example, Asari and colleagues reported that unusual or unique perceptions of the blots were associated with greater activation in the right temporal pole (2008) and with larger amygdala volumes (2010).
The Neuroscientific Basis for Pareidolia
Pareidolia is the phenomenon of perceiving a meaningful stimulus (such as a face or a hidden message) in fairly random everyday objects or sounds. We do have quite a propensity to see faces everywhere, and some religious people see the face of god (and other religious iconography) everywhere.
Schott (2013) concludes by suggesting that the images merit further investigation by neuroscientists for studies of pareidolia:
...these iconic ink-blots—which straddle iconography, psychology and neuroscience—deserve further study, and may yet illuminate important aspects of cerebral function, and even dysfunction.
But DO NOT use them to discriminate psychopaths from non-psychopaths in forensic populations (or for any other clinical diagnostic purpose, for that matter)...
Rorschach, H. (1921). Psychodiagnostics: A Diagnostic Test Based On Perception (1951 translation).
Schott, G.D. (2013). Revisiting the Rorschach ink-blots: from iconography and psychology to neuroscience. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry DOI: 10.1136/jnnp-2013-305672
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