Monday, July 22, 2013

Rorschach inkblots and the neuroscientific basis for pareidolia

image via psychpsychbaby

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 Card III via Wikipedia

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
  • symmetry
  • the perception of movement: ‘Movement without Motion’
  • the blank spaces: figure–ground relationships
  • the use of colour
  • shading.

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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At July 22, 2013 7:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should be ashamed of this post. You obviously are not up to speed on the scientific evidence that continues to support the Rorschach as the most reliable and valid tool to assess perceptual inaccuracy (e.g poor reality testing) and disordered thinking -- the twin pillars of a serious psychotic disturbance. Why not do a literature search before posting nonsense?

At July 22, 2013 7:45 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Anonymous - Why don't you provide a list of articles that support your contention? That would be the most constructive thing to do.

The post linked to an article on psychopathy (Wood et al., 2010), which said the following:

"Mean validity coefficients of Rorschach variables in the meta-analysis ranged from -.113 to .239, with a median validity of .070 and a mean validity of .062. Psychopathy displayed a significant and medium-sized association with the number of Aggressive Potential responses (weighted mean validity coefficient = .232) and small but significant associations with the Sum of Texture responses, Cooperative Movement = 0, the number of Personal responses, and the Egocentricity Index (weighted mean validity coefficients = .097 to .159). The remaining 32 Rorschach variables were not significantly related to psychopathy. The present findings contradict the view that the Rorschach is a clinically sensitive instrument for discriminating psychopaths from nonpsychopaths."

Here's Mihura et al. (2013):

"The variables with the strongest support were largely those that assess cognitive and perceptual processes (e.g., Perceptual-Thinking Index, Synthesized Response)... Our findings are less positive, more nuanced, and more inclusive than those reported in the CS test manual."

If you're a clinician, you should refrain from public shaming. I would not want to be your patient...

At July 23, 2013 6:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for citing the Mihura review. You prove my point.

At July 23, 2013 9:23 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Just to expand a bit on the reference cited in the first paragraph, the 464 page What's Wrong With The Rorschach: Science Confronts the Controversial Inkblot Test is a 2011 book by four authors. From the Description:

"Surveying more than fifty years of clinical and scholarly research, the authors provide compelling scientific evidence that the Rorschach has relatively little value for diagnosing mental illness, assessing personality, predicting behavior, or uncovering sexual abuse or other trauma."

Of the 13 reviews on Amazon, seven are 5 star and six are 1 star, so you can see how polarized it is.

At July 23, 2013 1:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off, I apologize for the intemperate and unprofessional tone of my first comment. You were right to call me out. I actually love your blog.
Two things set me off. First, you shouldn't publish test images-- there are test security issues. And there was this statement about the Rorschach: "Although still in use today, it has been widely discredited and shown to be an invalid instrument for assessing personality and mental illness." And you cite Wood et al-- a band of Rorschach bashers whose work has been thoroughly discredited by researchers all across the U.S. One of Wood's gang is Lilienfeld-- the guy who thinks you can diagnose psychopathy by having a psychopath fill out a self-report questionnaire!!! Mihura's review is probably the best statement regarding the current scientific status of the Rorschach. It remains an excellent tool to evaluate thinking and perception. And the Rorschach has nothing to do with the "unconscious" or even psychopathy, per se.
But let us remember that there is NO TEST that can diagnose mental illness. Not the MMPI, PAI, MCMI-III, the BDI or whatever other test you want to name. Tests are tools. They provide information relevant to diagnosis, but they do not make diagnoses themselves.

At July 23, 2013 5:20 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Anonymous - Thanks for your apology, that actually means a lot to me. As for including one of the test images -- they're out there on Wikipedia, along with the most popular responses and comments on interpretation. You can't get much more public than that.

One of my other sources on the Rorschach was clinical and research psychologist Dr. Vaughan Bell, of Mind Hacks fame. In the linked post he wrote about the public release of the images onto Wikipedia, and the resulting controversy. He's not a fan of the Rorschach:

"Not everyone agrees on this and, on the basis of evidence reviews, some argue that the test’s reliability has been exaggerated. But the trouble is, even if it is reliable, it’s still a bit rubbish. It doesn’t seem to correlate well with other mental health measures and has a particular tendency to ‘diagnose’ schizophrenic tendencies in perfectly healthy people.

While the release of the ink blots onto the internet seems to have caused controversy among US psychologists, most European psychologists are likely to be rolling their eyes, as the test never caught on and is largely extinct

I respect his opinion.

At July 23, 2013 6:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look: If some people use the Rorschach to "diagnose schizophrenic tendencies" then those "clinicians" should be censored! The Rorschach can, however, indicate problems with inaccurate appraisal of the environment and problematic thinking about the objects of one's perception. That's what the Exner Perceptual-Thinking Index (PTI) does and, dare I say, even Wood (and Lilienfeld) grudgingly concede this point (I saw him present at a Grand Rounds where he uttered this, though he looked sick when he did so.There is ample evidence, published in flagship journals of psychological assessment (e.g. Journal of Personality Assessment, Psychological Assessment, Psychological Bulletin, etc.) to support the Perceptual-Thinking Index as a valid indicator of such problems.Problems with thinking and perception are NOT specific to "schizophrenia" but they are relevant to adaptive functioning (or the lack thereof). These types of cognitive-perceptual-mediation dysfunction are seen in a range of disorders, like manic psychosis, depression with psychotic features, schizophrenia, dementia and on and on. The issue is NOT the inkblot method or test. One could look at clouds and interpret them as the "method." The issue is the reliability and validity of the scoring system applied to the responses obtained from the method-- just as it is from responses to paper and pencil tests like the MMPI. Again, the Exner PTI is, as most would agree, well validated. And there are a lot of Exner system derived variables they do not meet acceptable levels of validity for the psychological characteristics they purport to measure. Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. So your expert's comments (Bell) that the Rorschach is "a bit rubbish" is just as lame and inappropriate as my first comment calling your article "nonsense." Bell and I were both wrong. You can respect Bell. I don't. Thanks.

At July 27, 2013 7:14 PM, Blogger William F. Gayton said...

Why would you think that Schotts (2013) contention ..".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." is worthy of consideration. Is there anything we could learn from inkblots that we could not learn from asking people what a cloud looks like. Ending up with a debate regarding the validity of the Rorschach to desribe personality seems clearly irrevalent to the initial purpose of your post.

At November 08, 2013 12:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And this is why most call this psychobabble. I am a nurse that has been thru said issues and it is so tough to 1st be dx correctly. That is why these are called tools and we still are practicing medicine. Stop being personally offended and as colleagues let's get these dx handled better. Can anyone lead the way with allergy testing and specific dx? Let us quit debating and get pt's helped with correct dx the sooner the better!

At November 08, 2013 6:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah well they're pretty...

At November 08, 2013 7:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

soooooo... what about that Brad Pitt guy? Weird, or what?

At November 08, 2013 1:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a different anonymous. I think the Brad Pitt photo is a good example of what "nurse anonymous" and Neurocritic are arguing about. There are as many dissimilarities between Pitt and Rorschach as there are similarities. The onlooker has the choice to decide which he/she will see despite the overall similarities (which is weird). Rorschach has a remarkable widows crown, I can’t say for certain that Pitt does. They don’t have the same chin or nose. Their eyes, hair and face shape are similar. If you showed me a photo of Rorschach before today and asked what do you see, I would say Brad Pitt. However if I had never seen Pitt before today I would have said a man. So I would agree that Rorschach's tests are only a tool for a clinical assessment of someone's cognitive and perceptual processes as it relates to the average perception of the world. There can be no right answer to any image - just insight into what the viewer is focused on the most. Before anyone attacks me, I have never studied psychology I just think I have good cognitive and perceptual skills.


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