Eli5: Why do/did (not sure if it’s still in practice) therapists hold up black and white splatter looking images and ask the client “what do you see?” What could their answer say about that person?

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Eli5: Why do/did (not sure if it’s still in practice) therapists hold up black and white splatter looking images and ask the client “what do you see?” What could their answer say about that person?

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It’s called the Rorschach Test and is still sometimes used today. It’s designed to – supposedly – reveal aspects of a subject’s unconscious desires, fears, etc. by getting the rational mind out of the way and allowing the unconscious to “interpret” what they see in the images. I don’t think most therapists put too much stock in the idea anymore but perhaps some do.

the test is called rorschach (pronounced “Row Shark”). Basically all the little patches form little shapes and whatever you see or don’t see can explain what is on your mind. The psychologist (or psychiatrist) who shows you this may have a list of a lot of possible answers per image and what they could mean. Just be honest about everything you see and you could be surprised

The Rorschach is called a “projective test” which means that they are supposed to tell a psychologist something about the person interpreting them. There is much less training available for the test because scoring a person’s response takes a lot of time and the training is very long, and there are other assessments that can help a psychologist understand their patient more efficiently that provide more information. The Rorschach was originally designed to assess a specific population of patients with a single set of symptoms, but it was applied more broadly to the general population.

It is still used in very rare circumstances. It is primarily used to detect schizophrenia.

There are no right answers.

There are lots of normal answers.

There are a handful of bad answers.

So if they get one of those handful of bad answers, and if it happens on several different blots, then that would be a flag for mental illness. It doesn’t prove anything outright, it just means that more investigation is needed.

For the fun of it, you can take a [modified Rorschach Test](https://openpsychometrics.org/tests/HEMCR/) online.

That’s the Rorschach. It’s a type of psychological assessment known as a projective test (other examples are the Thematic Apperception Test and House Tree Person). Basically, your psychologist wants you to report what you see in these images as a way of learning more about how your mind works. They compare your report to that of hundreds/thousands of other people previously to see if any patterns or differences stick out and what that might mean.

People used to think the Rorschach could be used to diagnose all sorts of things or predict how people would behave, and it was once used very widely. Now, though, much of its research has been debunked, it’s recognized as an extremely subjective test, and it can really only be trusted to diagnose psychosis or other severe disturbance of reality, and even then it’s pretty unreliable.

A classic example we were taught in school: on one of the cards, most people will say they see like a butterfly or something. A person with schizophrenia who was hospitalized in an institution said of the same card, “It’s a fabulous penis with wings.”

The Rorschach isn’t used very commonly these days, and even then it’s not appropriate to use in a therapeutic setting, only pure assessment. Your therapist should not be using the Rorschach with you to determine anything about your diagnosis or the best therapy approach for you.

Source: Am a therapist, did a ton of Rorschachs in grad school

The brain is good at seeing patterns in noise. When you look at a cloud, you might see shapes. When you close your eyes at night, you see clouds of blackness that sometimes take shape and then begin to influence your dreams.

It’s possible to “prime” pattern recognition in your brain. For instance, if you just had a random pile of peas on your plate, you might not notice a pattern to them. But if you started a game where you identified letters in your peas, then suddenly the same patterns that you use to read Reddit let you find letters in your peas that you wouldn’t have noticed before. Your pattern matching ability has been primed based on your state of mind at the moment.

The theory here is that when you look at abstract ink blobs, in the absence of any specific prompting, the patterns that you’re most likely to see are ones more associated with your current mental state. Someone who has recently fantasized about a person or a place might be more likely to pattern match on shapes related to that person or place, and that’s what they will say they see in the ink blot. Someone who has recently spent a lot of time thinking about a recent trauma might be more likely to see patterns related to their trauma. It’s whatever unconscious associations that might exist in the brain that are connected to what’s on your mind.

It’s basically at about the same level of usefulness as dream interpretation, since dreams evolve in similar ways, which is to say it’s not very useful.

Everyone’s mind is different, but all minds work by seeing patterns. If I show you a picture that’s almost completely random (like, say, a blotch of ink on a page), the patterns your mind finds are going to tell me something about how your mind organizes information.

If I show the same random picture to lots of people, and I already know something about how their mind organizes information, I can find common patterns. I can start to say, “lots of people think blotch A is a butterfly, but people who really like chocolate think it looks like a candy wrapper”. If I then ask you about the random pattern, I can compare what your mind does to those patterns and start to figure out what kind of mind you have. If you think it looks like a candy wrapper, I can make a pretty good guess that you like chocolate more than most people.

Of course, if I want this to work for more people than just you, I need to keep my conclusions a secret, because once people know “This picture is supposed to look like a butterfly”, the pattern isn’t so random any more and I won’t be able to say for sure if you like chocolate or not.

That’s the Rorschach in a nutshell. The problem with it is that:

A) the secrecy I need to keep makes it hard to use on a lot of people without the test not working any more.

B) my mind also works by finding patterns, so it’s possible the patterns I think I’m seeing when I show that picture to lots of people might be their own kind of Rorschach test, which means I can never be sure my Rorschach test says anything about anyone but me.