Theoretical issues: Perceptual and cognitive processes in the Rorschach

The Rorschach method raises a lot of interesting issues which have to do with the way in which our brains process visual stimuli. This is a large topic; below I focus on the issues that relate to the concept of a determinant and the nature of the kinesthetic responses.

The first section below is an abstract for a poster at "TUCSON III", i.e. the conference, Toward a Science of Consciousness, Tucson, Arizona, April 27-May 2, 1998. On the Texts page, you can find the full text of the poster. Write me an e-mail if you want to comment on it!

Moving towards the Other

Helge Malmgren, MD, PhD; Dept of Philosophy, Göteborg University, S-412 98 Göteborg, Sweden

Recent careful research on mental development in the child (Meltzoff & Moore 1995) has shown beyond much doubt that the capacity to perceive and imitate the actions of others is innate. It has been suggested that this capacity to imitate involves an "amodal" perception in which visual information about another organism is immediately transformed into a motor schema in the perceiving subject. Hence one might talk about a mechanism of immediate motor identification. In this paper I point to a number of antecedents of this idea and to some of its psychological and philosophical implications.

One important early application of the idea of an immediate motor identification is found in the works of Hermann Rorschach (Rorschach 1921), who describes a category of inkblot interpretations based on "kinesthetic imagery". These interpretations are variously labelled "kinesthetic responses" or "movement responses" (although they need not involve movement). Abstracting from the associationist psychology in terms of which Rorschach uses to express his ideas, it is clear that he was conceiving these responses in terms of an immediate motor identification.

Among philosophers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Merleau-Ponty 1945) also makes the observation that imitation involves a capacity for immediate motor identification. Indeed, his concept of body image is defined in terms of the capacity to translate motor schemata between different possible action perspectives. This capacity corresponds to the "amodal" perception postulated by recent theorists. It is well known that Merleau-Ponty stresses the point that our mastering of action schemata is primary to our knowledge of objective ("Cartesian") space. Taken together, his arguments imply that our knowledge of other minds may be prior to our knowledge of objective space (cf. Malmgren 1976).

In the developmental psychology of Heinz Werner (Werner 1961), it is emphasised that human beings (and especially children) tend to perceive not only living beings, but also inanimate objects, in terms of motor identifications. Trees are seen as literally standing or bending, etc. According to Werner (and the so-called "percept-genetic school" which builds upon his works) this tendency towards a generalised "physiognomic" perception remains operative at a subconscious level even in mature perception. Klaus Conrad describes (Conrad 1961) how such latent physiognomic perception surfaces abundantly in the prodromal stage of confusion ("clouded consciousness").

It is clear that the concept of immediate motor identification has important bearings for any systematic theory of perception. From an ecological point of view, such a mechanism would serve an important function in terms of the ability to quickly predict future positions of an aggressor, a prey or a potential mate (J.J. Gibson 1979). Looking instead at computational models of perception, many of these hypothesise a mechanism for immediate translations between an egocentric and an object-centered space (Kosslyn 1994). The findings about immediate motor identifications implies that there is also a general ability to make translations between these spaces and an other-centered (allocentric) space (or several such spaces), which like the egocentric one is perceptually prior to the apprehension of object-centered space. 

Two years after this poster I published a paper on movement responses in Rorschachiana, 2000 (the Yearbook of the International Rorschach Society), pp 1–27. The full text is available here with the permission of the publisher. In it, it is hypothesized (pp 16–18) that the mechanism of immediate motor identification, and hence of M responses, is to be found in the recently discovered so-called mirror neurons. In 2010, this idea received empirical support through an EEG study by Giromini et al, and it is since then common knowledge in the Rorschach society.

The paradox still remains though why M is regarded as a determinant. Several Rorschach theorists have explicitly defined the concept of a determinant in terms of determining stimulus properties. However, it has also been noted several times that such a restricted definition is logically inconsistent with the view that movement is a determinant. The blots do not move, hence no movement in the stimulus ever determines any response. How shall we handle this conceptual situation? At the 22d conference of the International Rorschach Society, Paris 2017, I presented a radical solution: to re-define determinants in terms of perceived properties that determine the final response. Here is part of the abstract:

So a straightforward solution of the paradox is that movement responses are just a special kind of form responses, to which certain non-stimulus factors (kinaesthetic memories) also contribute. There is some support in Rorschach’s own book for such an interpretation, but I want to challenge it. Considering that colour is no more a stimulus property than movement is, colour can as little as movement be a determinant according to the standard definition. Should we perhaps say that the determinant of a colour response is actually the mix of wavelengths emanating from the blot part? A better solution of the paradox is to redefine the concept of determinant altogether: not as a physical property that determines the percept, but as a perceptual property that determines the physical (verbal) response. I will argue that this idea was what Rorschach had in mind, but that he – like so many of his contemporaries – committed what the great Gestalt psychologist Köhler later named ”the experience error”: confusing the percept with the stimulus.

If you think that my suggestion for a definition is not true to Rorschach's intentions, note that Hermann Rorschach defines M responses as ”The movement responses are those interpretations that were determined through the form perception plus kinaesthetic influences.” (italics in original but boldface added).

Also note that the "U shape" of card VII is perceived shape, not physical shape which has no up or down. So form is a determinant because perceived form can determine responses.

The full presentation is here for the reader who wants to evaluate my argument in detail. A full paper describing and expanding it is also planned.

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