The same inkblot from a Rorschach test can look like many different things: an evil mask, a bat, a vampire, or an innocent butterfly. In the twenties, the psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach began to use ten plates with these figures so that patients could reflect his personality by talking about what the images evoked within the framework of psychoanalysis. Today the validity of this test is not fully accepted by psychologists, but the figures are still of undeniable power.
But why do simple symmetrical ink stains spark the imagination? Are there spots more evocative than others? A group of researchers led by physicist and artist Richard P.
“These illusions seen in inkblots or works of art are important for understanding the human visual system,” said Taylor, a physicist and artist at the University of Oregon who led the research. “To put it another way, you can learn a lot about the eyes just from how they are tricked. The fractal patterns in the spots confuse the visual system, so you detect a butterfly even if there isn’t one.”
These fractals are characterised by being too irregular to be described in traditional geometric terms and being “self-similar”, meaning that their shape is made up of smaller copies of the same figure. As the study authors have concluded, fractal patterns induce association with forms that are not there and they do better the simpler these patterns are.
Fractals In Art
Art is no stranger to these fractals. In 1999 Taylor published an article showing that Jackson Pollock’s painting made between 1943 and 1952 was full of fractals. They concluded that not only did it reflect the patterns of nature, but also, over the years, Pollock increased the complexity of the fractals.
Taylor explained to ABC via email: “For the past 50 years, experts have debated why people see figures in Pollock’s patterns, even though he said he had never painted figures.
Practical Applications Of Fractals
Contrary to what it may seem, the purpose of this study is not merely theoretical. The authors have argued that this knowledge about fractals can have technological applications. On the one hand, it could facilitate the design of a retinal implant capable of recognising fractals, an idea that has already received funding to go ahead. In 2015 managed to bear fruit in the form of a patent.
But not only that. Taylor believes that considering these effects can be interesting when designing the urban landscape and “deciding how many fractals we want to include. For example, “ it may be a good idea not to have fractal trees at traffic intersections because they can activate images of things that are not there and thus confuse the driver”. He has also explained that fractals could improve camouflage patterns.
Be that as it may, the key to the evocative power of these forms lies in a mechanism by which fractals, such as Rorschach slides or the clouds in the sky, activate our imagination: it is ” fractal fluidity “. It is a property of the visual system that allows it to process some patterns efficiently.
As Taylor has proposed: “This reduces observer stress by 60 percent. And, if we didn’t have this fractal fluidity in a bionic eye that we designed, you would have lost your ability to navigate. Still, you would lose your symbiotic relationship with natural fractal patterns.”
What is this symbiotic relationship? In previous studies, Taylor and other researchers measured skin conductance, a measure of nervous system activity. They found that people recovered better from stress when viewing computer-generated images with a particular “density” of fractals.
Then, working with Caroline Hägerhäll, an environmental psychologist specialising in aesthetic perception, they found that people show a strong preference for intermediate fractals and that this induces a relaxation response in the brain, as long as the images are viewed for at least one minute.
For these beneficial effects to occur, “symbiotic” in Taylor’s words, the fractals must have a specific density. The value of its fractal dimension (called D) must be between 1.3 and 1.5: this number represents the relationship between large and thick patterns (such as what you see on the coast from an aeroplane or on the trunk of a tree) and small ones (which can be seen on rocks, dunes, branches and leaves). This can also be seen in Pollock’s paintings, where fine fractals are combined with thick ones.
In the case of the Rorschach slides, the researchers scanned the shape of the inkblots and quantified the fractal dimension (D). After considering psychological studies carried out between the 1930s and 1950s on the images evoked with Rorschach blots, the researchers found a clear relationship between the parameter D and the evocation of the images.
“As you increase the value of D, which increases visual complexity, the number of different visual perceptions falls,” explained the physicist. Therefore, “people see more patterns in simple spots.”
Criticism of the Rorschach test
The first argument used to link the broad test with pseudoscience refers to the epistemological paradigm on which psychoanalysis rests and the Freudian theories that have given rise to the psychodynamic current of psychology.
The second argument refers to the lack of reliability and validity of the Rorschach test. This is because different psychologists score different responses, and there is no agreement on what a good or bad response is.
The third argument has to do with the fact that the Rorschach test has been used in court to assess whether someone is fit to stand trial or not. In these cases, it has been shown that the results of this test can be very biased, depending on the psychologist who administers it.
Despite these criticisms, some researchers defend using this tool, arguing that any psychological instrument should not be used indiscriminately but should be administered by a psychologist who is familiar with its psychometric properties and who knows how to interpret the results correctly.
It has appeared in series, novels, and movies and even gives its name to one of the most famous comic book characters by writer and screenwriter Alan Moore. The Rorschach inkblot test, or blotter as it is also known, has been part of the world of psychology for nearly a century and continues to be one of the most controversial tools in the discipline.
Despite this, its use has spread beyond clinical practice and is now used in other areas such as personnel selection, marketing and even criminology. The test is based on the projection of subjective images onto abstract designs called inkblots.
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