Plato, the Cave, and Psychological Assessment

Have I mentioned that I majored in philosophy as an undergraduate student? I actually registered for creative writing my first semester, but that course was full, so I was automatically switched over to Introduction to Philosophy. It was awesome, and the rest is history. (Or rather, the rest is philosophy?)

The philosophy department actually reached out to me recently to be part of a project to educate current students on what kind of job you can get with a degree in philosophy. I told them, if you also major in psychology and then spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on another degree, you can be a psychologist.

That is beside my point. Anyway.

person standing and holding lamp inside cave
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on

If you have taken philosophy courses, you are probably familiar with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. If you have not, it explains Plato’s ideas about life, the world, and our perception of it.

In a nutshell: Imagine you are in a cave, and behind you is flickering light from a fire. You are facing the cave wall and can only see shadows of the things that pass behind you. You try to guess what these things are based on the shadows, but you likely often get it wrong because you cannot directly observe what you are trying to see.

Our perception of reality is limited, causing us to misperceive the world around us. If those in the cave could turn around, they could better understand reality by directly observing rather than making guesses based on shadows.

Psychological assessment often feels like this. We are trying to gather information about an individual’s brain based on how they feel, communicate, behave, and appear to the people around them. Sure, certain brain differences can cause certain behaviors, just like certain objects can cast shadows of certain shapes. But things can look like other things, especially when we are looking at shadows rather than the object itself. That leads to misdiagnosis and disagreement among professionals about what symptoms are present.

Take the image below:

Image of two silhouette faces, the space between them is a vase
File:Two silhouette profile or a white vase by Brocken Inaglory is licensed through CC-BY-SA 3.0

Is it two faces, one vase, or both? It depends on who you ask!

It would be so handy if we could just turn around and look directly at the thing we are trying to analyze! Brain scan and genetic studies are moving us forward in this area, though there are some concerns in various communities about the ethics of some of these studies (that’s a topic for another blog post).

Of course, if traditional psychological evaluations are replaced by brain scans, I might go out of business. Then again, if this kind of assessment can offer more objective, accurate results and eliminate harmful misdiagnoses (See: “You can’t be autistic, you made eye contact during your session!”), I will find something else to do with my time.

Published by Dr Marschall

Dr. Amy Marschall received her Psy.D. from the University of Hartford in September 2015. She completed her internship at the National Psychology Training Consortium with specializations in assessment and rural mental health. Currently, she specializes in trauma-informed and neurodiversity-affirming care, and she is certified in telemental health. Dr. Marschall runs a private practice, RMH Therapy, where she provides individual and family therapy as well as psychological assessments across the lifespan. Dr. Amy Marschall is an author and professional speaker.

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