In 2012 professional psychologists László Neidert and Kinga Bíró set up an innovative approach they called Project Inner Brick. A new psychotherapeutic process that used LEGO bricks in both counseling and educational settings. I caught up with László to find out more about their work and take part in one of their psychological games.
David Alexander Smith How would you describe Project Inner Brick and what it does?
László Neidert Project Inner Brick (PIB) is a research project that attempts to discover the psychotherapeutic potential of LEGO bricks. The team consists of two psychologists (myself and Kinga Bíró). We decided to use colourful plastic bricks to develop a series of playful games, which help people to better understand how their mind works.
This combination of playful psychologically based tasks mediated by an experienced therapist is what makes PIB special. It is a method that is tailored to support both education and psychotherapies, and operates as a tool for sharing psychological knowledge, which can be used to gain self-awareness and improve coping skills.
The name Inner Bricks was intentionally chosen to reflect these aims, and refers to our intention to reveal the unseen that is hidden deep inside the personality. Moreover, we want to materialise these things using LEGO bricks.
DAS Did you have a relationship with LEGO before you set up the project?
LN Yes, LEGO is our hobby, we simply love to play with it and collect it. This relationship dates back to our childhood, and has had a significant effect on our lives since then. I wouldn’t say we are amazing LEGO builders or collectors by any means, though. We usually bought 1 or 2 sets a year, put them together and decorated our home with them. That was all.
However my attitude changed recently. After we wrote a couple of articles together we came up with the idea of a blog. We named it Psychology in Pictures and you can find this on Instagram. I build models there, which illustrate psychological concepts, phenomena and even psychological symptoms. Through the blog I want to show that LEGO bricks can be used in a different way, and for another purpose.
Building and writing help me cope with everyday stresses; it’s how I handle my fears and sadness, how I vent anger, etc. I would also like to encourage others to do the same, to tackle their anxieties and worries by taking these colourful plastic pieces out of the box!
DAS It seems to me that the project came from your own experience of using LEGO bricks?
LN Yes, the idea dates back to 2012. Although it is a research project I wouldn’t say we are typical researchers. PIB is like a ‘hobby’ for us. We are working on it because we had the idea, and thought we could try to implement our hobby into our professional practice.
We have been working as therapists for almost 10 years, helping children and parents to overcome psychological difficulties, and were thinking about what we could do to make this work more effective and appealing. I believe PIB operates as some kind of answer to our clients’ needs. We also wanted something new, fresh and modern for the kids. We dreamt about a childrens’ psycho-diagnostic tool that is not scary, moreover, that is cute.
As far as the parents’ needs are concerned, we wanted something that enables them to see the nature of their child’s psychological disorders. We thought that it would be great if we had a tool or method that makes it easier for them to realise the connections between the past and the present, their parenting styles and the symptoms. Last but not least we wanted something where we can ‘easily’ share psychological knowledge. By easily I mean, in a fun and effective way, which is not intrusive or boring.
DAS Can you tell me a little more about how this sharing works?
LN PIB is partially based on the LEGO Group’s method called LEGO Serious Play, which is used as a tool for releasing creative potential. It is mostly used in the field of organisational development. Although it has a widespread theoretical background there were certain aspects that were particularly important to our method.
First of all there is the play, which helps one to realise and experience emotions. Second, as a cognitive psychological concept it refers to its subject through the physical activity of playing, as a way of organising knowledge. This is a highly effective way of learning and understanding. Last but not least it offers the opportunity for storytelling and the use of metaphors. Alongside the activity of play this helps in the understanding of abstract concepts and theories.
Through research LEGO Serious Play has shown that the use of LEGO bricks in playful tasks and storytelling is an effective tool for facilitating communication, deepening knowledge, unfolding new narratives, mapping identities and developing strategies. We thought that these capabilities could be very beneficial to the therapist. Perhaps it could support their work; and we decided to try this theory out.
However to do this, it needed to do more than LEGO Serious Play does, it also needed to be capable of sharing psychological concepts and theories, and supporting psycho-diagnostic work. As such we had to make some major changes.
On the one hand our games are based on personality theory concepts and diagnostic categories. These provide the reference points we need and makes our games capable of diagnosing (i.e. unfolding the subconscious aspects of the personality) and defining a client’s problem, so as to find its roots and to set-up an intervention.
The LEGO models that are created during PIB sessions wouldn’t be useful if we did not ask for (personal) memories, experiences as well. We use the models as a focus for these experiences. It means that with the help of the therapist’s intervention a client will be able to show us through their LEGO creations the unseen: content that comes from their subconscious.
Since our method relies on intimate stories and highly sensitive ‘data’ the presence of a professional helper is required. This is another improvement we’ve applied to LEGO Serious Play. The leader has to be a therapist with significant field experience. He or she is responsible for applying classical dynamic psychotherapy techniques during the building sessions. The most important thing they do is called interpretation. This is the act that links the memories to the symptoms and the past to the present.
Besides this he or she is also responsible for sharing some parts of the processes’ theories in order to set-up a common frame. This frame will act as a reference point for both the parties, providing a safe place, both physical and psychical. This is key for the successful work.
Perhaps it would be easier to understand all this through some activity. What if we gave it a try? I know that you have an interest in psychoanalysis and I happened to have an interesting game set-up, which we could try out.
DAS I think that would be an excellent idea.
LN I’ll set three games for you to play. For each you will need to build a LEGO model and provide a short description to explain the creation. After each I’ll offer an analysis.
Imagine that you are a King who has a very important task. You have to create your own Crest. Lets build your Coat of Arms! Note that your Crest will be seen not only by your people but also other Kings and even your enemies! So, choose your design wisely.
DAS I built my crest starting with the motto ‘Non Est Lex‘, which translated means ‘no one law’. This is my general ethical principle; that rigid laws do not guarantee justice. This would be a message to my people, that I would judge and rule case by case. At the top of the coat of arms is a children’s rocking horse, to signify the playful and happy kingdom. Below this, a heart with an eye, which sees all through compassion and feeling. An artificial flower, a spider, a tower and a crane occupy the four quadrants of the shield. The flower is a nod to aesthetic theory, that creativity is welcome in this land. The spider, often seen as a monster is the good housekeeper and enemy only of the flies and parasites. The tower reminds all of the security and safety of the kingdom. Finally the stalk is a symbol of new life, but also the prosperity afforded to one who has a long beak capable of finding the best food in even the muddiest and dirtiest terrain.
LN This game is called The Crest Test. It is intended to map a client’s identity, so as to reveal its different aspects. The game it is about how you see yourself and how you want to be seen? The Crest represents an idealised image of the ‘I’.
The King’s motto makes it clear that he considers himself a fair-minded and open-eyed ruler. It is the base of the model and supports the whole structure of his identity.
The rocking horse on the top gives the impression that it is important for him to be accepted and not to be judged. He can only grow and create in an environment where his feelings (even if they seem childish) and thoughts (that do not always fit into the norms of society) are respected and appreciated.
The King is well aware that this kind of fruitful and hearty ‘Kingdom’ (identity) is a sensible system, which needs to be regularly maintained (by the spider) and sometimes defended (by the tower).
The eye represents the look of the others. The King knows that he depends on them; he (like every human being) relies on their mirroring functions. He needs them to figure out who he really is. The image they show him is used to define himself, i.e. for identification.
The way you put together your Coat of Arms is similar to how identity is put together, using these little sensations and fragments that others show us. The way others perceive us defines how we see and show ourselves.
If your people made a Statue for their King, what would it look like?
DAS The people decided to call this piece ‘The King’s Ideas’ and gave it to him as a reminder on his duties. It should be placed on display in the office where he works, as a focus for him when making crucial decisions. The shadowy thoughts that emanate from the king’s crown remind him that his decisions hold all his subjects’ happiness in balance. He will have to tame the animals (his own and his subjects’ desires), and constantly balance death and disaster on the their noses. All being well a place for the happy man and woman will be established. Yet it will take a huge amount of will to do this – being a king is a duty… a duty to always think ideas in terms of equilibrium.
LN The second game is about how others see you? The Statue represents the system we live in. These include our family rules and the norms of society that we have to accept and adapt to.
The King is in a very difficult position since he is watched all the time. Every decision he makes (is seen by the Statue in the office) and every emotion he feels (again found in the eyes in the heart), is controlled by the others.
Balancing his temptations (the shadowy thoughts, i.e. desires) and liabilities (the Crown) is a hard thing to do. The expectations and demands of the others are literally on his head causing serious pressure (both physical and psychical).
It is a serious threat that these monochrome parts of the statue (at some point) are going to absorb the colourful King (who, by the way, does not seem comfortable or happy at all). The King’s biggest fear, that he may lose himself while satisfying others, is real!
The way the black parts bite into the King’s Crown on the Statue is a good illustration of how others’ expectations and demands effect and form our identity; and how intrusive and uncomfortable they can be.
The King has a Secret that nobody knows. What is it?
DAS The King’s secret is that he often leaves his palace and joins the people out in the city; it is a lonely business being a monarch. He never announces to anyone that he is the king, but some may guess because he can’t help but stand out being grey in colour. However, this is just the first part of his secret, the real secret is that he is happiest when he is not being a king – when he is just one of the crowd. Yet he has a duty to the people and could never give up his crown for good.
LN The third game is intend to reveal the things that are left or missing from the previous ones. There are things that must not exist; and that is why we call this game the Secret.
From time to time the King escapes from the Castle and joins his people. He needs to do this because it brings him back to a time when he was one of them, when he could be himself. It cannot make him happy though, because he is still a king. There is something that stands between him and his desires and this is the Crown. Sometimes he does not want to be a King, and that is completely understandable. However such a thought is a danger to the Kingdom so it needs to be suppressed and replaced with a much more acceptable one. Something like this: ‘Without the Crown I could be happy!’ Although it is an illusion it gives him hope and comfort in dark times.
The Secret is the most problematic game in this set, and it often causes difficulties for the clients. You were not satisfied with it either, because it refers to a territory that should remain hidden. These things are not normally allowed to be experienced or phrased.
DAS Once the analysis is complete how would you normally respond?
LN Normally I would make an educational or pedagogical response. In your case I couldn’t resist creating a model that may help you better understand the relation of these games to our identity. I recreated your models and used them for this purpose.
The three models represent three different aspects or parts of the identity. The way I posed the figures refer not only to their relations but also their origins. The grey figure is the King (from your third model). He is standing in front of a mirror, which is held by a human. What is he doing? He would like to figure out who he is.
The mirror represents the social act where others show us who we are. This is called mirroring and is a function used for defining ourselves. The human hand symbolises that the image comes from somewhere else, not from us. The image we use for identification comes from outside (of us). This distorted, false or fake image is our first (somewhat) conscious part of our identity. This is the Crest. It can be seen in the mirror. This is what the King can see standing before him in the mirror.
The Statue is also visible in the mirror. This part of the identity is based on the language. It contains the norms and rules of both the family and society.
The mirror is in a ‘weird position’. In that this is how others manipulate the images we see. They offset the mirror so we won’t be able to see or notice certain parts of ourselves. Those colourful pieces (around the King) do not appear in the mirror. They are the parts of ourselves, which our existence does not allow. However these aspects of the self have a tendency to return; it’s part of their nature. They always find a way to come back and disturb the functions of the other two.
DAS I genuinely found your games enlightening. It is true that I do place duty very high on my list of desirable traits. I have a multitude of jobs, roles and responsibilities: I’m a husband, a father, a manager, a teacher and a colleague. I take all of these roles seriously; I’m diligent and committed. Yet, they do cause strains and pressures – as all things you take seriously do. Interestingly I read into the third game’s image following your analysis my creative practice. The king in the crowd is perhaps a creation I have placed out into the world along with many others. To not be restrained by norms and family roles for a short time, means being creative, sharing my LEGO artworks with the community of builders – who might actually be other Kings and Queens finding respite from responsibility.
Then thinking about your pedagogical response, I thought maybe those bricks scattered around the king are not only hidden aspects of his identity, but also literally un-built bricks, models yet to be, expressions that need other modes of manifestation.
I was wondering if this type of response to a PIB session is typical?
LN Yes, it is. I use LEGO (almost) all the time during counseling session, both for mirroring and interpretation. LEGO is a very useful tool for both client and therapist. However you normally have to be over 14-years old for it to work.
DAS From a therapeutic context how successful has PIB been?
LN For us, it has been a success, and helps us greatly in our work. Sometimes I put together some LEGO bricks instead of words to show the client something; and sometimes I rearrange or modify their model to do the same.
Clients like it too. It is more appealing than a questionnaire or other tests, and has a unique aesthetic, which evokes positive emotions and associations. Also it helps them express their thoughts because it is a different language. Sometimes it’s easier to build something than say something.
DAS Where do you see your method being taken next?
LN Although we’ve undertaken lots of research and pilot studies PIB is not an official method or test. Our next step is its standardization. This is a 3-4 year project. At the moment we are working on the arrangements / preparations process. Last but not least we are planning to write a book, some kind of handbook for adults that uses the PIB method.
To see more of Lászlo’s work please visit his blog Psychology in Pictures.