Lauretta Bender, M.D.

Test Developed:
The Bender Visual Motor Gestalt Test

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Born on August 9, 1897, to John Oscar Bender, an attorney, and Katherine Irvine Bender, Lauretta was the youngest of four children. Lauretta repeated first grade three times and was thought to be mentally retarded, in large part because of her tendency to reverse letters in reading and writing. However, by the time she completed grammar school, any concerns about mental retardation were quelled, since she had proved herself an able student.

The family moved often. Lauretta attended high school in Los Angeles, where she cultivated an interest in biological research. She earned her B.S. and M.A. degrees at the University of Chicago and while there pursued research that led to her first scientific publications—"hematological studies on experimental tuberculosis of the guinea pig. Accepted at the State University of Iowa Medical School, she was granted a research and teaching assistantship and assigned to Dr. Samuel Orton in the department of neuropathology. In 1926 she earned her M.D. degree. This was followed by some study overseas, an internship at the University of Chicago, a residency at Boston Psychopathic Hospital, and a research appointment at the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic of Johns Hopkins Hospital. While at Hopkins she met and wrote a publication with the Viennese psychoanalyst and contemporary of Freud’s Paul Schilder, M.D., Ph.D. Although Schilder was married and eleven years her senior, Bender is said to have fallen in love with him and moved to New York with him in 1930 to work at Bellevue Hospital once Schilder had been offered and had accepted a position there. After Schilder’s divorce, the two were married in November of 1936 and within the following four years the couple had three children. Tragedy struck shortly after the birth of their third child in 1940; leaving the hospital after visiting Lauretta and his newborn daughter, Paul was struck down and killed by a car. Lauretta did not marry again until she was 70 years old, this time to Henry B. Parkes, Ph.D., and was widowed again after only five years of marriage.

Lauretta Bender may be best remembered for her Visual Motor Gestalt Test first published in 1938. In her own words, here is some background regarding the development of that test:

Here is the way the Visual Motor Gestalt Test came into being: I am not a clinical psychologist and have had no training in psychology. I am a psychiatrist and neurologist, a neuropathologist trained in the pathology of the brain and the nervous system by S. T. Orton at the time when he was doing his important work with strephosymbolia. In 1930, I was a research associate to Adolf Meyer, studying schizophrenic adults at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Springfield State Hospital in Maryland. At that time, gestalt psychology was just becoming known in this country through the work of the German psychologists Kurt Kaffka, Wilhelm Koehler, and Max Wertheimer, all of whom later came to this country, where they finished their work.

Gestalt psychology teaches that whatever we see or perceive we experience immediately as a global organized whole or gestalt. This organized whole is more immediately experienced than any of its parts or details, which are recognized later by the process of differentiation. Wertheimer studied these phenomena with a variety of line drawings, configurations, and gestalten, which he presented to adult subjects, asking them to describe what they saw.

I was interested in finding out how subjects who could not or would not talk would experience such gestalten. In the beginning these were psychiatric patients, often mute schizophrenics at Springfield State Hospital and Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. Later I was interested in finding out how children, normal and not normal, experienced gestalten, what their visual experiences were and how they developed, from as young as they would respond to the test until maturity. I therefore adapted some of Wertheimer’s research configurations, put them on cards, and asked my subjects to copy them. Later, Dr. Wertheimer personally gave my work his blessing.

The Visual Motor Gestalt Test (Bender, 1938) evolved as a method of evaluating maturation of visual motor gestalt functioning in children 4 to 11 years of age. The gestalt function is that function of the integrated organism or brain whereby it responds to a given constellation of stimuli as a whole, the response itself being a motor process of patterning the perceived gestalt.

The aim of the test is to get not a perfect reproduction of the test figures but a record of a perceptual motor experience—"a living experience, unique and never twice the same, even with the same individual, as a result of a known stimuli constellation.

Certain principles determine the maturation of visual motor perception in children: (1) Vortical movement, biologically determined in the optic field, gives rise to the most primitive visually perceived forms, such as circles and loops. (2) Movement, always present, is directional—"clockwise or counterclockwise—"or on a horizontal plane—"dextrad or sinistrad. (3) By controlling or inhibiting this action-pattern, globes, circles, and arcs are constructed. (4) This organizes the visual field into foreground and background. (5) Boundaries between objects are delineated. (6) Verticalization arises concurrent with body-image maturation as the postural model shifts in the infant from the prone to the upright position. (7) Crossed lines, diagonal or slanting relations, and angle formations are a later level of maturation, usually occurring at about 6 to 8 years of age.

The niceties of all of these relations are often not completed, at least in combinations, until the age of 11 years. However, at six to eight years, the main principles have matured. Six to eight years is also the age of "readiness" to acquire skills of reading and writing. The child’s motility and posture mature with control of whirling. Whirling games, typical of young children, are an immature expression of the primitive neck-righting reflex responses. Sports take the place of ring-around-the-rosie and aimless body play. Personality attains social maturity; the child goes to school and accepts teacher and classmates in place of his family.

Plasticity or fluidity (lack of stabilization of usually perceived form) of orientation on the background and of separation of objects by boundaries permits variability of function. There always remains a tendency to revert to more primitive forms. The younger or more deviate the child, the more plastic and facile is the gestalt function. Certain pathological states associated with disturbances, especially lags in maturation—"such as childhood schizophrenia, early diffuse ("minimal") brain damage, and learning difficulties—"are characterized by more plasticity or more primitive responses. (Plasticity is a concept from embryology meaning "as yet undifferentiated but capable of being differentiated.") (Bender, 1970, pp. 29–"30)

Bender served on the psychiatric staff at Bellevue Hospital from 1930 through 1956 and was appointed head of the Children’s Psychiatric Division in 1934. Bender also held numerous other positions, including a professorship at New York University, a faculty position at New York State Psychiatric Institute, and the post of editorial advisor to Action Comics—"the latter stemming in part from an article she wrote that focused on the role of comics in developing children’s reading skills. Lauretta Bender’s accomplishments have been acknowledged by numerous professional organizations, which have bestowed on her a variety of honors and awards. Even in retirement in Maryland, Bender served as a consultant to various organizations, including the Anne Arundel County Board of Education.


Bender, L. (1938). A visual-motor gestalt test and its clinical use. American Orthopsychiatric Association Research Monographs, No. 3.

Bender, L. (1970). The visual-motor gestalt test in the diagnosis of learning disabilities. Journal of Special Education, 4, 29–"39.

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