How Hermann Rorschach's 'Inkblots' Took On A Life Of Their Own

Feb 17, 2017
Originally published on February 21, 2017 1:49 pm

These days, you're more likely to come across the concept of a Rorschach test in a cultural context than a clinical one. The actual psychological test — in which participants are asked to interpret 10 symmetric inkblot images — isn't as widely used as it once was. But metaphorically, Rorschach is still our go-to term when something elicits a variety of interpretations among different people.

The test was designed by a Swiss psychiatrist and artist in the early 1920s. Hermann Rorschach trained with influential psychiatrist Carl Jung, but he also had a strong artistic background.

"His dad was a drawing teacher and he was a very visual person," author Damion Searls tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

In his new book, The Inkblots, Searls traces the history of the Rorschach test and the man who invented it. The Rorschach images have become something of a cliche over the years, and Searls believes that reputation is unfair.

"A lot of people do dismiss them, but those dismissals are out of date," he says.

Searls believes that when administered properly, the test can yield useful data, but he cautions that it would never be used in isolation but rather always in the context of other tests. He talks with Siegel about the evolution of the Rorschach test and the intersection of art and psychology.


Interview Highlights

On how the Rorschach test didn't start out as a test

He started off being interested in them as a perception experiment — in other words, not a test at all, but just a way to study how people see things. And then he started realizing that people with different kinds of personalities were seeing things differently and that he could use these images as a real test.

On abstract art and psychiatry evolving at the same time

That was one of things I was most surprised [by] and kind of excited to run across in writing the book. Because if you look at it from a psychology point of view, the Rorschach test seems kind of out of left field. If you think about Freud and Jung, they're focusing on words. But in the 19th century there was work done in psychology on how people perceive things, and that was seen to be a psychological issue.

So there's this idea that, how can we connect to things visually if they're not people? If we look at a crying person, then we might feel sad. But if we just look at a harmonious painting or sunset, how can we feel any emotion? There's nothing to connect to. So there was this idea that empathy — which was a term invented at that time — is the way that we connect to things that we see.

On the influence of German philosopher and psychologist Karl Albert Scherner

His main point was that the mind, whether asleep or awake, transforms things symbolically. Modern psychology and abstract art are close cousins with this idea, that what we are doing when we go about the world and seeing things is not just taking in what we see, but sort of putting something of ourselves out there.

That's what's key to both the Rorschach test and to the modern abstract art that was being invented at the same time and place. ... Most people would say the point of abstract art is that — how can it be anything if it's just a rectangle? Well, it can be something, because viewers connect to it.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Most of us probably haven't been subjects of a Rorschach test, a psychological test in which you're asked about ten standard images, called inkblots. But all of us have probably heard something described metaphorically as a Rorschach test, something that elicits a variety of interpretations depending on whom you ask.

The Rorschach test has become a cliche. The man who developed it, Hermann Rorschach, is a lot less well-known than his test or the metaphorical uses of it. Damion Searls' new book, "The Inkblots," sets out to remedy that. Welcome to the program.

DAMION SEARLS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: First, who was Hermann Rorschach?

SEARLS: Hermann Rorschach was a Swiss psychiatrist and artist. He was born in 1884. He became a psychiatrist. He studied under Carl Jung, among other people, in Zurich. But at the same time, his dad was a drawing teacher, and he was a very visual person.

SIEGEL: Now, he developed this set of ultimately 10 symmetric images. What did Rorschach find or claim he could do with these inkblots?

SEARLS: Well, he started off being interested in them as a perception experiment - in other words, not a test at all but just a way to study how people see things. And then he started realizing that people with different kinds of personalities were seeing things differently and that he could use these images as a real test.

SIEGEL: Here are two statements. This is like a psychological test. Which one is more true - one, Rorschach's inkblots still play an important role in psychological testing, or two, the inkblots are dismissed by most mental health professionals today as pseudoscience, too subjective; they're no longer taken all that seriously?

SEARLS: A lot of people do dismiss them, but those dismissals are out of date. And if what you want to follow is sort of the latest scientific empirical evidence, you'd have to say the Rorschach works. The real test is not that if you see a bouncing bunny, you're the good twin and if you see an axe murderer, you're the bad twin. And if you see your mother, boy, you're really in trouble.

SIEGEL: There was a 2003 book called "What's Wrong With Rorschach?" in which the authors presented a blind study which Rorschach had done. He would read another psychiatrist's descriptions of a patient's answers and do a diagnosis of the patient or evaluation of the patient. But in this case, the subject of the test was described as scoring very high on the depression scale, very bad at personal relations, and it turned out to be the book's co-author, who in addition to being a Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist with a Yale Divinity degree - he said he suffered from no depression, whatever. I mean if a test is wrong let's say 10 percent of the time, does that invalidate the utility of a psychological test?

SEARLS: I don't know. I don't want to be put in the position of the scientist defending it. But the scientists who actually write the articles have shown that if it's administered properly, that it works. It's also never given by any responsible person as a single thing. In other words, if you see one snake with a mustache on card number 4, well, then to the loony bin with you.

SIEGEL: You're right at one point that Hermann Rorschach practiced psychiatry at the beginning of the 20th century, a time when not only was psychiatry coming of age, but so was abstract art. The link between abstract art and the inkblots, it turns out, is not coincidental at all.

SEARLS: That was one of the things I was most surprised and kind of excited to run across in writing the book because if you look at it from a psychology point of view, the Rorschach test seems kind of out of left field. If you think about Freud and Jung, they're focusing on words. But in the 19th century, there was work done in psychology on how people perceive things, and that was seen to be a psychological issue.

And so there's this idea that, how can we connect to things visually if they're not people? You know, if we look at a crying person, then we might feel sad, but if we just look at a harmonious painting or a sunset, how can we feel any emotion? There's nothing to connect to. So there was this idea that empathy, which was a term invented at that time, is the way that we connect to things that we see.

And one of the things I was amazed to discover is that the person named Robert Fisher, who sort of came up with that theory that really fed into the Rorschach test, Freud, in "The Interpretation Of Dreams," both sighted the same person as having been the inspiration for their ideas - this man named Scherner. Karl Albert Scherner wrote a book about the soul and about how when you dream about a house with the door falling off, it has to do with your teeth and, you know, all this kind of stuff that led into Freud. But his main point was that the mind, whether asleep or awake, transforms things symbolically.

Modern psychology and abstract art are close cousins with this idea that what we're doing when we go about the world and seeing things is not just taking in what we see but sort of putting something of ourselves out there. That's what's key to both the Rorschach test and to the modern abstract art that was being invented at the same time and place.

SIEGEL: The abstract art is imposing less objectivity on us. It's not forcing us to a reaction. There's more work on our part to imagine that reaction.

SEARLS: Right. Most people would say the idea of abstract art is that, you know, how can it be anything if it's just a rectangle? Well, it can be something because viewers connect to it.

SIEGEL: Damion Searls - his book "The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, And The Power Of Seeing" comes out next week. Thanks for being on the program.

SEARLS: Oh, thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.