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

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An early draft of Card III in Hermann Rorschach's psychological test.

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"A lot of people do dismiss them, but those dismissals are out of date," he says.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