Behind the Blots: Hermann Rorschach's Ink Test

Apr 27, 2017

We’ve all heard references to the “Rorschach test,” but when you hear that term these days, it’s more likely a cultural reference than a clinical one.  In his new book The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, award-winning translator and Guggenheim recipient Damion Searls tells us about the little known life of the man who created that test -- Hermann Rorschach.

“He was born in 1884 in Switzerland, was a trained psychiatrist, and probably the most important thing about him was that he was a visual person,” says Searls.  “He was very respectful and in touch with how much it says about you how you see things in the world.”

The son of a drawing teacher and an amateur artist all his life, Rorschach used his artistic skills to reach his psychiatric patients in Zurich, Switzerland, where he trained under famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung.  After seeing the effects of this approach, he created a series of ten cards and presented them to patients in a specific order to test their perception.

Rorschach card 3: "two drummers opposing each other" or two waiters bowing?

“It’s those ten that are still shown in the same order, 100 years later,” says Searls. “Those ten images actually work better than ink blots that you or I could make – they really are right on these tipping points where it’s possible to approach it one way and it’s possible to approach it another way.”

Although for many years the test fell out of favor in the clinical setting, it has long held a place in the popular imagination, as Searls points out. And, it’s now seeing a resurgence of use in professional psychiatry.

“Not everyone is a word person, and everyone sees things in their own way. So, psychology that really pays attention to that – just like advertising that does – is only going to be increasingly important in our modern world.”

During this hour of River to River, host Ben Kieffer talks to Searls about Hermann Rorschach, the life of his iconic test, and why it’s still relevant in the twenty-first century.