I have never taken a Rorschach test. Not clinically. I’m guessing neither have most of you, although you’re likely familiar with them. For those who aren’t, Rorschach tests, or inkblot tests, are mirrored, purposely ambiguous, splotches of ink spread across a page. While they most resemble the artwork of a creative toddler, they are instead a form of psychological test. The ambiguousness of the imagery supposedly allows the viewer to see whatever speaks to them and in so doing reveals elements of their subconcious they may not be aware of or might otherwise try to keep hidden.
In the above image, the most common response is to see a bat, or a butterfly, or a moth. But you might see something else entirely. You might see a wicked face laughing at you. You might see a dancer, mid pose. You might see an angel reaching for the sun. There are no wrong answers, only your answer. With your answer telling us more about you than it does about the image.
Hermann Rorschach, the namesake and creator, devised this test in his twenties while working at a psychiatric hospital in a remote part of Switzerland. You might consider that young to develop a psychological test that still has some sporadic use in clinics today, and you’d be right. However, inkblots had been a part of Rorschach’s life since he was a child. He had such a love of making images from inkblots–also known as klecksography–that his school friends called his Klek, or inkblot. It’s no real wonder then that when young Hermann looked out at the field of psychoanalysis what he saw he saw were inkblots.
While still a medical student, Rorschach showed inkblots to schoolchildren and analysed their responses as part of his dissertation. He then travelled, studying further, before settling in Herisau, the location of the psychiatric hospital where he would develop his now famous test. He designed the inkblots himself, his creativity coming from the fact that his father was an artist, with Hermann himself having previously grappled with the decision to move into art or science when leaving his schooling. He experimented with several hundred inkblot tests, differing colour and design, showing them all to the patients at the hospital. Early results were promising. The different responses to the the different blots were consistent among schizophrenics to manic-depressives, who both responded differently to the control group–people not diagnosed with any kind of mental disorder. It didn’t take long for Rorschach to reverse engineer his own findings and start to diagnose psychiatric illnesses and predict personality traits based on answers to the inkblot tests, claiming that he got it wrong less than 25 percent of the time.
After studying three hundred mental patients and one hundred controls Rorschach wrote the book that would eventually make him famous, Pschodiagnostik. In it he showed ten inkblots, carefully chosen for their diagnostic value. The first of which you’ve now seen. The book did not do well, attracting little attention from the people of the time and was described as “a densely written piece couched in dry, scientific terminology”. Those looking at his work didn’t see much of anything at all it turned out.
Rorschach would die unexpectedly a year later, due to a ruptured appendix.
It wouldn’t be until six years after that that his work would finally be published to some acclaim, after being purchased by the then newly founded Hans Huber publishing house, who still publish the Rorschach test to this day.
Since then it has been used millions and millions of times. For murder trials and custody battles, psychiatric diagnoses and university admissions and job applications. People’s lives have changed for better or worse, spun on a dime into a whole new direction, because of what they saw in a blot of ink.
I find the Rorschach test exceedingly interesting, if not overly scientific. I think the results are valid and illuminating and worth analysing, they’re just not as precise as other scientific methods, like say a blood test. But then I also don’t think that anything that tries to grasp the complexities of the human mind could be.
I wonder also what the difference a day makes when completing a Rorschach test. If I were to complete one on a day when everything had gone right would I see something different, and more positive, than on a day when everything had gone wrong?
While researching this topic I saw a comic that showed two people from different eras giving an answer to the same inkblot test. One, from our decade, saw a tree, while another from the 1960’s–when nuclear war was an occasional threat–saw a mushroom cloud. Meaning what we see is as much about the time we live in as it is about our subconscious. That the time period we live in forms who we are and how we think. If Hermann Rorschach had been born in a today’s era, apart from likely surviving his ruptured appendix, his patients might very well have seen smartphones or thumbs up emojis swimming inside his inkblots.
Which brings me to an example of a modern Rorschach test. The internet. I saw a post on twitter the other day–a joke, not a particularly funny one, but a joke nonetheless–and the comments that followed covered the entire emotional spectrum. Some people thought it was hilarious, others banal, and yet others still that it was the highest form of insult imaginable. Who was right? They all were. They all saw something different. They each read it in an entirely different way. And, I think, as with a traditional Rorschach test, the way in which they read it said more about them than it did about the original post.
The truth is everything is a Rorschach test, because every reaction and response we have to a stimulus, whatever it may be, tells us something about ourselves. Inkblots and the internet are perhaps just a less subtle form, one where we lower our efforts to mask the inner gremlin controlling us, and let out it to describe our innermost horrors. Except that’s not really how it works is it? What’s hidden away behind the veil of our subconscious may just be apathy, or a fear of rejection. It might be a concern over being forgotten, or dread at the possibility of failure. All these little insecurities inside of us, subtly controlling our actions and responses. Insecurities that we want to keep hidden away, unless it’s from behind the anonymous safety of a computer screen, of the unconscious reveal of a Rorschach test. But maybe they should be revealed. Maybe they should be uncovered and examined, and better yet, healed.
It was, it turns out, for this reason that Rorschach first designed his test.
Here is a quote taken from a letter Hermann Rorschach wrote to his sister when he was nineteen and had just made the decision to pursue medicine over art.
“I never again want to read just books. I want to read people. The most interesting thing in nature is the human soul, and the greatest thing a person can do is heal souls. Sick souls.”
I have never taken a Rorschach test. Maybe I will.