Return of the Inkblot: King of Klecks arises

7 minute read

Inkblots may be set for a comeback to help us understand perception processing.


No, my friend. We are lunatics from the hospital up the highway, psycho-ceramics, the cracked pots of mankind. Would you like me to decipher a Rorschach for you?

How many doctors have their name enter the vocabulary as a synonym for reading someone’s mind? Such a person is Hermann Rorschach, the man who looked like a young Brad Pitt. “Doing a Rorschach” means being able to read a person’s innermost thoughts, more correctly doing the famous test with its images of strange blots and bat-like shapes. The Rorschach test consists of 10 inkblots with the subject asked to say what objects or figures they see in each of them, thereby projecting the unconscious aspects of their personality.

Its inventor was a remarkably creative psychiatrist with an interest in mystical sects. As a boy growing up in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, Rorschach enjoyed Klecksography, the game of making inkblot pictures, which led to his nickname of Klex. His father was an art teacher and he was a talented drawer himself. He had an early interest in science but went into medicine and qualified in psychiatry. Zurich was then a world leader in the field and he trained under such worthies as Eugene Bleuler and Carl Jung. Psychoanalysis was very much in vogue and there was a search for ways of exploring the unconscious.

Justinus Kerner, eccentric 19th century German poet and spiritualist, was the first to publish symmetrical blots. His 1857 book had several graphics which resemble Rorschach blots. Commencing with Jung’s Association Test, Rorschach showed inkblots to children to see why they had different responses. This was the start of the process that led the test.

Anticipating the work of Prinzhorn, Rorschach got his psychotic patients to paint and draw as a guide to their unconscious. He noted that movement responses nearly always occurred ‘when human beings or animals capable of motion similar to that of human beings (monkeys, bears) are seen in the figures’.

Another experiment was to show his pet monkey to see the reaction of schizophrenic patients, unfortunately not written up and thereby denying him a role as a pioneer of veterinary psychiatry.

While not conventionally religious, Rorschach had a mystical streak which led to an interest in cults, which were not uncommon in Switzerland at the time and led to him spending time in Russia, a place where mysticism ran even more rampant. He was to make a detailed analysis of the sects using psychiatry, psychoanalysis, sociology and psychopathology. He started with Johannes Binggeli who followed a familiar path for cult leaders. Binggeli extolled the modest belief that his urine should be used for holy communion and utilised his sperm to expel the demons from young girls. The end result of this was inevitable but Rorschach extended his study to other sects.

Rorschach had a propensity for watching people while they looked at paintings, trying to detect how they felt from their posture and movements during the visual experience. After 1911, stimulated by a Polish student who had developed his own test, Rorschach abandoned work on the sects and returned to focus on inkblots. Over the next three years he developed a system of cards and experimented with patients and normal subjects to validate the responses. He took the concept of kleptograms, blots made on a folded page and adapted them to produce his famous images.

The result, his book Psychodiagnostik: A Diagnostic Test Based on Perception (Huber, Berne) was published in 1921. Of course, he had the usual problems known to authors with uncomprehending and lazy publishers. Rorschach made the ink blots forms relatively simple. They consisted of 10 plates consisting of 18 × 24 cm white printed with amorphous but bilaterally symmetrical shapes. Five of the shapes are coloured in various shades of grey and black, two are in black and red and three multi-coloured.

The distribution of blots on the plate was composed to be suggestive, rather than resemble an ink blot. Symmetrical patterns made conditions the same for right- and left-handed subjects, facilitated interpretation in inhibited and blocked subjects and made possible the interpretation of whole scenes. Some responses were to patterns, others to details. Answers were classified according to whether the subject saw a fixed form, movement or colour.

The response would allow psychological assessment and diagnose mental illnesses. Rorschach said that intelligence and emotional factors influenced an individual’s response to the images. While this could be of help to the analyst, it was emphatic that it was a test of perception.

Rorschach’s ink-blots harness our ability to ‘see’ significant things in amorphous shapes, such as geological features, constellations and clouds, a phenomenon noted by the Greek philosopher Apollonius 2000 years ago. Our brains constantly look for known patterns in random structures with low information content. The reported forms seen by “pedants and depressives” were determined by the form of the blot alone. Animals are the most frequent form elicited by the blots, occurring in 25–50% of responses, and seeing oneself was most common in schizophrenics.

Perception is also influenced by culture; for example, Chinese-born subjects tend to perceive the blots and human forms as a whole pattern, compared with American-born Chinese who tend to focus on details within the blot and on parts of the body.

For Rorschach this was just the start. By the time it came out, his ideas had moved well beyond the concepts in the book. Then tragedy struck. In April 1922, at the age of 37, he died of a ruptured appendix, an awful fate for a talented psychiatrist who had much more to offer.

Rorschach however had produced a totally original work, divorced from developments in psychiatry at the time. His focus was on perceptions: dreams, hallucinations and random images such as clouds and inkblots. The underlying concept is what as known as pareidolia: perceiving (meaning seeing) objects in amorphous shapes. The neurologist GD Schott described the blots as combining visual artistry with scientific properties, which ‘launched just about the largest literature in psychology’. No mean achievement for an obscure publication whose author was not around to explain the work.

Historian Henri Ellenberger was to describe Rorschach as having an artist’s personality. His drawings of human movement were especially skilled and he had a preference for gentian blue – which he described as the favourite colour of people who strove for self control. This manifested in the way he worked – bursts of intense activity before moving on to something else. He was quite indifferent to money and never made more than 25 Francs from his test.

Psychodiagnostik was controversial from the start. The book did not get a rapturous reception from his colleagues and there was intense hostility in Germany where (to no surprise) the idea of comprehending the human personality with a test was anathema. Critics dismissed it as just another – and questionable – means of psychological testing.

In the years that followed there was slow progress. In 1932 Hans Binder introduced the concept of chiaroscuro and by World War 2 it was being used around the world, notably in the United States.

This state was not to last. Complaints about its lack of scientific validity escalated. There was a good deal of criticism of its use in court cases. The pendulum slowly swung and now, except for hardline analysts, the Rorschach test has no place in modern psychiatry or psychology.

But the inkblot test has displayed remarkable persistence and may yet surface in another manifestation. New research has shown that the tests, rather than reading the unconscious mind, are an indication of how the brain reads certain visual images and are likely to be resurrected in a new form to understand how we form perceptions.

Rorschach was onto something and his work is likely to be with us for some time to come. We can only wonder what else he would have produced if his life was not so sadly curtailed.

Robert M Kaplan, in response to the concern of people around him about his writing, did the inkblot test. He is now convinced he is a bat.


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