Damion Searls

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The Inkblots

Searls, Damion

Last Updated: Jun-14-2022
Annotated by:
Madsen, Danielle

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography


Damion Searls’ The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing is a comprehensive history of Rorschach’s life and an overview of the use and influence of his psychiatric test over the past century.

Rorschach grew up in Switzerland, the son of a widowed middle school art teacher who would die while Rorschach was a teenager after suffering from years from neurological disease caused by lead paint exposure. Rorschach debates whether to study drawing and become a teacher or attend medical school and pursue a career in neurology. The book follows his career across three countries after choosing to do the latter, until he becomes a practicing psychiatrist at a rural Swiss institution. It traces his psychiatric influences—Bleuler and then Jung as professors while at the University of Zurich and Freud via their influence—as well as his artistic ones—Ernst Haeckel, the pre-modernist galleries of Zurich, then Russian Futurism. It also provides an overview of the field of psychiatry at the time: schizophrenia was considered an unremittable condition named dementia praecox, psychiatric institutions included patients with tertiary syphilis, and increasing neurologic knowledge and psychiatric techniques improved diagnostics but not treatments.

The earliest inkblots of Rorschach’s are temporary creations made with a local schoolteacher and administered to patients and pupils, formulated as one of dozens of strategies to gain insight into people. Rorschach’s patients see much in these inkblots, but the schoolboys little, and the experiment is abandoned. He returns to the idea a decade later, with greater stress placed on the image. He requires that they look organic rather than made, imply movement, and have multiple foreground/background interpretations. After creating a set of ten products, he starts to categorize results. He codes whether the answers are seen in the whole image or a detail; whether they are based on form, color, or movement; whether the figures seen in the image are well- or poorly-defined; and how many and what category of answers are seen. The coded results enable Rorschach to give accurate blind diagnoses and he begins to gain traction in psychiatric community. However, he dies before his inkblots become popular.

The book follows the test as it travels to America and gains acclaim with psychologists. It is used in clinic and hospitals and becomes a standard part of psychology training. The inkblots are part of military personnel assessments and scientific studies. They are referenced in criminal trials and family court. They are applied in anthropology and education. They show up on movie posters and in fashion shows and become a household name. As it details these broad applications, the book explains the battle over how the test should be given and whether analysis of the results should be open-ended interpretation or a standardized scoring method. It also details society’s constantly shifting belief as to whether psychological testing is a valid diagnostic tool.  

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