The Inkblots

Searls, Damion

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Annotated by:
Madsen, Danielle
  • Date of entry: Jun-14-2022


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.  


This is a fascinating book for anyone interested in the history of psychology. The Rorschach test was so widely applied in the past century that the history of its use is inevitably also a history of the field. But it is not chiefly that. The detailing of the method of application and results of the inkblots in each context put the focus always on why the test fails to or succeeds in finding insight. There is a general theme to Searls’ answers—it fails when too much focus is put on what answer is given rather than what type of answer is given. But because the test so frequently succeeds in finding differences between cultures or professions, it is clear even a perfectly coded test could be detecting something other than psychiatric health.

As an attempt to answer what the Rorschach inkblots are, despite being a sweeping history of their many applications, the book is strongest when answering where they come from. It presents the picture of a man deeply invested in his patients but even more deeply curious about how perception works. Given the picture of Rorschach the book creates—a man who asked friends what modern artworks made them feel, who wrote his medical thesis on reflexive hallucinations, and whose clinical journals include detailed analyses of patients’ drawings—it is easy to believe his most famous product was created as an experiment, not a test. The book tells how Rorschach would not attend the last lecture he had scheduled before his death because he needed more time to gain clarity about what he was seeing. Generations after him, despite their surety, seem to have also failed.

The book ultimately argues that the Rorschach test sees something. It claims that effective psychologic assessment requires emotion from the participant. And, if art can inspire emotion in its viewer, something in the form, colors, and implied movement of this artist-psychiatrist’s creation seems to inspire emotion during the act of perception. What that something is, and what perceptions of the inkblots mean, are as unclear as they were a century ago.





Page Count