Our topic for Chattering Class this week: Psychology’s infamous Rorschach test. And our teacher is author Damion Searls.
His new book, “The Inkblots,” is all about Hermann Rorschach, an artistically-inclined Swiss psychiatrist who in the 1910s learned he could diagnose patients just by asking them to describe what they saw in abstract blots on paper. The test and those inkblot images became iconic, showing up in everything from comic books to the cover of Jay Z’s biography.
When Rico spoke to Searls, he started the conversation by asking him about the genesis of Rorschach’s test.
Damion Searls: At first he was using it to study how people perceive the world. He originally didn’t think of it as a task, he thought of it as a perception experiment. You know, do people start from little parts and build up a big picture or do they start superficial and then zone in on details? How do people go about engaging with the world? He did start to realize that it was a test that would let you say, “This person’s schizophrenic. This person’s manic depressive.” Patients of different types or people of different personalities had these kind of systematic differences in how they went about seeing.
Rico Gagliano: The test is actually very specific. These aren’t just randomly made blobs on a paper, they’re not like different every time. Tell us what the test consists of.
Damion Searls: That was the other big surprise for me. I sort of thought the Rorschach test was just these smears and you’d make your own or a doctor would make their own or whatever. In fact, there are 10 and there are only 10 and Herman Rorschach made them and he put them in a sequence and those are the 10 that are still used today, a hundred years later.
Rico Gagliano: And how did you settle on these 10 images?
Damion Searls: Well, we don’t know and we never will because that year and a half of his life there’s pretty much no record. But clearly, what he did was make these ink blots. There are some drafts where you can see them getting, in a way more and more concrete and specific, but at the same time indeterminate and weird. So they’re specifically like something, but you’re not quite sure what. They really don’t look like just random smears.
Rico Gagliano: But I will say, you know, there’s a tension that you talk about in the book between people who think that the test is actually total hogwash and those who think it’s essential. And what you just told me seems to make one maybe teeter towards the hogwash camp because, you know, you have to look at exactly these 10 images, there’s something special about these 10 images, but we have no idea why.
Damion Searls: Well, there are two answers to that. One is, by now, there’s millions and millions of data points on these. So if you give me an answer about a snake with a mustache on the moon, I can look up in a table and have an objective answer to whether lots of other people see that or no one else sees that. The other answer is, they’re good. They have both a structure and a freedom to them.
For example, one of the big results of the test is how much you see sort of movement and life in the images, as opposed to just seeing them as like frigid and dead. Now if you show someone a picture of kicking a soccer ball, then pretty much everyone will see movement in it. And if you show someone some random smear, pretty much no one will see movement in it.
So, it’s actually not that easy to come up with an image that is liable to see movement if you’re on this side of the tipping point, but not if you’re on that side of the tipping point.
Rico Gagliano: It needs to be kind of abstract enough basically to accommodate a variety of interpretations.
Damion Searls: Abstract in a specific way, not just like a Mark Rothko rectangle, no one’s gonna see movement in it at all. There have been a lot of efforts down through the years to sort of come up with new images. Either as a control test or just because different psychologists wanted to do different things. And none of those worked because this is where it matters that he was an artist. Even though it was intuitive, like he actually came up with stuff that works.
Rico Gagliano: The Rorschach test has become part of the popular culture, even part of the language. What about it do you think is so enticing to people?
Damion Searls: One of the things that surprised me was to learn that that was really only in America that that happened. And what I think happened is that the Rorschach test really tapped into a few things about American culture. In the early and mid-part of the century, everyone was interested in this idea of personality.
Character wasn’t so important, how noble or manly or virtuous you are. It was much more about how charismatic or fascinating or intriguing you are. Because if you don’t stand out in the faceless modern crowd then it doesn’t matter how good you are ’cause no one cares. So, if you think about “The Great Gatsby,” he’s a crook who got his money from bootlegging, but that doesn’t matter. He’s not Gatsby the good person, he’s Gatsby the great, who has this sparkle and this fascination, right?
So everyone in America is suddenly interested in this kind of unique personal inner quality, but how do you measure it? Well, here comes this test from Europe. So that’s when the test takes off. The thing is that he died very soon after developing the test. Rorschach published it in June of 1921, and died at only 37 years old in 1922. So the whole history of the test since then has been this kind of sorcerers apprentice where it’s just unleashed and different people are doing all sorts of different thing with it and he isn’t there-
Rico Gagliano: To guide it.
Damion Searls: Yeah, to guide it or keep it on track.
Rico Gagliano: What do you think he’d think of what has become of his test?
Damion Searls: Well, there’s so much. I mean, there’s so many different things that have become of it. I don’t think he’d mind seeing it on the cover of Jay Z’s memoir, but he might mind some of the crazy uses it’s been put to. You know, in mid-century, at the heyday of Freudianism, it really did turn into this kind of film noir cliche type thing where, “Oh, if you see smoke on card whatever, then like you’re a good candidate for electroshock therapy. And if you see this, you’re pretty suicidal.” And it did kind of get out of control.
Rico Gagliano: But I will say, you actually opened the book with a fascinating anecdote of a guy who shows no signs of anything abnormal for many other kinds of diagnostic tests, and then is administered this ink blot test, and almost seems to be unable to keep himself from seeing incredibly violent and frightening things in the test. He of course later turns out to be schizophrenic. What is it about the test that, alone among others, could do such a thing?
Damion Searls: I think the really unique part of the test is that it’s visual. The human brain is set up to be visual. A lot of it is devoted to visual processing. I’ve seen estimates as high as 85 percent of the brain. Seeing just goes deeper than talking. You can really like manage what you wanna say much more than you can manage what you wanna see. If you’re being asked, “I often hear voices other people don’t hear, true or false?” You kinda know, if you were trying to present yourself in a certain way, what you should answer to that question.
Rico Gagliano: Sure.
Damion Searls: But, “Does this look like a bat or does it not look like a bat?” I mean, what am I supposed to be trying to do? So partly because it has this kind of mysterious quality, but more importantly because it’s visual, it really is a much more kind of emotional experience.
Rico Gagliano: So you’re saying if I really wanna get to the bottom of the people that I interview on this show we should really turn it into a TV show. Show them some Rorschach’s.
Damion Searls: Yeah, Rorschach test is a great topic for radio, let me tell you.