Inkblots: Rorschach and His Test

Inkblots: Rorschach and His Test
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Rorschach Inkblot

Think about how many times you’ve taken the opportunity to look at the clouds in a bright blue sky and how you were delighted in finding shapes and fanciful figures.  When you do this, you are exciting your brain and activating areas that are responsible for thought perception and the processing of emotion, especially in the relationship to memory.  There is a brain and personality diagnostic test to do that very thing and it was created a long time ago by Hermann Rorschach—and it’s aptly named the Rorschach Inkblot test, and its aim is to observe the power of seeing.

Types of Learners

There are three types of learners: visual, auditory and kinesthetic.  Visual learners of course like to see pictures and graphs; auditory would rather hear information, and kinesthetic learners are better engaging in an activity in order to grasp a concept.  Approximately 65 percent of the population are visual, 30 percent learn best hearing, and just five percent will be looking for action. Which are you?

When Rorschach was growing up, he said this: “I have a rather bad musical memory, so when I am learning a tune I can rely very little on auditory memory images.  I often use the optical image of the notes as a way to remember the melody, other times when I was younger, taking violin lessons, it often happened that I could not imagine the sound of a passage but could still play it from memory, or in other words, the movement memory was more reliable than the auditory one.  I have also often used imitation finger movements as a way to awaken auditory memories.” The psychologist, Rorschach, was immensely interested in these transformations.

An Exciting Era

As a young adult, Rorschach scraped together money and grants for university because he wanted to become a doctor.  He left his birthplace of Zurich, Switzerland, only to wind up there again at nearly age 20 to attend school. At this time, he was tall, slim and athletic with blue-gray eyes—and looked an awful lot like our contemporary Brad Pit.  In his demeanor, he was serious, lively, and quick to sketch out drawings. His father Ulrich was a painter, poet, and teacher so the artistic bent was in his genes. He attended art museums when he could find a moment of peace from his punishing school classes, but he did brilliantly in his studies.  His objective was to move from reading books, to reading people.

Modernity and the Culture Revolution

There are times in history when culture and invention take huge leaps and, it is at these junctures, that mainstream, commonly held beliefs are open to re-interpretation.  The community-centered social fabric of nineteenth century life was being dragged into new theories from forward-thinking men and women into an era where the reexamination of the individual mind was important. There was no unanimity however, and agreement demurred to a lack of professional consensus that made up the rest of the twentieth century.  During the early formation of Rorschach’s medical career, modern physics was driven by Albert Einstein, modern architecture was jolted by Le Corbusier, Sigmund Freud explored the unconscious mind, Carl Jung held talks about psychological tests; Ernst Haeckel, a German naturalist, became one of the most famous scientists writing The Riddle of the Universe, while Darwin’s The Origins of Species was scratching its way into the Royal Society.

Rorschach was an observer of all of these phenomena, and he soaked in all the prevailing rhetoric and was even drawn into the Russian political intrigue of the times.

Running the Gauntlet

But Rorschach earned his stripes so-to-speak as a doctor by trying to understand, decipher and treat mental illness.  He knew well of, and had, as an academic advisor, Eugen Bleuler, a highly respected psychiatrist, and he often listened to Carl Jung talk about family dynamics.  Problem was, the nineteenth-century psychiatrist had no insulin, no antibiotics or anesthesia so the power to cure meant the work was largely depressing. And the predominant wisdom was that the kind of people under Bleuler’s care—he coined the term schizophrenia—were hopeless.  But with Bleuler, the patient’s environment and their personal relationships with their doctors, often resulted in reality-oriented tasks and surprisingly, eventual cures.  And starting in 1902, Jung and another doctor, Franz Riklin, developed the first experimental method to reveal patterns in the unconscious mind with the word association test.  Moreover, the Freudian free association, and the spell of hypnosis all became accepted practices.


In childhood, games are part and parcel of growing up and a popular game for Hermann Rorschach was called Klecksographie.  Rorschach became such a master at it, his nickname was Klex—the German word for “inkblot.”  The game concept required collecting inkblot cards from local shops, and then creating stories from the cards.

Funny enough, when Rorschach strolled the grounds of the asylum looking for a way to make a connection with his schizophrenic patients; he had used the lengthy historical background info, the Jung-Riklin word association test, the Freudian free association, and hypnosis. And while the first techniques revealed complexes, the free association took the patient to a dissociated state revealing how they acted, and hypnosis uncovered what had happened, (each technique had an important function), he needed a method to unify the whole story; and the inkblot drawings he’d created as a child, found their way into his mindset.  He chose ten to work with.

“The most interesting thing in nature is the human soul, and the greatest thing a person can do is to heal these souls, sick souls.”  –Rorschach

Rorschach Ink Blots (or Interpretation)

Over time, Rorschach found that people had different types of personality and the inkblots demonstrated systematic differences in their interpretations.  He was able to put each answer into a revealing category such as form, color, or a mixture of these properties. And later, he attended to the content of the answers and what insights the inkblots offered mentally.

Inkblot Controversy

Critics of this test call it a pseudoscience, not much better than phrenology—human characteristics according to the shape of one’s skull, or graphology—patterns found in handwriting.  At times, Rorschach was thought of as a pioneering genius, a visionary, a dilettante without proficiency or professional status, and a responsible scientist; his ideas ran the gamut according to detractors.

The inkblot tests have been used in prisons and the corrections system, in courtrooms, in psychologists’ offices, in the mental health field, and more.  The popular tests today are: the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the Wechsler IQ test, and the Rorschach. Inkblots were synonymous with clinical psychology throughout much of the twentieth century, and, despite its widespread use, is still controversial for its difficulty and various scoring systems.

Hermann Rorschach died suddenly on April 2, 1922, of peritonitis in Herisau, Switzerland, at the young age of 37.  It is believed that this was the result of a ruptured appendix. 


Searls, Damion. The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2017. Book.

BBC News: What’s behind the Rorschach inkblot test?

Cherry, Kendra. Rorschach Inkblot Psychological Test

Discover. “The Science of the Rorschach Blots”

Framingham, Jane Ph.D. “Rorschach Inkblot Test”

Harrower-Erickson Multiple Choice Rorschach Test

International Society of the Rorschach & Projective Methods

Mestel, Rosie. “Rorschach tested.” Los Angeles Times

NPR interview with Damion Searls

Rorschach-inspired products on Etsy


Feature photo: Inkblot

Photo of Hermann Rorschach: Public Domain: Permission details
File: Hermann Rorschach c.1910.JPG