Art into Science in Rorschach’s Psychiatry

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On the 8th of November 1884, Swiss Freudian psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach was born in Zürich. He was famous for devising the inkblot test which he believed helped reflect unconscious parts of the subject’s personality as projected onto the visual stimuli. Following his art teacher father Ulrich, from an early age, Hermann found himself strongly drawn to painting and drawing, musing at length at his high school graduation about which path he should take in his career: art or science. On the advice of a famous German biologist, Rorschach embarked on the scientific path, enrolling in medical school at the University of Zürich. Whilst in high school though, he had acquired the nickname Klecks (‘inkblot’ in German), as he enjoyed a fashionable pastime of his youth, klecksography, the making of fanciful inkblot images. It seems, a certain Dr Kerner invented this technique when he accidentally blotted paper with ink due to his poor vision: he found himself folding the paper, then unfolding to reveal intriguing shapes which he used as cartoons to illustrate his poetry volume Klesksographien (1857).  In 1896, a similar game was described in the U. S. in a book called Gobolinks, or Shadow-Pictures for Young and Old.

As early as 1895, French psychologists Binet and Henri suggested that inkblots might be used in psychological research, arguing that the interpretation of inkblots could be used to study variations in ‘involuntary imagination’, which was basically a visual alternative to Freud’s verbal technique. The inkblots tend to resemble images because of apophenia, the tendency to discover meaningful patterns or connections in the random visual data surrounding us, for example in nature, as James Geary pointed out in I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World (2011).

As a medical student, Rorschach studied psychiatry with one of Carl Jung’s teachers, Bleuler, and while being taught about dream symbolism, Rorschach remembered the suggestive ink designs he had played with as a child.  He devised 10 individual inkblot cards which he showed to patients and non-patients one at a time, asking them to conjure up a mental corresponder for each visual. With typical Swiss precision, he calculated a system for scoring his test, based on whether, and to what degree his test subjects was reading movement, colour or form in these random pictures. After studying 300 mental patients and 100 control subjects, he wrote a book on the new system,  Psychodiagnostik (1921), which appeared in English translation as Psychodiagnostics: A Diagnostic Test Based on Perception in 1942. At the time he wrote this, his study was not deemed interesting enough to be published and in fact Rorschach himself stressed that his ideas were only experiments in need of serious further research. Sadly, a year later he passed away at the young age of 37 from a ruptured appendix.

Looking back on the emergence of the inkblot test with contemporary eyes, one cannot help considering the accidental nature of its discovery and the naivety of its theorisation. There are further non-scientific issues with our acceptance of its validity, such as social and aesthetic contextualisation. Different ethnic groups will have different reactions to the designs. Likewise, different historical and cultural times will interpret shapes and colours differently, i.e. in a post-abstraction era:

“A few social psychologists have considered the idea that habits of visual perception may be socially conditioned, since there appears to be some evidence that these habits differ among various ethnic groups.(…) There seems to be also ground for asking whether our own contemporary views on art, aesthetics, and visual phenomena do not differ from those current in Rorschach’s day nearly as much as they may differ from the views of the Samoans or Moroccans.”( Patricia Sloane, ‘The Ink Blot Test, “Psychodiagnostics” and Hermann Rorschach’s Aesthetic Views’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 29, No. 1, Autumn, 1970).

Fact is, that the ten inkblot cards Rorschach designed were extensively used until the 1960s by mental health professionals for personality profiling – by the subjects’ reactions to form and colour, they tried to determine degrees of introversion and extroversion, intelligence, emotional stability and problem-solving capabilities. Over the last few decades though these tests have been used less and less due to their questionable reliability. The inkblots’ graphic symbolism has got deeply entwined with all things psychiatric in popular culture, becoming the subject of a graphic novel, a video game and lately, the Hollywood movie Watchmen.

 Take a fun inkblot test online: http://www.inkblottest.com/ !

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