I enrolled in college as a psychology major, not because it was a way to be undecided without bring actually undecided but because I really enjoyed psychology. While I didn’t take psychology in high school, I self-studied for the AP Psychology exam and got a 5 because I absolutely devoured the material. My dad works in psychology and is the person who exposed me to the field. As a result, I’ve long had a deep interest in the workings of the human mind and the rigorous scientific study of it. (The scientific method is your best friend, folks!)
The Rorschach test is pretty famous. You probably know it as the symmetrical ink blot that shrinks show to people, drawing conclusions about their mental state based on what these crazies see in the amorphous shapes. You may even know the name from the character in The Watchmen, whose mask shows a symmetrical, always-changing pattern of black shapes.
Author Damion Searls set out to write The Inkblots:Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing because there was no definitive Rorschach biography, despite the huge impact that his inkblots have had on psychology and pop culture. I’ve known about the Rorschach for a long time, primarily as a pop psych test that is fun to do and fun to get results from, but ultimately not that reliable. I learned that this perception of the inkblot test comes not from the original test that Hermann Rorschach spent his life developing but from generations of people not giving the test correctly and letting politics get in the way of psychology.
The first half of the book is a great biography of Hermann Rorschach. First of all, look at him: he looks like a combination of Karl Urban and Brad Pitt and he lived during the golden age of psychology. His contemporaries were Freud and Jung, two of the biggest names in psychology to this day, and wrote letters to Tolstoy. He was just this extraordinarily brilliant mind who placed high value on art and the human part of the human mind. While many psychologists and psychiatrists of the time saw patients as just patients, Rorschach never lost sight of the humanity of his work. Born into a family of artists, he was extremely in tune with how art affected people and how perceptions reflected the condition of the mind.
Honestly, it was really inspiring to read about this man who was likely a genius and definitely ahead of his time with his approaches to the study of the mind, interacting with patients, and using art for therapy. Searls paints a very flattering portrait of Rorschach as a man who was raised at the juncture of an artistic family and Russian thought, a man whose brilliance was only magnified by his great compassion for the minds who needed his help the most, a man who was able to see patterns and draw conclusions that would not be confirmed until decades later when science was able to catch up.
It was a bit of a shock when he passed away halfway through the book, to say the least. By that point, I had become so attached to Hermann Rorschach, his loving family, his patients and his colleagues, and of course, the inkblots that were the culmination of all the experiences of his life (as highlighted by the book). Turning the page and finding that Dr. Rorschach had suddenly died hit hard, and as a reader, I was left scrambling to pick up the pieces while the inkblot test remained in motion, just as the world was left trying to figure out what to make of the inkblots before Rorschach was able to publish about them.
If you thought Rorschach’s biography was fascinating, the timeline of the Rorschach inkblots as they relate to psychology over the decades was incredible. I have been really enjoying these non-fiction books where I can explore a field over time, like cellular biology and quantum physics, and The Inkblots is no exception. Learning about how the Rorschach test became a test, was changed in execution and perception as it traveled from one practitioner to another, from one clinic to another, from lecture hall to student, and back around again… The politics that surrounded the 10 inkblots as different camps emerged in the attempt to uncover the best way to utilize the Rorschach, how best to help patients, how best to get accurate results.
I closed this book with an enormous newfound respect for Hermann Rorschach, whose brilliant mind was tragically taken from the world with his early death at a time when he was poised to change it drastically. I also took away a new respect for the Rorschach inkblots in their design and original intent and execution. The inkblots seem very random, but in fact, Rorschach agonized over perfecting their abstract forms. And he got incredible results showing those inkblots to patients and to other clinicians, who were seeing the same amazing results. It’s just that, over time, as people were not trained properly in how to administer the inkblots, the reliability of the test went way down, and so did the esteem of these humble inkblots.
I highly, highly recommend this book if you are a lover of science, psychology, art, and the nexus of the 3.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.