Damion Searls’ The Inkblots is a history of the famous Rorschach inkblots, the test, and the man, Hermann Rorschach, who created them. I confess I fell in love with Hermann Rorschach. He was a polymath, skilled in science and art, full of life and passion, and above all else, a deeply humane person who believed in human liberation. When someone talked about using his test for aptitude screening, he agreed it might work, but added, “when I imagine some young person, who has maybe dreamed of going to university from an early age, being prevented from doing so as a result of failing at the experiment, I naturally feel a bit like I can’t breathe.”

The first part of the book focuses on his life and how he came to develop the test, his work on designing the inkblots, and how very particular and unique they are. You can’t just go make your own. He made them to suggest movement, to be ambiguous, but also to be something even if what that something is may be open-ended. He died far too soon and far too stupidly of a burst appendix. Considering his wife was a doctor and he, too, studied medicine, it’s just such a waste. We can only wonder what he would have accomplished if allowed to live a normal span of life.

The rest of the book follows the spread and acceptance of the Rorschach test, the opposition and backlash against it, the various competing schools of thought and how the rest has infiltrated our culture. While the intricacies of the testing protocols were not particularly interesting to me, I understand their importance in ensuring that test results are consistent and valid. I was more interested in some of the case studies done using the Rorschach test.

The Nazis awaiting trial at Nuremberg were given the Rorschach test. The findings were unwelcome in postwar society. Douglas Kelley, the expert who worked with them asserted there was no special Nazi type or personality. They were not rarities but simply, “strong, dominant, aggressive, egocentric personalities” who had seized power. He said there was nothing rare about Göring, “They can be found anywhere in the country—behind big desks deciding big affairs as businessmen, politicians, and racketeers.” In a paper, he wrote, “not only that such personalities are not unique or insane, but also that they could be duplicated in any country of the world today.” In 1947, he wrote a book for lay readers and said, “Insanity is no explanation for the Nazis. They were simply creatures of their environment, as all humans are; and they were also—to a greater degree than most humans are—the makers of their environment.” Considering our contemporary environment, these words are not reassuring.

Of course, the Rorschach test was not perfect. For one, its efficacy depends very much on the person using it. Take the Nazi tests. A morale officer was assigned to help Kelley and he, in his lack of expertise, came to far different, but more politically acceptable conclusions. Another embarrassingly obtuse person used the Rorschach to define the “Vietnamese personality” by studying a grand total of four people, a monk, a student dissident, a dissident intellectual and a Vietcong terrorist (emphasis mine since terrorist = freedom fighter depending on perspective). From this representative sample of the entirety of Vietnamese culture and society, he made some broad conclusions that the 5th Grader of TV game shows would question. For example, he thought it was delusional that these people had idea that Americans wanted to kill civilians.

As the book moves into the present day, Searls looks at how the new applications of neuroscience, MRI brain-mapping and the many technological advances are demonstrating that the Rorschach still has a place in modern psychology. Despite sustained assault over the years by people who dislike ambiguity, the Rorschach remains and powerful and useful tool. Neuroscience is also confirming many of Rorschach’s ideas about perception that he postulated intuitively, but that they can confirm through imaging–that seeing is thinking, for example.

I enjoyed The Inkblots very much. Searls is not a psychologist, but a cultural historian. That gives him the distance needed to consider the various factions judiciously without falling into camps. It also led him to focus more on its cultural influence and made for a much more enjoyable book with moments of his own personality shining through in lively ways. For example, he does not think Jeff Goldblum is an authority on much, let alone the zeitgeist.

He has the ability to find the right anecdotes that pique our interest and illustrate the best and worst of the test. He leaves me convinced that the Rorschach is invaluable, but only when done correctly…and concerned that too many do not use it correctly. He only included a few images of the inkblots, respecting, to a degree, the desire of those who use it in their practice to keep the inkblots new to people when they are first tested. I think most of us have not seen the real inkblots that often, but seen more riffs on them. The real inkblots have so much more complexity in color and form. I was surprised how beautiful they can be.

There were times I thought the book got a bit bogged down in explaining how the tests were scored, but other than that, I was engrossed throughout the book from beginning to end. This is a good book, one I hope revives interest in the Rorschach test which is becoming used less frequently, not because it is less effective, but because what tests and diagnostics are used are, like everything in medicine, decided by what insurance companies will pay for rather than by what patients need.

I received a copy of The Inkblots from the publisher through Blogging for Books.