Hermann Rorschach: Why his inkblot tests still endure

Hermann Rorschach, the pioneering psychiatrist, was born 129 years ago today. 

Google
The Google homepage today honors the psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach, who would have celebrated his 129th birthday today.

The Google homepage today depicts a dapper and mustachioed man, perched on a chair in his office, pen in hand. In the center of the doodle is a series of inkblot cards, which you can cycle through by clicking the small arrow icons. The images on the cards are deliberately ambiguous. Is that a pair of wings? A face? An ascendent airplane? But then again, as the pioneering psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach would have argued, that's the point. 

In attempting to decipher each kaleidoscopic inkblot illustration, Mr. Rorschach believed, his patients could subliminally tell him a great deal about themselves. 

Rorschach (not be confused with the popular "Watchmen" character of the same name, who wears an inkblot mask, in homage to the original Rorschach) was born on Nov. 8, 1884, and raised in Switzerland. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, as a kid, young Rorschach was an avid sketcher, earning him the nickname "kleck," or inkblot. 

After high school, Rorschach moved on to the Académie de Neuchâtel, where he studied geology and botany, before heading to the University of Zurich to study medicine. The Rorschach archives have him graduating from medical school in 1909 and signing on as a resident in the Thurgovian psychiatric hospital in Münsterlingen. In 1910, he married Olga Stempelin, a Russian medical student. Rorschach and Ms. Stempelin eventually had two children, a son and a daughter. 

Rorschach's work with inkblot tests was promulgated in the early 1920s, with the publication of a book called Psychodiagnostik, or Psychodiagnostics. 

"It might seem obvious (at least in these psychologically informed days) that a person who repeatedly sees people fighting in a series of inkblots might have a different mindset from someone who keeps on seeing people dancing, or people performing sexual acts," Randy Alfred of Wired has written. "Or that someone who always (or mostly) sees people would differ psychologically from someone who sees only birds, or mainly animals and rarely people, or someone persistently seeing inanimate objects rather than living things." 

But at the time, the idea that inkblot tests could reveal important truths about a subject was a breakthrough. Unfortunately, Rorschach didn't live long enough to fully realize how influential his work would become. He died in 1922. 

Over the ensuing years, his inkblot test was refined and refined again by other psychiatrists. 

Today, of course, you don't necessarily need a professional psychiatrist to test out Rorschach's theories: all you need is a computer and an Internet connection and a few minutes of spare time to run through a few of the panels at theinkblot.com or theinkblottest.com

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.