Sunday 18 February 2018

Say what you see: the story of a famous test and its maker

Non-fiction: The Inkblots, Damion Searls, Simon & Schuster, hdbk, 387 pages, €27.49

Bypassing the conscious: It seems we can't control what we see or how we see it
Bypassing the conscious: It seems we can't control what we see or how we see it
The Inkblots
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

A troubled man goes into a psychiatrist's office. The good doc shows him a series of Rorschach inkblot tests, asking before each one: "What do you see?"

The man reels off a series of sexually graphic responses: "Naked woman. Couple having sex. Naked man. A Roman orgy."

Finally, the psychiatrist declares: "You're suffering from sex-obsession." The man angrily responds: "What do you mean, me? You're the one with all the dirty pictures!"

Not my joke but it's a good one, made funnier because there's a nugget of truth in it. The Rorschach test is so powerful and enduring because it's so open-ended; any interpretation is possible.

It's all down to the individual taking the test; and that interpretation reveals much about them, often far more than they'd intended.

As Damion Searls' lucid, exemplary (albeit joke-free) book explains, the Rorschach has no right or wrong answers as such, though certain responses can indicate serious issues. The medical professional doesn't guide the test-subject; they merely ask a strictly non-leading question, such as "What do you think this might be?" or, more pertinently, "What do you see?"

That last word is key: it's a visual test. We all know the Rorschach, even if we don't know its name: a series (10 in all) of horizontally symmetrical, apparently shapeless, blobs on a card. The examiner hands you each one in turn, asks the gentle prompting question; you get as long as you like to answer. You can turn the card around and upside-down, hold it close or far away, take your time or rattle through it. You can give as many answers as you wish, or none at all.

The number of responses to each card suggest certain things to a qualified tester; the responses themselves reveal more again.

And, crucially, while the test is ambiguous from the subject's point of view, the tester's analysis of those answers is within clearly defined parameters. Unlike, say, dream interpretation, the Rorschach is scored in specific categories: small detail, form, colour, movement, several others. So, for instance, if you gave a lot of movement responses - this is a dancing bear, a crashing car, a frog jumping - it suggests you have a vivid imagination.

The test mostly works, I think, because it seems to bypass the conscious part of the mind. Someone attempting to fake it can carefully watch what they say, but it seems that we can't control what we see or how we see it - and expressing that out loud.

(Proven by a horrifying prologue in which a man, applying for a job with small children, outed himself as a sexual predator without realising it.)

The Rorschach is named for its creator, Hermann, a Swiss psychiatrist born in 1884. Searls describes his excellent book as both a biography of Hermann and the test itself, and Rorschach comes across as a genuinely good man: clever, quick-witted, passionate about helping others.

Crucially, he was also a talented painter. So, in the early 20th Century, when he was formulating a new way to examine the human mind, his artistic and scientific selves merged into one (appropriately symmetrical) whole. The Rorschach test was born, painstakingly hand-painted, modified, tweaked, worked and reworked.

The concept has been copied, pastiched and ripped-off for decades - Andy Warhol put out a number of inkblot prints, Jay-Z used one for the cover of his memoirs. This is perhaps done unconsciously at times, evidence of how deeply woven the Rorschach has become into the cultural fabric.

It's been pooh-poohed by the psych establishment at times, wholeheartedly embraced at others; it has caused deep rifts and controversies. Still, it endures.

The Rorschach is used to this day in court cases and aptitude tests; it continues to be studied and taught in university.

And those 10 cards remain as iconic as ever, and probably always will. So look closely. What do you see?

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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