Hermann Rorschach & The Amazing Technicolor Inkblot

On a psychodiagnostic residency, where your job is just to understand people, one of the tools you use is the famous Rorschach Inkblot Test. In this test, the patient is shown a standard series of pictures created by squirting ink onto a page and then folding the page over. They are then asked to describe what they see in the blots. The answers contain all the keys to the patient’s perception. You may not see, at first, how an explanation of this technique can be of any practical value to you unless you are training to be a psychologist, but if you’ll read on I can promise you there is a payoff for us wayward seekers of personal growth.

First, though, I need to give you a little background. Most people who are being trained to administer the Rorschach tend to be a little amazed at first when it actually works. And, of course, potential recipients of this test tend to be a little skeptical that it will actually be able to provide any worthwhile information about them. After all, what’s in an inkblot?

The story goes back to the early days of psychoanalysis, when the idea of an unconscious mind was fairly fresh and everyone was trying to figure ways to bring it out of hiding. Around this time, Carl Jung was discovering that a person’s reaction times to word associations could be used to detect complexes, which are hidden pockets of emotional energy that essentially take on a life of their own. For Rorschach, showing people random pictures–inkblots–was a way to see the content of those complexes in the backwards, metaphorical, dreamlike state that they exist.

Enter Exner. John Exner decided to administer the Rorschach test to a large number of people and then statistically analyze not only the content of their answers, but the process. From this he would ascertain what types of people approach the problem in specific ways. After all, it is a highly generalizable situation: the patient is presented with a series of ambiguous stimuli and tasked with making some kind of sense out of them. How like life.

So you hold the card, you twist and turn it, and forms emerge. It is just like when you stare up into the clouds. Sometimes the images you see are simple and sometimes they are highly detailed; sometimes you can show other people exactly where they are and how they look, while other times your ideas about the cloud are a little bit far out and no one else can see it the way that you see it. Sometimes the way the edges of the cloud disperse light make it look rounded and three-dimensional, and sometimes the cloud’s texture or coloration contributes to the image. It’s a big fluffy dog, or a scaly dragon, or a ferocious mother-in-law.

Any way you slice it, you can be certain that the image you see is as much a part of you as it is a quality of the cloud, and the same is true for a Rorschach inkblot. When you look at this ambiguous picture, you interpret it in a way that only you are uniquely prone to interpret things. There are, of course popular answers which many people see in a certain card.

The interesting thing is that even if someone gives nothing but popular answers, the interpreter can still tell a great deal about them as a person and about their mental state at the time the test was performed. This is because the most obvious forms that you might see in an inkblot are determined by the cultural frame of reference. If every answer you give on a Rorschach test is entirely conventional, I can consider that you are probably very highly adapted to the specific frame of reference that our western culture would suggest. After all, most people are not nearly so conventional in their perceptions. So, no matter how popular or unpopular your answers, the Rorschach inkblots help me to formulate my inquiry into you as an individual: How did you come to interpret the world in the way that you currently interpret it?

Now I promised a payoff when this article began, and hope to not disappoint. I’ve told you about a tool that I and other mental health professionals use to understand people, and I’ve told you how it basically works: present someone with an ambiguous stimulus, notice how they interpret it, and formulate questions that might help to explain their interpretive method. The only reason it is necessary to go through the procedure of administering a Rorschach inkblot test with someone is because I am unable to see through their eyes.

I am able, however, to see through my own eyes. And you are able to see through yours. And the world is a series of highly ambiguous stimuli. Therefore, the takeaway message is that your own perceptions represent a rich source of information about the parts of your own inner life that you have not yet gained access to. As always, the majority of our inner experience is completely unconscious, and we are only able to recognize the signatures of our unconscious workings in retrospect by examining what we have done.

So how would you go about interpreting these results? Of course I feel that everyone with the means to do so should find a psychotherapist to work with in order to get objective help with their continual growth. But you can also learn to recognize some of what’s going on under your own hood just by becoming more mindful of the active role that your brain takes in interpreting the world around you.

I already mentioned conventionality as a factor worth looking into, so that will be a good place to draw an example from. What types of situations do you respond to in ways that are very much like your idea of what is normal, and what types of situations do you find yourself responding to in a more personalized or idiosyncratic way? Next, think about where your idea of normalcy came from.

Some people feel strongly that their own lives and situations have been very ordinary, while others think of “normal” as the type of thing that happens to the folks next door. And is this mundane vision something you aspire to, or something you strive to break away from? Now look back at whatever it was you thought of when I asked about the situations you respond to in a way that feels normal to you. In some ways, you’re likely to find that it matches your conscious ideals. But in other ways, you’ll often find that you act contrary to the way you have idealized. And bingo.

That’s the beginning of the exploration of an unconscious decision-making process. Just continue to connect the dots and rationally inquire into the ways that you perceive things. If you find yourself alone in a dark room you might perceive that situation as comfortable and soothing because it lacks any social demands and gives you a needed rest from your strong inclination to figure out what’s going on around you. On the other hand, you might feel threatened by the lack of activity and contact in the room because you are highly invested in maintaining a positive level of interaction with the outside world. There are any number of ways you might respond, the key is simply to ask why you should respond that way.

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