Blots and brains

A scene as if from a movie: A psychiatrist’s practice. On the soft and comfortable chair sits a patient. On the other side of the desk, the renowned psychiatrist. In the psychiatrist’s hands: A piece of paper showing some random inkblots. The patient is invited to provide any associations. Is it a mole? A bat? These may uncover psychological conflicts and possible neuropsychiatric disorders. This scene may be entirely made up – but it’s still very recognizable for most people. “The Rorschach” is rooted in our collective memory like no other diagnostic tool.

On the occasion of the centenary of Herman Rorschach’s death, Peter Brugger has written a homage to his life and work. This shows a multicolored image of the researcher that invented the inkblots still used in psychiatry. And it also shows which parts of Rorschach’s original intentions   should be included when discussing his work.

Hermann Rorschach, born on November 8, 1884, in Zürich, was a dazzling personality. Son of a painter and art teacher, he showed much interest in graphic arts. In his high school years, he carried the nickname “Klecks” – the German word for “blot” and thus an almost prophetical name. Already before studying medicine, he was active in social politics, fighting for equal rights for men and women – a difficult task in Switzerland at that time.

In his medical studies, Rorschach worked on visual perception and studied the ways it was affected by mental or neurological disorders. He was intrigued by the connections between visual perception and sensation. Specifically, he postulated relationships between motion seen in a set of inkblots and emotion displayed by the observer.

These insights led him to create the inkblots, which soon became famous as the “Rorschach test”. The blots and the scoring system he published in his first and only book in 1921 were thought of as a diagnostical aid rather than a means of categorization – as they were interpreted soon by many psychiatrists. Rorschach’s initial intention of the blots was to investigate the basic laws of perception and their relation to personal history. He would have been surprised about the fast spread of his blots – and probably shocked by the many scoring systems developed and defended in an almost dogmatic way. But Rorschach died less than a year after publishing the inkblots, 100 years ago, at the age of only 37 years from peritonitis.

Even though the Rorschach test has lost the huge popularity it had the decades after the publication of the blots, it is still in use. Modern neuroimaging techniques are investigating inkblot associations. One behavioral study has validated the Rorschach as a personality test and the view that the two cerebral hemispheres correspond to divergent “personalities”. Brugger’s viewpoint concludes with the suggestion that future work with inkblots should consider Rorschach’s original intention to use them to uncover basic laws of perception.

Reference: Peter Brugger, Blots and brains. A note on the centenary of Hermann Rorschach’s death, Cortex, Volume 157, 2022, Pages 256-265, ISSN 0010-9452,

Image: Preliminary stage of the Rorschach test charts. Institute for the History of Medicine at the University of Bern, Archive Hermann Rorschach (HR 3/3/1_15)