Searching for Insights in Inkblots

A new book drawing attention is The Inkblots: Herman Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, by Damon Searls. It’s the story of what was once one of psychiatry’s most frequently used tools. You can get the book from the Atlantis Rising Store. Rorschach himself was a psychiatrist with artistic ability, who trained with Freud and Jung. Working in a Swiss asylum, in 1917, he designed a test intended to reveal the subjective perceptual experience of his patients.

Placing a drop of ink on a page and then folding through the stain, created the illusion of a meaningful symmetrical image. Rorschach believed he could listen to his patients’ interpretation of these images and make meaningful inferences about their psychological condition.

After Rorschach’s early death, his test soon made it to America, where, says Searls, “it took on a life of its own.” The ‘test,’ according to the book’s promotional materials, was “co-opted by the military after Pearl Harbor, [and] was a fixture at the Nuremberg trials and in the jungles of Vietnam. It became an advertising staple, a cliché in Hollywood and journalism, and an inspiration for many from Andy Warhol to Jay Z. The test was also given to millions of defendants, job applicants, parents in custody battles, and people suffering from mental illness or simply trying to understand themselves better. And it is still used today.” It is clear now, however, that significantly distorting Rorschach conclusions were the biases of the psychologists administering the tests.

Still, for years, the term ‘Rorschach’ was a virtual synonym for anything purporting to reveal unconscious intentions—like, say, the Evil Queen’s mirror in Snow White. As with the celebrated ‘Freudian slip,’ modern psychology is believed to have shone us how seemingly random words, actions, or perceptions can expose subjective weaknesses of which one might be unaware and lead us all to sanity and ‘better mental health.’

Ironically, in a culture dominated by Freudian psychology and materialistic social science, it is interesting and, indeed, disturbing to consider the overriding messages emanating from popular culture. And as with seeing the ‘forest,’ rather than the ‘trees,’ unexpected meanings often emerge from the greatest Rorschach of all, the mass media.

From grinning skulls in every venue to mass fascination with zombies; from sex, drugs, and rock & roll to the acceptance of abortion as a remedy for social problems; the imagery of popular culture has many psychologically deadly implications. Despite denials from groupies, it is clear that some kind of ‘death wish’ infects mass consciousness, especially among the young. While ‘skull’ imagery can have many meanings—some quite benign—in the context of popular culture, it is usually packaged with other images relating to death (tombstones and vampires are common motifs). The fact that we have become desensitized to the plain meaning of such symbols does not mean they have no ‘meaning,’ but, rather, that the ‘meaning’ is no longer conscious. The fact that it is subconscious, we believe, is what makes it a threat.

An ‘awakened’ or ‘conscious’ individual might choose to reject such messaging. ‘Awakened,’ however, is not a term that applies here. Society, it seems to us, is more interested in extinguishing consciousness than in stimulating it. Atlantis Rising, we hasten to add, seeks to encourage the latter but not the former.


By J. Douglas Kenyon