Raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimized by a butterfly made of inkblots.
If you didn’t see any meaning in that sentence, maybe you’ll find something in the Rorschach test instead.
First, a little bit of history: The test –– which you may recognize as the famous inkblot test –– was created by Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach in 1921, and exploded into popular culture in the 1960s, when it was the most widely-used projective test in existence. The test consists of showing patients a series of abstract inkblot drawings, asking them what they see in the images, and then assessing those responses to get an idea of the patient’s personality and mental state.
Kind of subjective –– and kind of a lot of room for error.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Rorschach test is more of a pop culture touchpoint than a methodically-employed medical device these days.
Psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish notes, “findings are extremely helpful only when responses are read and interpreted by a highly trained and experienced psychometrist.” The hyper-subjective nature of the test is what led it to fall out of favor in modern medicine.
Adina Mahalli MCT agrees that the basis of the test has value, but has evolved beyond its original state:
“Similar to how it’s impossible to imagine learning about psychology without learning about Freud, it’s hard to imagine a world in which people would discuss psychological testing without recognizing the significance of the Rorschach test. That being said, the Rorschach test is more of a relic than a practical tool nowadays… the field of therapy and testing has developed so much since its creation decades ago that the Rorschach test is considered obsolete by many. Newer techniques, such as client-made drawings, free association, and biopsychosocial assessments have all taken over the field.”
Even though inkblots have been out of style for a while, other highly-subjective tests involving abstract shapes might just be coming into their own. Recovery mentor MartinJon doesn’t use inkblots per se, but does employ the use of contemporary, non-narrative art in the same way, preserving the novelty aspect of the test that is so important and has been widely disrupted by the availability of the inkblot images online.
However, there are some key differences. “This process is an evolution of the Rorschach premise which is that we do not see the world as it is but through our perceptions; we see it as we are,” he says. “This approach differs greatly from its origins as I am looking to plant seeds. In this way, the individual can learn to spot their own perceptions and self examine from there.”
Psychologist Shuli Sandler thinks the recent resurgence in more nuanced ideas of mindfulness might bring inkblots back into the zeitgeist. “The idea is that we all walk around the world projecting all the time, we see things that are neutral and we make assumptions,” she says. As millennials search for meaning in less scientifically-based practices like astrology and as mental healthcare sheds ever more layers of stigma, they might just be inclined to pick up an inkblot or two –– again.