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story behind the book | kate tuttle

When an inkblot isn’t just an inkblot

david wilson for the boston globe

Like everyone else, Damion Searls had heard about the Rorschach test. “I assumed it was like truth serum or some kind of gimmick,” he said. “If you see an ax murderer, then you’re the bad twin. And if you see your mother in every card, then, oh boy, look out!”

But then he set out to research the life’s work of Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach. “It turns out to be something real,” Searls said. Unlike the popular image of the test as a series of random images meant to elicit subjective associations, he added, Rorschach made a set of cards that were “actually crafted by him to be revealing.”

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Searls opens his new book, “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing,” with a man being administered the Rorschach test as part of a job application. He aces the verbal tests, but when it comes to the Rorschach, his answers reveal troubling hints of violence — an assessment confirmed years later, despite his apparent normalcy in the other tests.

“That’s a pretty convincing example,” Searls said. “Because whether or not you think it can accurately reveal or decipher what’s in the person’s head, the undeniable fact is that it made him put his guard down. What does it mean about us that something visual can tap into parts of us that a verbal questionnaire can’t?”

Although Searls came away convinced of the test’s value, he stressed that the book is more cultural history than crusade. In writing the life of Rorschach, Searls found him “a very appealing guy” whose work touched on everything from psychology to art to advertising to pop culture.

“I guess what I’d say is I’m a defender of visual intelligence,” Searls added. “We are visual creatures. We evolved to be visual. How you see something really can tell you about who you are.”

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Searls will read 7 p.m. Thursday at Harvard Book Store.


Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.