Empathy is a matter of more than words and stories

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The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing by Damion Searls, Crown Publishers, US $28.00, Pp 416, February 2017, ISBN 978-0804136549

In spite of decades of controversies, the Rorschach personality test today is admissible in court, reimbursed by medical insurance companies, and administered around the world in job evaluation, custody battles, and psychiatric clinics. Test supporters argue that the ten Rorschach inkblots are marvelously sensitive and accurate tool for showing how the mind works and detecting a range of mental conditions, including the latent problem that other tests or direct observation can’t reveal. To the test’s critics, its continued use is a scandal, an embarrassing vestige of pseudoscience that should have been written off years ago along with truth serum and primal serum therapy. In their view, test’s amazing power is its ability to brainwash otherwise sensible people into believing in it.

In The Inkblots, Damion Searls says the public tends to be skeptical about the Rorschach because of the lack of consensus and a suspicion of psychological testing in general. The problem is that it doesn’t yield a cut-and-dried number like an IQ test or a blood test. But then nothing that tries to grasp the human mind could. The Rorschach’s holistic ambitions are one reason why it is so well known beyond the doctor’s office or courtroom. Social Security is a Rorschach test.

Searls says that discussions of the Rorschach test can bring useful perspectives  to today’s debates, since the whole history of the test, from its birth in the debate over whether psychiatry should define diseases or understand individuals, has been one of balancing the competing claims of ‘feeling into’ other perspectives  and keeping a distanced stance of rational objectivity.

Perhaps the most valuable reminder that the Rorschach can give is that empathy is a matter of more than words and stories. Searls says that empathy is vision: feeling into the world and then seeing out there something you connect to, in your body. Empathy is a reflex hallucination, a Movement response. It requires not just imagination, or a certain sensibility but sensitive and accurate perception. You don’t feel someone’s feelings without seeing that person as they really are, which means seeing the world through their eyes.

This is the best and probably the first comprehensive biography of Rorschach. It is also an authentic history of inkblots and exploration of the psychology of perception. This much-needed biography is a welcome addition to the existing literature on psychoanalysis. This meticulously-researched book will benefit both students and experts of psychology as well as laymen who may have interest in the subject. Reviewed by Jonathan T. Rich