The origins of inkblots

The Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom

In the latter part of the 19th Century, games involving the construction and imaginative interpretation of inkblots were played by children on both sides of the Atlantic. Binet and Henri (1895) suggested that the interpretation of inkblots could be used to study variations in ‘involuntary imagination.’

In Moscow, this led Theodor Rybakov to include inkblots in an ‘Atlas’ of procedures for clinical and educational investigations of personality in 1910. In the United States, Dearborn (1897) prompted the use of inkblots in research on perception, memory and imagination. Delabarre compiled a collection of inkblots for use in experiments into the effects of hashish. Seashore (1908) produced a manual of psychology experiments, one of which used the presentation of inkblots to show the interpretative nature of perception. Whipple (1910) published a standard series of 20 inkblots. Pyle (1913) wrote a similar volume for teachers, and this too contained an ‘Imagination or Ink-Blot Test.’ Further use of inkblots was made by Knox (1914), a physician based at the Ellis Island immigration station in New York. He found that people classified as mentally deficient took longer to give interpretations of inkblots and tended to give impoverished interpretations.

The first British study of inkblots was carried out by Bartlett (1916). The responses demonstrated the interpretative nature of perception, or what Bartlett called the ‘effort after meaning.’ Parsons (1917) published a similar study involving children in Wales.

Whether Rorschach (1921) knew of the work on inkblots that had been published in France, the United States and Britain is not clear. Rorschach had worked in Moscow in 1913-1914, and he may well have come across Rybakov’s ‘Atlas.’ However, the value of inkblots in demonstrating the interpretative nature of perception and in studying individual variation in imaginative capacities had by that time already been well established.

Session IV
Tuesday, 5 July 2005, 5.30 - 6.00 pm

Tenth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Tenth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

St. Andrews, Scotland, 2005