History of Projective Tests

The Chronicles of Inkblots and Dreams

Inkblots and dreams share plenty of common ground. They are, at once, familiar and foreign.

Rorschach inkblots combined with dream analysis might sound like the start of a DC Comics plotline, but the origins of such a tale have more ties to reality than you might think. 

Inkblots and dreams share plenty of common ground. They are, at once, familiar and foreign. Both are essentially perceived as a succession of images. Even more, both can reveal a lot about a person.

Rorschach noted the connections between the color symbols seen in his test and the symbols in dreams. But his work was cut short. After his untimely death, the inkblot test began a journey across the world, finding a home in the field of psychology. Eventually the test made its way to America. 

Soon after, experiments involving inkblots and dreams started to surface in English print psychological literature, and the ensuing decades would unearth some odd experiments and surprising results.

The Dream That Started It All

The story of inkblots and dreams begins with a notable dream recalled by Hermann Rorschach, in his doctoral thesis, about viewing his first autopsy, 

“In my first clinical semester, I was for the first time present at an autopsy…The following night I had a dream in which I felt my own brain was being cut in transverse slices. One slice after another was cut off from the mass of the hemispheres and fell forward, exactly as it had happened at the autopsy. These bodily sensations (I lack a more precise designation) were very clear, and the memory of that dream is even now fairly vivid” (Ellenberger, 1954, p. 178).

Medical historian and psychiatrist Henri Ellenberger wrote that this dream was the “germinal cell” behind the psychological concept for the inkblot test. Rorschach became curious about the nature of this dream, mainly how a person could experience perceptions that are not anatomically conceivable—a person receiving an autopsy is deceased and cannot feel, additionally, the brain does not have nociceptors, a sensory receptor for pain stimuli—in addition to the question of how a series of visual images—the sight of an autopsy—could be experienced through movement and sensation (i.e., kinesthetically)—namely, the feeling of the autopsy as reported in Rorschach’s dream (Ellenberger, 1954).

The answers to these questions questions were, in the eyes of Ellenberger, the impetus for the inkblot—an image that could act as a “mirror in which optic stimuli activate kinesthetic images which are projected in turn into the inkblots and are perceived as pareidolias” (Ellenberger, 1954, p. 200). 

Rorschach eventually went on to write and publish Psychodiagnostik, the monograph on his inkblot experiments. While dreams were not at the forefront of the book, the inkling of a connection was there. 

Rorschach concluded that the symbols in his test’s color interpretations were related to symbols in dreams, and could add value to dream analysis. He likended the interpretation of the color scores in his test to Freud’s dream theory, and even went as far to directly compare it to Freud’s dream theory when writing, 

“Evidently the content of the color interpretations is to be evaluated like the manifest content in dream interpretation where the latent content is brought to light only in dream analysis” (Rorschach et. al., 1942, p. 209). 

Unfortunately, the Swiss psychiatrist died young in 1922, leaving his test behind. The inkblot test began a journey through the world. 


Did You Know?

Hermann Rorschach proposed a method for recalling dreams. He wrote that movement upon awakening prevented dream recall. The solution: lie still and remember!


Inkblots in English

Although the Rorschach test came to America in the year 1927, it took a few years for the test to become commonly referenced alongside dream research. 

Rorschach pioneer Samuel Beck discussed the work of Fürrer (1925), who compared the active fantasy behind the movement response to a wish-fulfillment. This is a direct connection to Freud’s dream theory. Also of mention was Wells (1935), who compared the Rorschach movement response to an “experimentally induced dream” (Beck, 1935, p. 104.) 

Marguerite Hertz—another Rorschach specialist—noted that both Enke (1927) and Soukup (1932) saw the Rorschach test as a “combination of Freud’s dream analysis and Jung’s [associative] method” (Hertz, 1935, p. 34). By now, the association between the inkblot test and the dream world was ripe. 

In 1947, Calvin Hall mentioned an ongoing investigation into the relationship between dreams and the Rorschach test in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. The study involved 25 judges, who attempted to match Rorschach protocols with personality sketches from dream analysis (Calvin, 1947). According to the study's preliminary reports, they were unsuccessful. 

In the same year (1947), Barbara Lane conducted experimental research on the validity of the Rorschach movement response. Lane aimed to use hypnotic suggestions to raise a subject’s movement score. The researcher administered the Rorschach test over a period of time: once before hypnosis training, and twice during the deep sleep trance (Lane, 1947). 

During the first hypnosis session, Lane suggested that the subject have a dream related to her creative struggles. Lane called this approach the “hypnotic production of significant dreams” (1947, p. 293). The following day, Lane reported that the subject did in fact have such a dream. Notably, this subject was not in touch with their inner self, and struggled with creativity. 

The experiment showed a marked difference between the conditions. While in the waking state, the subject scored four movement responses; and while in the hypnotic suggestion state—where the subject was reminded that she could perform creative tasks, like writing a poem— she scored 13. These results showed the promise for inkblots as an experimental media, and added experimental validity to the Rorschach movement response. They also stood in time next to Hall’s preliminary reports, which raised more questions. 

Despite the mixed results from the year 1947, dreams and inkblots were about to enter a meaningful experimental period.

The 1950s

By the 1950s the study of dreams in simultaneity with the Rorschach test became relatively commonplace. In 1952, Lester Mann correlated Rorschach scores to dream dimensions. The researcher compared the Rorschach extratensive-introversion (E-I) indice to five common dream elements: completeness of narrative, level of detail, extent of pleasantness to unpleasantness, time period of the dream, and whether or not it was recurrent. Ultimately, Lester did not find any significant correlations over 5% (1952). 

Hedda Bolgar compared symbolic expression between Rorschach protocols and dreams. Bolgar collected 10 dreams around the same time that 30 subjects took a Rorschach test. In a similar paradigm to the one previously mentioned by Hall, judges were given the Rorschach protocols and the dream records, then tasked with matching them to the subject. The judges performed better than chance, finding a connection between the subject’s dream and Rorschach symbols (Bolgar, 1954). 

In 1956, Rose Palm compared symbol formation in Rorschach responses and dreams. Palm coined the term “Rorschach work,”—making a direct connection between Sigmund Freud’s dream theory and the Rorschach inkblot test (Palm, 1956, p. 249). The idea was that if Freud’s dream work is the translation of the latent content into the manifest content, then Rorschach work is the subject’s effort to restructure the ambiguous inkblot into a visual symbol. This academic account assimilates Freud and Rorschach through the science of mind and symbol. Further, Palm denoted a Rorschachian form of condensation (i.e., Freud's idea that a dream symbol had multiple meanings) based on the evidence that a given inkblot can have multiple meanings. 

Near the end of the decade, Bernice Eiduson conducted a cognitive study comparing perceptual styles during dreams and a Rorschach test. The researcher ultimately found a significant correlation between individual performance during dreaming and while taking a Rorschach test for the flexibility-rigidity perceptual style (Eiduson, 1959). The results show the similarities of perceptual style operating at different levels of awareness (i.e., while dreaming and while awake). 

At this point, Rorschach’s inkblots gained new psychological meaning as they became integrated into new waves of scientific movements like cognitive psychology.

More Experiments with Dreams and Inkblots

Researcher Barbara Lerner used drug-induced dream deprivation to study Rorschach movement scores (1966). Lerner’s aim was to provide supporting evidence to Rorschach’s connection between movement responses and dreams. Lerner elaborated, 

“The difference, according to Rorschach, between projection in this general sense and the projection which takes place in movement responses and dreams is that what is projected in the latter is not simply one's desires but one's own body which is imaginatively experienced in the act of living out those desires. Thus, although visual and symbolic elements may play a role in them, movement responses and dreams are not simply perceptions, abstract affective ideas, thoughts, wishes, or symbolic drive expressions; they are kinesthetic experiences and what is central to both is the sense of bodily sensation” (Lerner, 1967, p. 88).

Lerner hypothesized that dream-deprived subjects—given 15 milligrams of d-amphetamine sulfate and 100 milligrams of pentobarbital sodium, at bed time—would compensate by projecting an excess of movement responses when presented with a Holztman Inkblot test. Lerner defended that hypothesis, and determined that dreams and the movement response are related by the central theme of kinesthetic experience (Lerner, 1966). This led Lerner to conclude that the function of dreams could not serve their original Freudian purpose of protecting sleep, but instead argued in favor of a modern theory. Lerner believed that dreams helped in personality organization through the kinesthetic fantasies “facilitated by the dreaming state” (Lerner, 1967, p. 98). While Lerner set out to test Rorschach’s dream theory, others were still focused on Freud. 

In 1973 Wiseman and Reyher used Rorschach inkblots as a stimuli for hypnotically inducing dreams. The researchers placed subjects into a hypnotic state, flashed them an inkblot, and then the subjects closed their eyes and entered a dreaming state. The researchers argued that if the subjects showed an increase in primary process thinking—governed by the pleasure principle—they could defend Freud’s dream work theory as a whole (Wiseman and Reyher, 1973). They concluded that the hypnotized, inkblot-stimulated subjects had more intense drives present in their content and an increase in formal deviations (i.e., primary process thinking). 

In the following years, even more parallels were drawn between the Rorschach test and dreams. Krohn and Mayman (1974) reported consistencies between object representations from  the Rorschach test and manifest dream content. Other researchers found similarities between Rorschach responses and dream content in terms of individual boundary disturbances (Levin and Lamontanaro, 1997). More recently, Kamphuis et. al., explored the similarities between the dream narratives of children exposed to violence to scores in the Rorschach Trauma Content Index (2008). 

The fact that the Rorschach test made its way into the 21st century—that it is standing the test of time—demonstrates its merit in the field of psychology as a unique innovation.

Keep Dreaming

The rich history of psychology—from Freud, to Jung, to Rorschach—spawned a new world of psychological research. From drug-induced sleep deprivation to hypnosis, the experiments begat by inkblots and dreams are fascinating and phantasmal. Even more, they have led to new forms of dream research, a greater understanding of fantasy life across different forms of consciousness (i.e., waking vs sleeping), and an appreciation of the importance of dreams.


Beck, S. J. (1935). Problems of further research in the Rorschach test. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 5(2),. pp. 100–115.

Bolgar, H. (1954). Consistency of affect and symbolic expression: A comparison between dreams and Rorschach responses.  American Journal of Orthopsychiatry , Vol 24(3), Jul, 1954. pp. 538-545.

Eiduson, B.(1959). Structural analysis of dreams; clues to perceptual style. Journal of abnormal psychology, 58(3), pp. 335–339.

Ellenberger, H. (1954). The life and work of Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922). Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 18. pp. 173–219.

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Kamphuis, J. H., Tuin, N., Timmermans, M., & Punamäki, R. L. (2008). Extending the Rorschach trauma content index and aggression indexes to dream narratives of children exposed to enduring violence: an exploratory study. Journal of personality assessment, 90(6), 578–584.

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Levin, R., & Lamontanaro, L. (1997). Visual-spatial aspects of primary process in dreaming and waking thought. Imagination, Cognition & Personality, 17. pp. 15–30.

Mann, L. (1956). The relation of Rorschach indices of extratension and introversion to a measure of responsiveness to the immediate environment. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 20(2). pp. 114–118.

Palm, R. (1956). A comparative study of symbol formation in the Rorschach test and the dream. Psychoanalytic review, 43(2),. pp. 246–251.

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Wells, F. (1935). Rorschach and the Free Association Test. The Journal of General Psychology, 13:2. 413-433.

Wiseman, R. J., & Reyher, J. (1973). Hypnotically induced dreams using the Rorschach inkblots as stimuli: A test of Freud's theory of dreams. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(3), 329–336.

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