In his novel We Can Build You, Philip K. Dick describes a test given to people suspected of having mental illness wherein the doctor would give the patient a proverb such as “a rolling stone gathers no moss” or “too many cooks spoil the broth” and the patient would have to put the proverb into literal terms. Was this ever a real test, or just a product of Dick’s fantastical imagination? It sounds like it’s fake, but considering the various forms of talk therapy schizophrenics were subjected to in the sixties (and even though this book takes place in the bold future of 1980, it really takes place in the sixties), I wouldn’t be surprised if it had a little bit of basis in fact.
And if this is a real test, does it actually measure anything or was it just nonsense?
The proverb test is a test for ‘Concrete Thinking’- understanding only the literal meaning of a statement. It takes experience and skill to unlock hidden meanings, innuendos, suggestions, assumptions etc. in a statement. Children, people with learning disability, people with schizophrenia, people with autism all have some impairment with this task- tending to see fewer nuances in a phrase than the average person.
I have seen it in action. Back when I commanded a basic training company, we would call in Mr Ghram when a trainee seemed to be behaving oddly. He found a few interesting people, but mostly just kids behaving poorly under stress. He would sometimes use this screen.
I recall one exchange:
Mr. G: “Look before you leap.”
Student: “I have to be careful.”
Mr. G: “Curiosity killed the cat.”
Student: “I made a mistake.”
Mr. G: “The golden hammer beats open the iron door.”
Student: “I have to work harder.”
(In my opinion the iron hammer thing means something about the value of education, but then I am twisted.)
I had never heard that one, and curious, I did a little googling. The closest I came up with is “The golden hammer breaks the iron gate,” a German proverb which seems to be saying something about the value of money to open doors.
Actually it is one part of battery of tests given to a person to determine their ability to think in any form. This particular part of the test reflects the persons ability to think in the abstract and to interpret abstract thoughts and ideas into concrete form.
It is very helpful when attempting to diagnose mental illness but should not be confined to schizophrenia alone. Many symptoms need to be present to arrive at a diagnosis of schizophrenia. This is just one of many tools.