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Unstoppable scribbles, stilted strokes // possible clues to 
diagnose illness // gleaned from patients putting pen to paper.

Medical Graphology: Symptoms in Script

By Meera Lee Sethi // Photographs by Martyn Thompson // Spring 2010
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Martyn Thompson for Proto

Characteristic of Herr Hitler’s handwritings are three outstanding traits: indecision, depression and morbid introspection. It takes no handwriting expert to recognize the cramped, drooping, uncertain signature as a manifestation of the Führer’s cramped, self-centered approach to life,” concluded the graphologist Nadya Olyanova in 1939, six years before Hitler’s suicide, according to her 1991 obituary in the New York Times. Olyanova had studied with the Austrian psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, and she was a consultant to the psychiatric services of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, reported the Times. But like the practice of phrenology—the notion that the bumps and indentations of the skull form a map of character—attempts to analyze one’s disposition through the curve of an o or the tail of a g are considered spurious.

How curious, then, is medical graphology: the use of handwriting to diagnose disease. In the 1950s, the Austrian-American graphologist Alfred Kanfer proposed the idea that because cancer affects the brain’s ability to manage fine motor control, early signs of the disease could be detected in the pauses between pen strokes. Most scientists demurred.

Still, diagnostic links between sickness and script seem to exist. “Writing is an exquisite fine motor skill—unlike brushing your hair, for instance,” explains José Contreras-Vidal, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health. “People spend years practicing it, consolidating a very robust motor-control program in the brain.” So, he says, deterioration of that finely honed skill is a red flag that something may have gone awry in the brain’s ability to run the program.

The examples that follow demonstrate other striking ways in which writing may be a measure of health.

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