Popular Science Monthly/Volume 75/August 1909/The Variational Factor in Handwriting

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1579245Popular Science Monthly Volume 75 August 1909 — The Variational Factor in Handwriting1909June Etta Downey




HANDWRITING, bearing as it does the cachet of individuality, has always interested those to whom things human make their intimate appeal. Curious observations relative to it have long been current, the existence, for instance, of national as well as family and personal chirographics; the perversions of it that take form as mirror writing or even—it is said—as inverted writing; the whimsy shown by the bizarre characters, by the tendency to irrelevant and extravagant flourishes in the writing of those suffering from certain forms of mental disorder. Attention has been called to the similarity existing between a man's handwriting and the manner in which he walks or gesticulates. It has been claimed that age and sex and profession leave their impress upon writing, that the pencraft of the painter mirrors minutely the grace and distinction that marks the sweep of his brush across the canvas. Carried out boldly such speculations venture even the claim that the handwriting of any individual would be found to resemble the characteristic tracings shown by his pulse and respiration and fatigue curves. Nor is the interest in the variational aspect of handwriting restricted to recording the diversities in penmanship from individual to individual; it is also engaged in noting variations from day to day in the handwriting of any given person under the influence of fatigue or emotion or disease. But, however numerous, such observations and however legitimate the speculations they engender, it remains for the physiologist and the psychologist, with the aid perhaps of the sociologist, to compass the scientific study of the variational factor in handwriting.

The ground, however, has been broken. As has frequently been the case in the history of research, the claims of a pseudo-science, at once provocative and suggestive, have stimulated inquiry. In this case, graphology, the art that would find in handwriting revelations of intelligence and character, has been the direct cause of a series of investigations. On the other hand, modern psychological theory with its increasing emphasis upon behavior, upon the motor aspects of life, could not long ignore the opportunity for study presented by this most complicated and subtle act of individual expression.

Two lines of investigation have accordingly been inaugurated by the psychologist; the one interested in the functional significance of the act of writing as the expression of individuality; the other interested in a minute analysis of this motor series, seeking to determine the laws of expression that govern this particular act. In both investigations methods of research are being worked out with the ingenuity so characteristic of scientists of to-day. Each investigation as it progresses will be found to encroach upon the other. From the two will come the future science of handwriting. A résumé of the work that has already been done has perhaps its value at the present time.

First of all it may be profitable to consider the investigations that have sought to determine under scientific control whether or not the graphologists have made good their claims. It is to France that we owe, not only the most carefully wrought-out system of graphology, but also the most carefully thought-out control of that art. In an investigation covering many months, Alfred Binet, the director of the psychological laboratory at the Sorbonne, planned and executed a series of carefully controlled experiments designed to test the ability of the graphologists to determine from handwriting the sex, the age, the intelligence and the character of the writer. Binet, who guarded carefully against all sources of error, so planned his experiments as to be able to state in figures the percentage of error in the interpretations of the graphologists and thus render possible a comparison of the graphologists' successes with those that might reasonably be expected if chance alone determined the outcome. The results showed unmistakably that the graphologist was able to determine with but a small percentage of error the sex of the writer and also, but with less certainty, the intelligence of the writer. The interpretation of age and character offered still greater difficulties. To render the tests perfectly definite and to avoid the error that might arise from the personal equation in estimation of intelligence and character, Binet in his tests upon them made use, on the one hand, of the handwriting of men famous in literature and science and, on the other hand, of specimens of the handwriting of great criminals, whose biographies were matter of legal record.

Binet's investigation, apart from his general conclusions, brought out some interesting facts. He found, for instance, that there existed not only very great differences in the skill with which different graphologists made their interpretations, but also that there were those uninitiated in the art whose readings at times even the professional graphologist might envy. An observation akin, in a way, to the common experience that some people remember and recognize handwritings, as others do faces, with extraordinary facility and accuracy. Minute differences have for them undoubtedly a value not experienced by others. Binet found, moreover, that the professional's skill in diagnosis far outran his ability to ground his judgment on definite graphic signs. His reading was the translation into words of a general impression, somewhat similar, we may assume, to that received by the skilled reader of the human countenance. Moreover, in at least one instance, and that in the case of a non-professional, the judgments, based on intuitions, that is, non-reasoned-out impressions, were achieved in a state of passivity that we are familiar with as characteristic of automatic activities of different sorts.

Accepting these results, the investigation is obviously only well initiated, for one is next anxious to press home the question that asks the cause of such differences. It is not enough, for instance, to know that Binet's graphologists were able under highly favorable conditions to distinguish in ninety per cent, of the tests the sex of the writer; it is not enough to know that, to a certain extent, they were able to base their judgments upon the presence or absence of certain graphic signs; one would also know in detail what determines each sign of sex, whether at the last they are due, as Binet himself asks, to profound physiological or psychological causes, or, rather, are the outcome of the social environment so different in the case of the two sexes.

We are here brought face to face with the old question that has confronted all investigators of sex-differences. It is evident, however, that the question of the social environment is, in this instance, a controlling one not merely in the discussion of the revelation of sex in handwriting, but also in that of the revelation of intelligence; for there exists a peculiar environment for talent as well as for sex. Indeed, it appears that the investigation of handwriting must be sociopsychological in nature. Unconscious imitation, social suggestibility doubtless play an important, if not all-important, part in determining writing characteristics. On the whole, therefore, it is not surprising that the experts were more successful in distinguishing marked differences in intelligence than in determining the nature of the individual superiority. They perceived the class characteristic, as it were.

The overlapping of the writer's environments, social and professional, must farther complicate the matter. The cases cited by Binet of writing that gave evidence of reversion of signs: the writing, for instance, of a young woman scientist that the graphologists unanimously judged to emanate from a man, or the handwriting of a man like Kenan that the graphologists marked as coming from a man of inferior mental ability are of particular interest in this connection. Such cases would probably repay a detailed investigation not only of the psychology of the individual, but also of his environmental history.

It is, perhaps, because character, within certain limits, does not produce segregation of classes that the experts showed little accuracy in their judgments of moral qualities from handwriting. Their failure, for instance, to find in the handwriting of a young woman murderer, who was of some social position, evidence of more than feminine instability and coquetry is instructive; for the case was an aggravated one of the murder, by poisoning, of three innocent victims—husband, grandmother and brother—for the sake of trifling gain.

A further control of these experiments, an attempt to diminish the masking effect of class-imitativeness, might be achieved by international work, by tests involving the discovery of similar graphic signs in the writing of individuals separated by race and training. A repetition of Binet's test as to the possibility of distinguishing sex-differences might be of value in this country where sex-segregation in education is much less pronounced than it is in France.

Other sociological aspects of handwriting might no doubt be investigated. The variation in individual chirography due to the nature of the letter written, be it of social import or a business note; the change in penmanship that comes with the change of the relation of the writer to the one addressed—all such observations, vague as they are at present, merit consideration. Most suggestive of all is the shift in style that comes when the writer addresses his own eye alone, yielding himself to the fervor of composition or the mental dissipation of being "off parade." But observations under such conditions must at best be made stealthily. A hint at the possibility Of the intrusion of one's mental privacy and, conscience or vanity on the alert again, one's writing hastens to resume its conventional legibility.

The revelations of the autograph as a mental photograph, a graphic representation of social relationships, have never been fully appreciated by the sociologist, although the world at large has always accepted a famous man's autograph as secondary in interest to his photograph alone. The pretense, the dignity, the reserve, the finesse with which one faces the world finds copy in the ostentation, the simplicity, or the ambiguity with which one signs one's name. Indifferent though one may be in penmanship in general, there is something intimate and personal in the autograph that arrests one's interest, so that in the somewhat fantastic world of images, of symbols, it often happens that one adopts a mental picture of his own autograph as the official representative of himself in the counsels of thought.

In any case it is evident that there is a psychology as well as a sociology of handwriting. Tremendously complicated as the problem of diagnosis of individual traits from those tiny strokes of the pen appears, it is yet a legitimate problem of science; for the more progress psychology makes, the more evident it becomes that there is not a mode of expression which is not rooted to its finest detail in the complex psycho-physical organism. Meanwhile, it is fortunate that the task of identifying graphic signs should not be left wholly to the intuitions of the graphologist. Experimental work that seeks to induce variation in writing through a control of outer conditions must in time correlate certain definite variations in conditions with variation in such aspects of writing as size, speed, accuracy in alignment, inequality of control and the like.

The experimental investigations, spoken of above, have attacked the problem at this point. Abandoning any attempt to deal with the more complicated aspects of chirography as an expression of individuality, they have confined themselves to an accurate analysis of such factors as speed of movement and its variations; the length and significance of writing-pauses; measurement of pressure and its variations; comparison of the accuracy of control for right and left hand; elimination of visual control; minute analysis of finger, wrist and arm movements involved in handwriting, with an assignment to each of its rôle. Such an investigation, so far as it confines itself to mere analysis, is obviously but a part of the general investigation of voluntary action. But the discovery of methods of accurately registering minute variations in writing speed, pressure, amplitude and musculature is necessarily preliminary to an accurate determination of the correlation between particular psychic traits and their expression graphically.

An illustration of what may be expected from the perfecting of the technique of registration of speed, pressure and amplitude of writing is to be found in the report of a piece of work carried out some years ago in a German laboratory, where it was discovered that increased difficulty in mental work showed itself in written expression by increased pressure or by decrease in the size of the written characters. The former way of meeting the difficulty seemed to be characteristic of men; the latter, characteristic of women.

Variation in the amplitude of written characters involves doubtless many important considerations relative to the facilitation and inhibition of movement. Writing with attention preoccupied or distracted results variously in the enlargement or dwarfing of characters, an alternative result that seems to depend upon deep-seated tendencies of the individual. If, as facts apparently show, the individual who is the more automatic in his activities responds to distraction with an increase in the size of characters used; while one less automatic, one whose attention—though sometimes in a maimed condition—is always at the helm, gives evidence of the mental difficulty by a decrease in amplitude, a decrease that bears witness to the inhibition at work, then a very simple test is at hand by means of which individuals may be grouped under the two types that have been labeled, somewhat ambiguously, motor and sensory. If it should be shown further that this difference cuts through all the mental activities of the human being, progress would have been made in the difficult matter of the classification of mental types.

Whatever more extended observations may show, the writer of this paper has found it a very simple matter to pick out individuals who will make good subjects for muscle-reading—an experiment that succeeds best with those whose movements are most automatic—by a preliminary test in which the subject, blindfolded, is required to write his name rapidly in sequence while counting aloud by a given interval, say by 13's. The writing of those individuals who would serve best in the proposed test shows a progressive enlargement and, moreover, characteristic pen-lapses.

The question may then be raised whether such difference in mental type reveals itself in normal handwriting, and an affirmative answer seems not presumptuous, although a detailed study of handwriting from this standpoint has not, so far as the writer knows, been instituted experimentally. It should be noted, however, that in the thought process which accompanies writing during composition, momentary distractions occur frequently, for thought, even in the case of rapid penmen, is apt to run ahead of the writing. Who does not number among his correspondents those whose final letters trail off into an indistinguishable scrawl; and others who end with a flourish that marks well the motor abandon? Characteristic revelations, no doubt, although interpretation as yet must be exceedingly diffident.

It is interesting to note in this connection the interpretation graphologists put upon the size of writing as indicative of individual traits. Distinction, power, frankness, honesty are held to reveal themselves by magnified writing either throughout writing as a whole or at the termination of words. Minute writing throughout or at the close of words is held to indicate, in the case of superior intelligence, artifice or preoccupation with metaphysical or other minutæ; in the case of inferior minds, miserliness. Usually, the graphologists emphasize legibility of terminal letters as highly indicative of frankness; while, on the other hand, the tendency to terminate letters in filiform fashion as evidence of a veiling of self. Mere exhibition of documents from persons of known characteristics seems, it must be said, inadequate proof of such propositions. Variations from the normal in the handwriting of any individual would under defined conditions be of more value for general interpretative purposes than would variation from one person to another. Nor can facile analogies appear worthy of serious attention until the causal relation between certain temperamental traits and the facilitation or inhibition of movement is better understood.

The attempt to study handwriting in the light of psychological analyses already in progress bids fair to help analysis, as well as to increase our knowledge of the psychology of handwriting. The relation of the inner word to the outer visible one has long interested psychologists and pathologists, particularly in connection with the investigation of agraphia, that is, loss or impairment of the power to write. But the interest in such difficulties has centered largely in the fact that study of them might contribute to the physiological problem of the localization of cerebral function. If more than this, the interest has usually limited itself to an analysis of the situation in sensory terms; the details of the resulting expression have been but little studied. The growing interest in the psychology of lapses, both linguistic and graphic, and the development of a technique for such study is of great promise. In the case of the graphic lapse there is need not merely of the tabulation of what kind of errors are made, but also a reproduction of the writing in which the errors are found. Will such writing show characteristic variations in amplitude, pressure, and the like?

Even apart from the question as to the effect of a "hitch" in the process upon the appearance of writing, we may ask whether the general appearance and characteristics of writing are affected by the type of thought-process normal for any given individual. An intensive study of imagery types has always recognized, although with considerable divergence of opinion as to details, the varieties of the word-image. The word mentally seen or heard, spoken or written, has been found to play an important part in the complex thought-processes that underlie the consciousness of meaning and the possibility of its expression. The question of significance here is how far one sort of verbal imagery is potent in initiating the written word of any individual and whether any difference in written gesture marks off the individual who habitually indulges himself in visual imagery from the man who is more motor in type or more dependent upon auditory images.

Back even of this question lies the more deep-cutting one of the significance to the whole mental life of the predominance of the sensations, perceptions and images of a ruling sense. At what point and to what extent in the process of learning to write does the visual-motor coordination fall under the ruling sense and what effect has such subordination upon the general appearance and character of the resulting chirography? One feels certain that the handwriting of the man visually inclined must differ ^om that of the man preoccupied with motor details, but is unable to specify the difference. Yet the problem does not remain insoluble, for there are simple methods of determining the part played by each sense in control of the writing of any individual. Accompanying sensations such as those of sight and sound may be eliminated from the situation and the effect noted; or conflict with visual or auditory or motor images may be introduced and the results recorded. The investigation of the varieties of writing-control with the relation of each to writing-appearance offers a tempting field for work. But here speculation must wait upon the facts.

In such an investigation, however, that peculiar perversion of writing known as mirror-writing, because legible only when seen in a mirror or in transparency, may be utilized experimentally. The fact, on the one hand, that many left-handed children write in such a fashion from the first; and, on the other hand, that right-side paralytics, forced to the use of the left hand often resort spontaneously to such a form in their written communications has brought it about that the investigation of mirror-writing has been in the past largely turned over to those whose interests were either pedagogical or pathological, and has led to the conclusion that mirror-writing is either the normal writing for the left hand of all individuals or the normal writing for the left hand of the left-handed only. An examination of the evidence cited in support of these propositions or a discussion of the explanations that are used to ground them is not now in place. What is of interest is the insistence upon the need of further experimental work on induced mirror-writing with the hope of getting more light upon the relation here involved between the written characters and their visual significance. For the first question that arises is this: How can mirror-writing prove visually satisfactory, however "motorly" comfortable? And the answer to this question involves the whole problem of the relation of visual and motor control. It is probable that artificially induced mirror-writing is a simple device for determining to what extent the divorce between motor and visual control has resulted in the case of any one individual.

But the relation of handwriting to emotional temperament, as well as its relation to imagery types, merits consideration. Variation in expression under emotional disturbance has long been a special subject of experiment. Little attempt, however, has been made to compare the results so obtained with the appearance of writing under emotional tension. To be sure, the graphologists cite a tendency to elevate progressively the line of writing as an evidence of mental exaltation, of joy or ambition, while a fall in the alignment is indicative of the depressive emotions, self-distrust, sadness, melancholy. Again, a strongly marked tendency toward centrifugal or centripetal movements is held to indicate, on the one hand, ardor, simplicity, activity, uprightness, and, on the other hand, slowness, lack of spontaneity, egoism. These observations, if confirmed, need to be brought into definite correlation with the results obtained in experimental work; and in this connection the graphologists do appeal to the experimental interpretation of movements of expansion and of flexion.

Again, the observation seems in point that variations from the normal in the handwriting of any individual are, under defined conditions, of more value for general interpretative purposes than is variation from one individual to another. Some attempts to induce artifically, by means of hypnotic suggestion or provisional deceit, changes in the mood or even in the personality of a given reagent have indeed been tried in France. The results, although striking and interesting are somewhat general in nature nor is the method beyond criticism.

The dependence of style of writing upon suggestion has already been spoken of in emphasizing the rôle social suggestion plays in determining writing-types. Experimental work may investigate the influence of this factor. An incident in which a friend of the present writer, in signing the latter name to a lecture-ticket, unconsciously imitated the writer's signature shows how extensively suggestion may operate. Reports of the character of writing during hypnosis offer material for study. Detailed reports as to the characteristic appearance of such writing are, however, wanting.

Professor Janet, of the Collège de France, urges, and with reason, that experimental graphology should begin with studies in pathological graphology, studies on the effect upon handwriting of diseases of motility and sensibility, or of specific diseases, such as those of respiration and of circulation. From the more pronounced modifications of handwriting transitions may then be made to its more delicate inflections.

This recourse to pathology bids fair to prove increasingly fruitful. Physicians have long been aware of profound modifications of handwriting through disease and have utilized such modifications in diagnosis. Considerable material has been collected and published by them in connection with their discussions of insanity, hysteria, epilepsy, paralysis and the like. Their interest has been, however, often practical rather than theoretical, and it is only with the increasing interest in the specific problem of handwriting that the full value of their documents becomes evident. Moreover, the failure to record in a particular instance specimens of the normal as well as of the perverted writing is often regrettable. Experimental work upon pathological writing has, however, already been resorted to in the attempt to determine the changes in writing induced by the use of alcohol and various other drugs.

A highly interesting case of pathological writing is that known as automatic writing, writing of which the writer is either not conscious at all or else conscious only of the movement and its result without feeling in any way responsible for the act. In connection with such automatic writing one would like to have not only an analysis of the mental state, but also detailed information of the variation from the normal in terms of speed, amplitude, alignment and pressure of writing. It is worth noting that Professor Janet has published examples of mediumistic writing, and that Dr. Prince, in his recent book on "The Dissociation of Personality," has reproduced the handwriting of a secondary personality.

Much work to-day still needs to be done in the collection, according to well-formulated plans, of material for the study of handwriting. In the matter of family resemblances in chirography, for instance, there is scarcely any material at hand, a fact not surprising since such work of collection must needs run over years. An instructive series of family autographs would be one showing handwriting at different periods of development. Any resemblance here in the handwriting at the same period of life of individuals differing considerably in age would testify directly to hereditary motor tendencies of some fineness, since suggestibility as a contributing cause would be ruled out.

Doubtless the day is far in the future when we shall be able to solve such historic enigmas as Mary, Queen of Scots, by an appeal as Tarde, the French sociologist, suggests, to her handwriting; or be proficient enough in the art of interpretation to proffer our services, as other enthusiasts predict, to the benevolent advocates of scientific match-making; but such suggestions carry with them a faith in the interpretation of this finest, subtlest of movements which time will perhaps justify. Nor will a scientific interpretation of individual chirography come merely to gratify an idle curiosity or a secret malice. It will be of immense value. All the arts remedial and educative will have need of it. Physician and educator, criminologist and sociologist, will make their appeal to it. Strange, if in time these tiny written gestures should be found to be all-revealing; if in them should be found the most intimate expression of the dramatic instinct.