When I entered my psychiatric residency in 1966 (after 6 years training and practice in internal medicine and endocrinology) I was astonished to find that almost no one used a formal history with relatively healthy outpatients. When people came into hospital (where we start our training), there was a formal protocol that asked about tons of information. But for walking around folks who seemed to have their acts pretty much together, the psychoanalytic model told us to "wait for the material to develop" rather than pester them with questions. I found this naive and counter to the spirit of a health professional. During the first year after my residency, I developed a formal intake examination that I have used with slight variation since then.
Proverbs are folk sayings, highly compressed statements about the human condition that take the form of symbolic representation of complex ideas, experience, and affects. In order to put a proverb in one's own words, one must first desymbolize the proverb---undo the process of compression---and then find a new way of resymbolizing and stating the same truth. Unless one cops out and substitutes another proverb (which can be accurate but actually is a form of cheating) the answer is far longer than the proverb because there is so much affect associated with the core idea that it triggers a lot of linked thoughts from one's own experience. Most of those who discuss proverbs talk about how they distinguish normal thinking from schizophrenic or organic brain illness-caused distortion. In these two conditions, the material within the proverb that I have called a "highly compressed symbol" is decoded as if it were a thing itself, rather than a symbol for something far larger.
I say to the patient: "I'm going to mention a couple of folk sayings, proverbs, and I'd like you to explain them in your own language. What do we mean when we say. . ." And I scribble like hell to write down EXACTLY what the patient says, sometimes holding my hand up to get them to slow down so I can get every word.
The three proverbs I have used all this time are:
A rolling stone gathers no moss.
People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.
Don't cry over spilt milk.
Schizophrenic and OBS patients generally tell you that a stone can't pick up moss when it is rolling because there is not enough time for the moss to grow on it, that if you throw a stone in a glass house the glass will break, and that you'll have to get some more milk. When you get answers like that from someone you thought was pretty much normal, you've got to look further for evidence of thought disorder or some level of emotional disorder far more significant than you might have thought.
For rolling stone there are two realms of non-psychotic answer. Moss is decoded either as the equivalent of rot or mold or cancer or rust, or it is decoded as something velvet and lovely that can only grow if the stone and the earth have been in intimate contact for many many years. Two widely divergent attitudes that must have something to do with the history of attachment and the emotional meaning of closeness.
For glass house, the world of guilt and shame is exposed.
Spilt milk may evoke hidden themes of sadness (what clinicians who do not know affect theory call "depression") and other forms of distress; alternatively it may bring up themes of shame for being so stupid as to have spilled.
One of the most fascinating results of this study has been that I've never heard any duplication of responses to rolling stone. It calls forth the most amazingly wide variety of responses, all of which teach me a great deal. And years later, when the patient and I may have completed our work, I will check over the proverbs and see if there is anything in the answers I got in that first session or group of sessions that might have given me insight as to the future of that particular case.
My good friend and colleague Peter Bloom, who travels on this forum occasionally, helped me when I was devising this protocol. On a trip to Russia in the 70s, he told clinicians and others what we were doing. An airline stewardess gave him a proverb that captures a lot of the Russian spirit, that has meaning in our culture, but not as much as it did there, and highlights another problem of proverbs. The Russian proverb is "No matter how often you feed him, the wolf never leaves the forest." I mention this because people who have been raised in cultural enclaves away from what you and I might consider the mainstream occasionally tell me that they have never heard one or another of these proverbs, and I ask them to guess. Just as the Wechsler IQ test and others have had to be adjusted for cultural bias, proverbs, too, must be aimed at a population for which they encrypt common data. If you are working in a Hispanic or African or South American culture, you might have to choose three completely different proverbs that fit that culture. These sayings are always available and well worth chasing. Incidentally, for a while I tried a (peculiar) experiment: I made up a fake proverb ("Yoked oxen draw little water.") in order to see whether it drew different answers from sociopaths. All it did was draw a frown, the statement "I have no idea what that means," and added unnecessary shame pressure to the already difficult experience of being examined by a mental health professional. I gave up the experiment after a few months.
As for references on proverbs, there was a short chapter in a book I read in 1967 that dealt with the subject, but nothing since, and nothing that comes close to the material I've described here. If anyone has a more recent reference I'd welcome the assistance.