How Squiggles Can Help You Realize What’s Significant


Wednesday, 7.36pm

Sheffield, U.K.

All psychological research is completely barred by the interpretations of the psychoanalysts. Everything happens in the unconscious, and I don’t know what this unconscious is. – Nathalie Sarraute

Many years ago I read a textbook belonging to a friend that had something to do with psychology or semiotics. As I skimmed through it I experienced some cognitive dissonance – I didn’t understand why all these people kept talking about what other people talked about. There was something like “This person said this, and then this other person said something else, and so this idea was put forward.” For someone trained in the sciences and the idea that you could work things out from first principles this reliance on what people “thought” was bewildering.

Psychoanalysis in this category of study for me because I don’t know anything about it – the Internet tells me it’s a set of theories and techniques that are based on the work of Freud whose big idea was that there’s stuff happening in your unconscious that affects how you feel and act consciously. If you can get at this unconscious material then you can make sense of what’s going on. It sounds like not everyone agrees – but that’s for those experts to consider. I still don’t really get this but I am starting to appreciate that there are things we cannot know through the use of empirical tools, so we need to get better at talking about what we think is going on.

This is what’s interesting about a paper by Lisa Farley (Farley, 2011) where she writes about the work of D.W. Winnicott and the “squiggle game”. The game goes like this. Make a squiggle on a piece of paper and give it to a child and ask them to “make it into anything.” Then do the reverse, get the child to draw something and then make it into something yourself.

Now, I couldn’t resist trying this out so I called over one of the small people in the house, did a squiggle and then handed it over. The small person ignored my drawing and simply drew a smiley face and a house. Fortunately, it sounds like the interpretation of that is he’s happy at home. But what was interesting is that he also insisted that we do the reverse – he drew a picture and had me fill it in. I assume Winnicott also realised that the reciprocity was needed – I’ve done this so now you do it too.

Farley’s argument is that the significance of the doodle game is that it imposes no rules – we don’t start with assumptions or preconditions. The doodle is entirely random. Therefore what the other person superimposes on it is perhaps what’s important to them – something with Farley describes as taking “a detour through the unconscious on the way to becoming significant.” The idea here is that the person’s history is vast and deep but the elements of that history that matter can attach themselves to the squiggle and bring them to the forefront of your attention.

Now – to figure out what it means for someone looking for help is something that you’d need to be a trained professional to do. You can use the picture to have a conversation, maybe it will allow thoughts and ideas that have been repressed to come up so that you can deal with them.

My own interest is in whether these techniques can help us be more creative and innovative – and perhaps that’s something to try out. If you’re stuck in a rut, if you’re trying to figure out a new way to do something and you don’t know where to begin – maybe the thing to do is draw a squiggle. And then make it into something. And do that a few times. The squiggle, Farley argues, is a way of finding “history that eludes intentional or official representation; it is about the complicated relationship between inner and outer realities, between wish and reality…” It’s a way of drawing something out of you that you might not do otherwise.

And that’s a creative tool worth having in your toolbox.


Karthik Suresh


Farley, L. (2011), “Squiggle evidence: The child, the canvas, and the ‘Negative Labor’ of history”, History and Memory, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp 5-39.

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