Suspend Your Disbelief

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At a loss for words


Day 63 - Of Me

Yesterday we talked about a tool to help you analyze your writing for “flabbiness” or “fitness” based on your use of prepositions, adjective and adverbs, and so on. But could analyzing your writing tell you something about your mental fitness, too?

Researchers now believe that they may be able to detect the early signs of Alzheimer’s from a writer’s language. In a recently published paper, scientists at the University of Toronto examined the output of three writers for signs of the disease. From the study (titled “Longitudinal detection of dementia through lexical and syntactic changes in writing: a case study of three British novelists”), published in May:

We present a large-scale longitudinal study of lexical and syntactic changes in language in Alzheimer’s disease using complete, fully parsed texts and a large number of measures, using as our subjects the British novelists Iris Murdoch (who died with Alzheimer’s), Agatha Christie (who was suspected of it), and P.D. James (who has aged healthily). [….] Our results support the hypothesis that signs of dementia can be found in diachronic analyses of patients’ writings, and in addition lead to new understanding of the work of the individual authors whom we studied. In particular, we show that it is probable that Agatha Christie indeed suffered from the onset of Alzheimer’s while writing her last novels, and that Iris Murdoch exhibited a ‘trough’ of relatively impoverished vocabulary and syntax in her writing in her late 40s and 50s that presaged her later dementia.

Translation: these writers almost certainly suffered from Alzheimer’s, and it showed in changes in their writing, sometimes even before they showed overt symptoms of the disease. Fascinating stuff.


Join the Discussion

  • Very interesting. Makes me wonder about my frequent bouts of “impoverished vocabulary and syntax.”

  • Celeste Ng

    Ellen, me too! I reassure myself–or try to–by remembering that my style might just be evolving. There must be good ways to replenish our vocabularies out there…

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