RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Emails, blogs, Twitter updates, we all leave a trail of writing behind us at the end of every day. And this morning, we have a story about the words we write and what they might reveal about our brains.
It comes to us from our friends at Radiolab.
(Soundbite of various sounds)
Mr. JAD ABUMRAD (Producer/Co-Host, Radiolab): Hey, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Hi, Jad. That's Jad Abumrad from WNYC.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And I'm here, too. This is Robert Krulwich and Radiolab is a show where we get kind of curious and we explore ideas, and then we argue on occasion.
Mr. ABUMRAD: And, Renee, let me just start with a question.
Mr. ABUMRAD: What if we were to take all the things you've ever written in your life: Your emails, your scripts, maybe your diary from when you were 12. And what if we were to analyze it all, looking for patterns? What could we learn about you?
MONTAGNE: Well, I don't know. I mean what? I favor synonyms.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: But I mean, really, who would even want to do that, in the first place?
Mr. ABUMRAD: Well, we actually got a guy...
Professor IAN LANCASHIRE (Department of English, University of Toronto): Hello.
Mr. ABUMRAD: ...who does just that.
Prof. LANCASHIRE: My name is Ian Lancashire. I'm a professor of English at the University of Toronto.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Ian, like he said, is an English teacher. And, you know, like most English teachers, he fell in love with certain authors. So at a certain point he got it into his head, could he use computers to help him get deeper into those authors' psyches?
Prof. LANCASHIRE: ...And see them all in their works as individuals.
Mr. ABUMRAD: And in the mid '90s, which is where our story begins, he turned to one of his favorites.
Prof. LANCASHIRE: Agatha Christie.
(Soundbite of a bass line)
Mr. ABUMRAD: Who at the time was the most published author ever.
Prof. LANCASHIRE: She sold a billion books.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Like B-billion?
Prof. LANCASHIRE: She was number one after the Bible, I think.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ABUMRAD: So he took 16 of her books, which she'd written over a 50-year period, and he fed them all into the computer.
Now, what is the computer doing exactly?
Prof. LANCASHIRE: Measuring the vocabulary of the works...
Mr. ABUMRAD: ...number of different words...
Prof. LANCASHIRE: ...word frequency...
Mr. ABUMRAD: That kind of thing. And he discovered that something happened at her 73rd book.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Well, to start, her use of words like...
Prof. LANCASHIRE: Words like thing, anything, something.
Mr. ABUMRAD: What he would call indefinite words.
Prof. LANCASHIRE: These words increased six times...
Mr. ABUMRAD: At the same time, the number of different words she used in the text fell 20 percent.
Prof. LANCASHIRE: That is astounding. That's one-fifth of her vocabulary lost.
Mr. ABUMRAD: And it gradually dawned on him that what he might be seeing was the very beginning stages of an author losing herself.
KRULWICH: What does that mean, losing herself?
Mr. ABUMRAD: Well, after talking with linguists and cognitive psychologists, he eventually came out and said...
Prof. LANCASHIRE: The data supported a view that she had developed Alzheimer's.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Was she ever actually diagnosed?
Prof. LANCASHIRE: Absolutely not. There was no diagnosis.
Mr. ABUMRAD: He says that some of her biographers suspected that something was up with her in her later years, but she never got that diagnosis.
Prof. LANCASHIRE: I think her family closed around her and protected her.
Mr. ABUMRAD: But if you think about the title of that 73rd book...
Prof. LANCASHIRE: "Elephants Can Remember."
Mr. ABUMRAD: ...and if you think about the plot...
Prof. LANCASHIRE: The chief character is an aging female novelist and she is suffering from memory loss.
Mr. ABUMRAD: ...you realize that maybe, on some level, she knew - that Agatha Christie was sensing what was happening to her.
Prof. LANCASHIRE: I realized I was seeing the author in the text in a way that people hadn't seen the author in the text before.
MONTAGNE: But is there any other evidence that Ian is right about Agatha Christie?
Mr. ABUMRAD: Well, in that case, it's hard to know for sure. But there are other studies which, you know, indicate that our writing does hold clues to who we'll be. And that those clues show up way earlier than you'd expect.
Prof. LANCASHIRE: Very famous example is the so-called Nun Study.
Dr. KELVIN LIM (Director, Nun Study, University of Minnesota): Okay, the Nun Study actually began in 1990...
Mr. ABUMRAD: This is Dr. Kelvin Lim. He works at the University of Minnesota and he's the current director of the so-called Nun Study. The study began with a guy named David Snowden who wanted to study aging over time. And so he got together almost 700 nuns, all of whom were at least over the age of 75.
Dr. LIM: We're now 20 years in this study, so that means the youngest of the sisters is about 95.
Sister ALBERTA SHERIDAN (Sisters of Notre Dame): Yeah, I think I am. I am the youngest.
Mr. ABUMRAD: And you are 94 years old.
Sister SHERIDAN: Yes, sir.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Not 95.
Sister SHERIDAN: Not 95.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ABUMRAD: This is Sister Alberta Sheridan.
Sister SHERIDAN: I like the way you said that.
Mr. ABUMRAD: And she, like all the nuns in the study, agreed to give the researchers a small piece of her brain after she died...
Sister SHERIDAN: Yes.
Mr. ABUMRAD: ...so that they could examine it for plaques and tangles.
Sister SHERIDAN: Now, this morning, we buried a sister here. But the funeral was delayed a bit because she had to be taken to the hospital to have a portion of her brain removed.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Oh.
Sister SHERIDAN: Mm-hmm.
Mr. ABUMRAD: But the really fascinating part of the study, at least to us, is that at a certain point the researchers discovered autobiographies that were written by the nuns all the way back when they entered the convent.
This is like 60 years ago?
Sister SHERIDAN: Oh, yes. I have a copy of it at home.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ABUMRAD: So they analyzed the essays looking primarily at...
Dr. SERGUEI PAKHOMOV (Researcher, Nun Study): Two specific features of the language contained in these narratives.
Mr. ABUMRAD: That's Serguei Pakhomov. He does the analysis for the current Nun Study.
Dr. PAKHOMOV: And in particular, the notion of grammatical complexity and the idea density.
Sister SHERIDAN: This is something I...
Mr. ABUMRAD: Like if you were to listen to Sister Alberta's biography.
Sister SHERIDAN: All right.
(Reading) Two days after the birth of the Christ Child, I was brought as a belated Christmas gift to a Mr. and Mrs. Albert Joseph Sheridan...
Mr. ABUMRAD: Idea density is the number of discrete little ideas that she's able to pack into a sentence.
Sister SHERIDAN: (Reading) A week later, the sparkling waters of baptism...
I'm not going to read all this silly stuff when I first entered. It sounds kind of saccharine.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ABUMRAD: Okay. Well, here are two classic examples. The first is low idea density...
Dr. PAKHOMOV: I was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin on May 24, 1913, and was baptized in St. James Church.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Now, here's high.
Dr. PAKHOMOV: It was about a half hour before midnight between February 28 and 29 of the leap year 1912, when I began to live, and to die, as the third child of my mother, whose maiden name...
Mr. ABUMRAD: So okay, here's the punchline. The people who wrote in that low idea density sort of way when they were like 20 were vastly more likely to develop dementia when they were 80 or so. Not only that, using just these essays the researchers could predict with 92 percent accuracy what the nuns' brains would look like after they died; whether they would have those plaques and tangles that you associate with Alzheimer's...
(Soundbite of a sigh)
Mr. ABUMRAD: What?
KRULWICH: I'm just suddenly, I'm suspicious.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Why?
KRULWICH: Because here's a man who has found the ones who got sick and working backwards says: Ah, this is a cause that produces...
Mr. ABUMRAD: No. No. No. No. There's no cause and effect here. It's just a correlation, albeit it's a strong correlation.
MONTAGNE: Okay, wait. Wait. You, Jad, are saying it's possible that there's something about the way we write when we're 20 that could predict something about our brains when we're 70.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Well, I mean I'm not saying that we know for sure. But studies have shown very early signs of Alzheimer's in the brains of people who've died in their 20s. So this Nun Study at least suggests a way of looking for those early warning signs.
MONTAGNE: Looking at the handwriting rather than the brain itself.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Yeah. But again, this is a maybe.
MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us once again. It was fascinating.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Yeah, sure.
KRULWICH: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: And that's Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from the show Radiolab. It's a production of WNYC. And you can explore Radiolab at NPR.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.