NPR: Mapping the Brain through Writing

Who says English has no practical applications?  I heard a bit of writing-related news on NPR this morning:

Ian Lancashire, an English professor at the University of Toronto, has spent much of his career trying to see past the words on the page and into the psyche of the author. He makes concordances of different texts; basically, an alphabetical list of all the words and the contexts in which they appear in a text. This is a tradition that dates back to medieval monks, who would make concordances of the Bible in the hopes of seeing the mind of God.

Lancashire fed the works of one of the most prolific authors in modern history–Agatha Christie–into a computer and studied the evolution of the vocabulary of her novels:

When Lancashire looked at the results for Christie’s 73rd novel, written when she was 81 years old, he saw something strange. Her use of words like “thing,” “anything,” “something,” “nothing” – terms that Lancashire classifies as “indefinite words” – spiked. At the same time, number of different words she used dropped by 20 percent. “That is astounding,” says Lancashire, “that is one-fifth of her vocabulary lost.”

Lancashire waited two years before publishing the results of his study, during which time he checked his results with statisticians and linguists and pathologists. “I did not want to say what was said in the end,” says Lancashire, “that yes, the data supported a view that she had developed Alzheimer’s.”

Christie was never formally diagnosed, so we will never know for sure if Lancashire’s conclusions are correct, but the implications for this sort of scholarship seem to be compelling, not only because it might enable us to understand the authors of the past on a new level but because it points to how our own writing might be key to understanding who we are and where we are going.

At the very least, it suggests some exciting confluences between the world of literary studies and the world of science.

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