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Can Your Writing Predict Your Mental Health?

October 26, 2016
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Have you ever thought of the ancient Greeks as schizophrenics? According to physicist Mariano Sigman, the work of scientist Julian Jaynes in the 1970s proves this. “The first humans described in these books behaved consistently, in different traditions and in different places of the world, as if they were hearing and obeying voices that they perceived as coming from the gods or from the muses… what today we would call hallucinations,” he said in his 2016 TED Talk. Sigman infers that as time went on, humans developed introspection, and realized that the gods and muses were their own inner voices. To figure out when this shift occurred, Sigman created a word-mapping algorithm. Since the word “introspection” was not used, linguists relied on other cues to identify the mental state of writers in ancient books. “Introspection built up in human history only about 3,000 years ago can be examined in a quantitative and objective manner, [but] we need to find the emergence of a concept that’s never said,” Sigman added. When the word-mapping algorithm worked, Sigman began to wonder if this would translate to the mental state of people today. Can the way you write today predict your mental stability in the future? Can we diagnose the onset of psychosis through essays and letters? “Maybe the most challenging question we can pose to ourselves is whether this [word-mapping algorithm] can tell us something about the future of our own consciousness. To put it precisely, whether the words we say today can tell us something of where our minds will be in a few days, in a few months or a few years from now.” Sigman then analyzed the speech of 34 young people who held a high risk of developing schizophrenia. Their speech was measured daily over the course of three years, to see if it could predict psychosis. “The most important thing was not so much what they were saying, but how they were saying it. More specifically, it was not in which semantic neighborhoods the words were, but how far and fast they jumped from one semantic neighborhood to the other one.” Hear more about Sigman’s results on word mapping and the development of psychosis in his February 2016 TED Talk: [embed][/embed]
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