Friday, May 07, 2010

Vanishing Words

There were three different stories I thought about writing today. "Vanishing Words" won out over both Google and Forbes.

I am a huge fan of NPR. It's the music of my life. I listen to it in my car, in my office at the university and in my home. National Public Radio is the reason why I've never seen an episode of Everyone Loves Raymond, Friends, or American Idol.

One of the more interesting programs on NPR is called RadioLab. The show is co-hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. RadioLab is produced by WNYC Radio, which describes it this way:
Radiolab is a special event. Unlike daily and weekly shows, we don't have a regular slot on the broadcast schedule. We produce five new episodes each season. Asking when a season will air is like asking when the monarch butterflies will migrate. Year to year, it depends on the weather.
"Vanishing Words" addresses "what scientists uncover when they treat words like data." Ian Lancashire, a professor of English at the University of Toronto with a computer lab courtesy of IBM Canada, has been doing interesting things with computers and words. For example, he fed all 960,243 words of the King James version of the Bible into a computer to see which ones appeared most frequently.

In the 1990's, Lancashire decided to feed a cross-section of 17 of Agatha Christie's detective novels into his computers. Christie wrote 80 detective novels over fifty years and sold over a billion copies. Yes, I did say a billion.

The first 72 novels were remarkably consistent in her use of language and the size of her vocabulary. However, Novel #73 showed a remarkable difference. Lancashire reports that her use of indefinite words--words like thing, anything, something and nothing--increased sixfold. In addition the number of different words, essentially the size of her vocabulary, decreased by 20%. Somehow one-fifth of her vocabulary had vanished.

Lancashire postulated that his data showed the beginnings of Alzheimers disease in Christie.

Although there was never any public revelation of such a diagnosis, Lancashire says that several of her biographers suspected such a possibility.

RadioLab goes on to talk about a long-term study about aging over time. In 1990, David Snowden began a study popularly called "The Nun Study" of 678 nuns in the School Sisters of Notre Dame order in Connecticut. Snowden used nuns because he wanted a healthy lifestyle (no smoking or drinking) combined with a similar lifestyle in older people. The conditions of the study permitted him to examine their brains following their deaths. His study subjects were at least 75 years old when he began following them. Now, twenty years later, there are only 40 or 5.9% of the participants still living.

Snowden accidentally stumbled across a treasure trove: essays written by all the nuns almost 60 years earlier when they were 18 years old. His review of the idea density and grammatical complexity in those essays predicted with 85% accuracy what the slices of their brains would show about Alzheimers after their death.

The answers will surprise you.

Go to RadioLab's website here to listen to the results of The Nun Study.

In a final irony, the name of that Agatha Christie novel in which her writing skills dramatically deteriorated is Elephants Can Remember. It features a recurring character, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, and a recurring protagonist, Hercule Poirot. In an additional ironic twist, Ariadne is losing her memory.

Christie only wrote one other novel after Elephants Can Remember. That novel was titled Postern of Fate and featured my favorite of her characters: Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.

I never finished reading that novel.


Gina Black said...

Fascinating, Maya. I'll listen to the show when I have a moment.

I'm a Christie-aholic. Have all the books and can usually remember who did it after re-reading the first few pages. "Elephants" is one I found very disappointing when it came out and never re-read. Don't remember "Postern" at all (and I'm also a big fan of Tommy and Tuppence). Will have to dig it out and take a look at it.

Maya Reynolds said...

Gina: I'm an Agatha Christie fan, too. I began reading her novels when I was about eleven. My favorite two are still "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" and "The Man in the Brown Suit."

I could not finish "Postern of Fate" because it was sooo badly written. It saddened me than; now it breaks my heart to think of her trying to write with Alzheimers.

Warm regards,