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Vanishing Words

Wednesday, May 05, 2010 - 03:00 AM

Agatha Christie's clever detective novels may reveal more about the inner workings of the human mind than she intended. In this podcast, a look at what scientists uncover when they treat words like data.

According to Dr. Ian Lancashire at the University of Toronto, the Queen of Crime left behind hidden clues to the real-life mysteries of human aging in her writing. Meanwhile, Dr. Kelvin Lim and Dr. Serguei Pakhomov from the University of Minnesota add to the intrigue with the story of an unexpected find in a convent archive that could someday help pinpoint very early warning signs for Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Sister Alberta Sheridan, a 94-year-old Nun Study participant, reads an essay she wrote more than 70 years ago.


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Comments [37]

sophia from piedmont

I love radio lab! Thank you guys so, so much for keeping this satiation going.

Nov. 13 2015 06:17 PM
Upton D. Wilder

I found this podcast very interesting. I never would've thought that there was a link between the strength of our English vocabulary now and Alzheimer's. This find is quite incredible. It's a little scary though. I feel that the ability to know whether you are going to be at risk of Alzheimer's when you are older is a piece of knowledge that would be hard for any young person to carry with them. We have not until recently developed methods that allow this. Guess this means I better do well in English if I want don't want to be at risk of Alzheimer's or dementia.

Apr. 13 2015 08:34 PM
Dave K from NYC


Twitter would be a perfect place to look for idea density since the 140 chars limit forces you to be as dense as possible. It may even be good exercise, where you may look up words to improve or learn from the tweets of others.

I find myself rewording a tweet of a complex thought all the time, trying to find the most concise form -- perhaps with a sprinkle of wit. I'm sure plenty of people tweet consistently simplistic concepts, but if you look at the users that are debating each other you'll hit the idea density jackpot.

Feb. 08 2014 05:59 AM
Courtney Dwson

I found this episode quite troubling. I'm 24 years old and during high school I excelled in English - however for the past couple of years have felt a distinct loss in my ability to remember things and a noticeable decrease in my vocabulary. More and more while talking I forget words or use incorrect ones. I spend lengthily amounts of time typing emails only to go back over them and find they make no sense.. Even writing this comment is very difficult and has taken a long time.

Previously I had put my loss of vocabulary down to not continuing my education into university and have generally felt that when I took up study again my memory and vocabulary would improve. However after listening to this podcast I feel I may have to do some more research and possibly seek medical advice. Although it is frightening to think something more serious could be going on, I'm glad that I listened to this podcast. Thank-you.

May. 02 2013 12:22 AM
michael from North Carolina

At one point in this segment someone stated that the word "because" does not appear anywhere in John Milton's poetry.

This is false. Milton's great epic poem, "Paradise Lost", uses the word "because" ten times.

See for yourself here: the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library:

Jan. 28 2013 10:36 AM
Carolyn from Canada

Christie's character Ariadne Oliver is famously scatterbrained. Any of the novels featuring her must have more words with vague meanings. Maybe one of her other last novels would have been a better choice for analysis?

Oct. 19 2011 12:35 PM
Paul Ringger from Upatoi, GA

Is there software available that one can use to do these analysis themselves?

If so, would someone please provide links to these resources?


Jun. 17 2011 10:07 PM

"Could someone please tell me the name of the piece of music played from 3:39 to 4:30 on the podcast. It’s played with a bell sound."

It's called "Main Theme" from the Elephant Man soundtrack, by John Morris.
The whole soundtrack is great - and worth getting!

Jul. 06 2010 12:40 PM

I find the high vs. low sentence density aspect of this research engrossing. I would bring up one point, however. If you have taken even a few literature classes, you will see how writing styles have changed over time. In Victorian times, for example, novels and indeed some philosophical works were incredibly wordy. Remember "The Scarlet Letter A?" Reading that book today is sheer agony because of its word density. If Hawthorne was a modern writer, I suspect he would have written the book in a much less word dense way.

Jul. 03 2010 09:58 PM

While listening to this program, I couldn't help but recalling my father. Since passed, he always spoke eloquently. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's and later re-diagnosed with Lewy Body Disease. One of the most memorable moments for me in realizing his regression was one day, years ago when I, for the first time, beat him at scrabble. It brought me to tears.

After his death my mother was told by her superiors at work to clean out her work e-mail account due to server issues. As she sorted through them she opened and read e-mails from my father over the past 5 years. As Agatha's books told a story of her aging, so did my father's e-mails.

Thank you radiolab. You enlighten and engage me.

Jun. 24 2010 06:48 PM

Sister Alberta Sheridan is a gem. I, too, want to hear more interviews with her.

May. 26 2010 02:40 AM
Julie D

This photo made me click over to Ebay immediately and buy old type writer keys. Great short, by the way.

May. 24 2010 04:28 PM

Very cool short. I didn't quite understand the concept of idea density, until I found this article on the study;

"To illustrate idea density, Kemper contrasted the sentence "Jack made Jill a doll" with the sentence "Jack made Jill smile." The grammar in both sentences is relatively simple, but the second sentence has more idea density.

In the first sentence, all the ideas are made explicit by the words. In the second, a suggestion exists that Jack had to do something to prompt Jill's smiling, so there are more ideas present than are represented by the words. The nuns whose youthful writing showed low idea density had a dramatically higher incidence of Alzheimer's in old age, Kemper said."

And to comment on some of the above thoughts, we all know correlation is not causation, but that does not mean that correlation can never be causation, that is to say, perhaps changing the way you write now, may lead to lasting and significant changes in one's brain.

May. 16 2010 01:32 PM

@Emanuella (and others concerned about how they write) Don't forget Robert's objection in the podcast: the sentential idea-density relationship to later-life dementia is only a correlation, not a causation. The nuns didn't develop dementia *because* they wrote with low idea density, but rather that the myriad of reasons that caused their dementia were apparently also *indicated* in their early writings.

Point being, intentionally writing differently now isn't necessarily going to change anything about your future. Nor does it mean that journalistic writing will lead to dementia, especially if you're *intentionally* writing with low idea-density (e.g. "journalistically"), as opposed to naturally writing in a low idea-dense manner (as in a diary entry).

Hope that makes sense!

May. 14 2010 12:50 AM

Would writing more like Herman Melville or Thomas Hardy help me keep my marbles?

May. 13 2010 06:03 PM

When you say "high idea density" did you mean how complex the sentence was or how many associations went with each word?

I'm a journalism-trained writer in my mid-twenties and I have to admit this podcast frightened me. At school I was taught to write with brevity and clarity. Did my journalism training condemn me to getting Alzheimer's?

May. 13 2010 06:02 PM
Allan Murphy

Hello Jan and others,

The book has just been digitally scanned and will be available soon. Until then:

May. 13 2010 07:31 AM

Cannot get this to work

May. 13 2010 04:07 AM

Cannot listen to anything right now from either the site or via iTunes

May. 12 2010 11:06 PM

The download MP3 link isn't working. Woe!

May. 12 2010 10:33 PM

I imagine that I was not the only one to fearfully trying to self-assess the "linguistic density" of my writings. I wonder how Microsoft Word's "readability" feature does at measuring linguistic density? It instantaneously calculates a Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level for a document. Old letters of recommendation I have written seem to average around 9, The synopsis above - 14.1, and the first comment (by Skipper)- 13.5. This comment? 12

May. 12 2010 06:36 PM

Could someone please tell me the name of the piece of music played from 3:39 to 4:30 on the podcast. It's played with a bell sound. By the way, I was quite moved at the end of this podcast. Learning of Christie's struggle made me appreciate her all the more. I have been listening to Radiolab for the past year and this podcast has finally pushed me to start contributing money to the program. Bravo to the Radiolab team.

May. 12 2010 03:00 PM

Loved the podcast but was left wondering ... Does Christie's early work have high-idea or low-idea sentence density? If low-idea, then it would correlate with her alleged dementia in her later years as supported by the Nun Study, right?
I also support the idea of Nun chat :)

May. 12 2010 11:23 AM

Hi Allan, I'd be interested to see your Beetles work! Is it gettable online?

May. 12 2010 10:17 AM
Allan Murphy

An extremely interesting show. In 1980, I co-wrote a concordance to the Beatles' lyrics. The project took about 3 years. Lyrics were on hundreds of punch cards. We documented how the Beatles transitioned from entertainers to artists by dealing with loneliness, color imagery, nostalgia, etc. Textural analysis is fascinating. I am the walrus.

May. 12 2010 09:34 AM

There's a newly published book entitled "The Middle-Aged Brain" that talks about the differences between the brains of young people and middle-aged people. Young people are faster retrievers, but people in their 50's and 60's are the best at seeing the whole picture. Both sides of the middle-age brain work in tandem; not so split in terms of "Right brain" or "Left Brain." And forgetting words is just part of not being young. It doesn't mean you don't know the word you can't remember. For some reason, learned meaning of a word and memory of the words spelling are stored in completely different places. Proper nouns are troublesome because of their arbitrariness.

The author, a neuroscientist, is disturbed at the casting off of the "big picture people" (people in their 50's). She thinks companies are losing out on a lot, including when to tell when someone is committing fraud--oh, wait a minute! Now it all makes sense!

May. 11 2010 08:27 PM

I second David's idea for Nun Chat!

May. 11 2010 06:03 PM

Sister Alberta Sheridan is just adorable. NPR needs to get her her own show! Nun Chat would get my yearly donations.

May. 08 2010 02:00 AM

Wow, ironically I just finished reading "Elephants" in my ongoing quest to read all of Christie's novels. I usually enjoy them, but this one I did find did not fit in quite right style-wise. It's extraordinary how brilliant of a writer she was nonetheless. Great little episode.

May. 07 2010 06:36 PM
Patrick Roush

I have to admit - Radiolab rubs me the wrong way alot of the time. OO OOO...that's Wiretap.

However the picture of the typewriter keys struck a chord,....or a clean sheet I s'pose. I met a guy recently who restore ancient typewriter. Apparently, many who love TWs are freaked out that all of the good keys are gonna get clipped off by the steam punks. The more esoteric the keys, the more Steam-punkity you are.

When I was their age, we'd paint 'Black Flag' and DK on out cheap leather jackets and it was cool. Now all these upstarts with their type keys. Harrrummmph!

May. 07 2010 03:20 AM

I am a new subscriber to radiolab podcast. This is one of the most fascinating podcasts I have ever listened to! It touches on aging, memory, literature, linguistics, computation, statistics, neuropathology. Keep up the good work.

May. 06 2010 03:38 PM
Chris Collins

They've found a similar trend in novelist Iris Murdoch's work.

I'd be really interested to see if you guys could talk to Terry Pratchett about this. He's a writer nearly as productive Christie who has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. But I believe his still writing.

May. 06 2010 09:02 AM

I don't know much about Christie's life, but as a writer I'd like to suggest that it's at least conceivable that in her 73rd novel she deliberately wrote in a manner which recreated the process of memory loss - not, in other words, as a form of self-defence, but as a stylistic choice.

May. 06 2010 05:10 AM

So possessing wordy word-skills was OK?
I grew up writing stories, so much so I started illustrating them and making little books. How nice to know it wasn't just a lack of editing ability...
I've read from neurologists' writings that forgetting names or where your keys are is probably harmless (just aggravating). It's when you forget what keys are for or what names mean that should be scary. I'm not out of the woods yet: my mother died of dementia. As we discussed among us siblings, we are already living lives full of so much more richness that her world never afforded her. Dementia is so cruel, in that you're left to mourn the person stolen away by it, yet they're not "gone." When the mother who loved you and was the anchor of the family no longer recognizes you, it is grief, pure and simple, and no less painful than if her body passed on. It's one shape of death that is the most savage.

May. 05 2010 08:35 PM

As an avid reader of Agatha Christie, I have long been of the opinion that her mind was failing in her later books. I don't think those last books would have been published at all if not for her long, outstanding career. I always felt those books were a bit sad, as evidence of her decline, but I never thought about the courage it must have taken to write them even as she saw her memory slipping away. I now have even more admiration for her.

May. 05 2010 04:57 PM
Sean Robinson

Listening to this, I had the sudden and familiar panic I have each time I struggle to remember the name of an artist or movie or friend or date, all things I had almost total command of in my twenties and have dwindled in the past few years. Here's hoping the memory of my youth was just unusual, and my lack now not a sign of things to come...

And thanks, as always, for the provocation.

May. 05 2010 12:22 PM

Working with Jad's mention of Twitter in the modern age: online services like Twitter, Facebook, Google, and so on are very earnestly working with words as scientific data because it's a core element of staying competitive in their business. Computational language analysis is a fascinating field, and luckily seems to also have powerful economic incentive.

Word data is probably still the easiest way to directly get highly personalized information about a person (e.g. a status update, a tweet). Facebook, for example, hires teams of scientists whose primary goal is to teach computer models to interpret the words used in Facebook status updates. The computers gather information and the scientists pick out interesting patterns so that better, more personalized advertising can be served. Better targeted ads translate to actual interest in ads, which translates to business.

Computational word research and analysis (like the studies in this Radiolab podcast) is exploding commercially and otherwise, like a virtual internet gold rush. Supply is growing exponentially as hundreds of millions of people use online services to communicate publicly. Demand is blowing up because we're realizing, like these scientists about Agatha Christie, just how much we can learn from a simple collection of words.

It's exciting to consider how much we may be able to learn about our selves using non-contextual information. Everything you do changes the world, and soon we may be able to tell you why.

May. 05 2010 04:41 AM

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