October 19, 2008

Language use and mental health

This week, The New York Times mentioned the work of James W. Pennebaker (also read this post about his work). This University of Texas psychology professor has been doing studies in which he has tried to learn about mental health by counting the use of certain categories of words by people. Here is that NYT article: He Counts Your Words and here is an interesting quote from that article:

"Dr. Pennebaker, a pioneer in the field of therapeutic writing, asked a group of people recovering from serious illness or other trauma to engage in a series of writing exercises. The word tallies showed that those whose health was improving tended to decrease their use of first-person pronouns through the course of the study. Health improvements were also seen among people whose use of causal words — because, cause, effect — increased. Simply ruminating about an experience without trying to understand the causes is less likely to lead to psychological growth, he explained; the subjects who used causal words “were changing the way they were thinking about things.”

The way it is implied here is that this knowledge could be used for diagnostical purposes. But could it work the other way around, too? In other words, can we improve our mental health (and that of our students, children, etc.) by deliberately decreasing some and increasing other words in our (/their) language?

By the way, Keith Petrie, James Pennebaker and Borge Sivertsen have also carried out a linguistic analysis of all the lyrics of the Beatles (here is the article: Things We Said Today: A Linguistic Analysis of The Beatles) and came to this (I guess surprising to some) conclusion: "The findings of this study contrast with some of the popular stereotypes of the Beatles. The first is the commonly held view of Lennon as the more intellectual songwriter and McCartney as the sentimental tunesmith. As Everett (1999) notes, "McCartney is seen as the sentimentalist, nonintellectual working-call craftsman who counts his pay in smiles and moves on to the next project, toiling to get every note just right" (p.10). In fact, the linguistic evidence shows that, while McCartney lyrics are have less negative emotional words than Lennon’s, McCartney’s songs are more intellectually complex and cover a far wider range of perspectives and themes. Lennon’s songs tend to more self-focused and higher in levels of negative emotion.

Interesting.... This gives reason to acknowledge Paul McCartney not only as the most all round talented and accomplished musicalist of The Beatles but also as the best lyricist.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner