A new study, published in Clinical Psychological Science, has discovered a class of words that can accurately assess whether someone is suffering from depression. Utilizing a technologically advanced set of linguistics algorithms, computerized models cull through massive data banks of spoken or written text in minutes to determine if someone shows signs of being depressed.

What Do Plath, Beethoven, and Cobain Have in Common?

This technology may sound Orwellian, but it could be useful considering that people use language differently when they are depressed. You can see examples of this in the poetry of Sylvia Plath (Plath committed suicide in 1963), the song lyrics of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (Cobain allegedly took his own life in 1994), or even letters written by the composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, who was prone to ecstatic highs and suicidal lows.

Even the famous poet John Keats, wrote a poem in 1819 with advice for those who suffer from depression, titled ‘Ode on Melancholy.’ The work suggests not blocking depression with drugs but to seek out beauty and admire it instead – so clearly we’ve been struggling with this problem of depression for some time.

Not everyone who suffers from depression is a famous artist or singer, but the language used by these prominent individuals offers a good foundation to understand how a computer model could pick out possibly-depressed persons. These individuals however, might also suggest a class of people who are particularly sensitive to the woes of the world – sensitive artists or empaths, frustrated by a world that they find cruel, demanding, seductive and bewildering.

Irrespective of the true causes of depression, and some rather simple methods of curing it, the computer models use a few tools to reveal a consistent difference between the language of those who are depressed and those who are not.

Utilizing journal entries, personal essays, song lyrics, poetry, diaries, and snippets of spoken language, the computer model calculates the percentage and prevalence of words and classes of words, lexical diversity, average sentence length, grammatical patterns and many other metrics.

The findings from this accumulated research reveal clear differences. Some of the findings are less than monumental – as they examine the content of what someone talks about. For example, a depressed person is likely to talk about being “sad” or “lonely.” They tend to use negative adjectives and adverbs. This is something we might pick up on intuitively, just having a conversation with a friend who is feeling down.

Low Empathy Equals High Depressive Traits

However, an interesting use of pronouns is apparent in depressed people as well. Those with depression symptoms use more first person singular pronouns, such as “me,” “myself”, and “I,” and far fewer second and third person pronouns like “them,” “they,” “she,” or “he.”

This suggests that people are more focused on themselves and their pain, and less connected with others – which ironically is one of the causes of depression. It isn’t someone’s fault that they become “self-absorbed,” but it does seem to prevent them from experiencing true joy and self-acceptance.

Interestingly, when self-absorption is explored in many famous literary works, it is generally contrasted with self-reflection, self-awareness, and introspection—personality traits which suggest maturity, sensitivity, and achieving valuable personal insight, but also an knack for empathizing with others and to understand that we’re “all in this together.”

Moreover, there have been numerous studies linking low empathy with high depressive traits. As Ugo Uche explains,

In the process of a person becoming more depressed, as he gets good at being able to deny his negative feelings, he consequently becomes good at denying the positive opposites of his negative feelings, hence a significant difficulty in being cognizant of any feelings, except the feelings of being dead inside oneself.”

The Solution to Depression May Have Been Accidentally Unearthed by a Computer Program

The solution to the problem may have been inadvertently revealed by the computer program, and subsequent study by researchers, Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, and Tom Johnstone. The researchers even state that the results found by the linguistic modeling pinpoint absolutist thinking, more than depression itself, but that this type of thinking can certainly lead to depression.

The solution, therefore, it to expand one’s empathic connection to others, lest they become isolated in their own absolutist world of pain.

This fascinating emotion, likely evolved to help us survive, is a primal ability to feel how others feel. When a friend experiences the loss of a loved one, you feel the sadness as well. It is as if everyone’s brains are connected (and they are), strengthening our ability to express compassion. By cutting ourselves off from the pain of others, we may also be cutting ourselves off from the positive emotions that others feel as well – and thereby strengthening our own neural pathways to pain.

“In whom there is no sympathy for living beings: know him as an outcast.” — Buddha


Image: CC/Susi Acosta/Flickr.