I can read your face better than you can. The same holds true for you. While the role of mirror neurons is still not well understood (and sometimes disputed), the fact that we can tell what another person is feeling, often more quickly than they can, is a consequence of being a social animal. This transcends facial expressions. We read bodies all of the time. For example, if we meet for the first time and I cross my arms, I’m more likely to trust you if you follow suit and cross yours. If we’re in a group and you’re the only one who doesn’t follow this pantomime, I’m less likely to trust you. Social cues have been tried and tested for a long time, so much so they don’t need to be consciously understood to be effective.
New research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has uncovered another telling clue regarding our inner state, namely stress: shifts in language. A team led by University of Arizona’s Matthias Mehl found that certain markers in language detect stress levels better than conscious ratings, which in turn effects gene expression in our immune system. The more stressed we are, the more genetic inflammation activity occurs, while antiviral genes are turned down.
One hundred and forty-three American adults were recruited to wear audio recorders. Over a two-day period, 22,627 clips were collected. After transcribing the tapes, Mehl analyzed the language they used, focusing on “function words,” i.e. pronouns and adjectives. We consciously choose “meaning words,” i.e. nouns and verbs, while function words “are produced more automatically and they betray a bit more about what’s going on with the speaker.”
Function words change, Mehl says, when we face a crisis as well as following terrorist attacks. Volunteers self-reported feeling less stressed, anxious, and depressed than they actually were, according to their white blood cell counts Mehl’s team measured.
Researchers focused on two aspects of language: volume and structure. The more stressed a volunteer was, the less likely they were to talk much at all. When they did speak they used more adverbs, such as “incredibly” and “really.” They also focused their speech less on others and more on themselves.
This research could lead to more effective means of understanding and treating stress. As I recently wrote about, Twitter might become a new avenue for discovering sufferers of depression and PTSD. Just as Israeli airport security guards focus heavily on behavioral detection (such as body language) for detecting threats, doctors and therapists could use natural language patterns to better understand potential psychological disorders. As Mehl and team conclude,
Statistical pattern analysis of natural language use may provide a useful behavioral indicator of nonconsciously evaluated well-being (implicit safety vs. threat) that is distinct from the information provided by conventional self-report measures and more closely tracks the activity of underlying CNS processes which regulate peripheral physiology, gene expression, and health.
So it might be true that we don’t know ourselves as well as others know us. Instead of an invasion of privacy, treating this as a therapeutic means of dealing with inner conflict could help a world experiencing rising anxiety and depression rates. Anthropologists have long known group fitness is the main driver behind our evolutionary triumph in the animal kingdom. Though we might live in an individualistic culture, remembering where our strength lies—in depending on others—could not be more timely.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.