During the winter break, I discovered the podcast series Radiolab and have been slowly making my way through all of them ever since. (My parents don’t understand my enthusiasm for the series–maybe it’s the playful, artistic style of the podcast which is so different from a traditional newsreader. Then again, I don’t understand their enthusiasm for contemporary Vietnamese ballads sung by botoxed middle-aged ladies, so I guess we’re even.) Anyways, last night I listened to the podcast titled “Vanishing Words.”
The gist of the podcast is this: a computer science and English professor analyzing the texts of a variety of works discovered that in the later Agatha Christie novels, there was a 20% reduction in vocabulary, which roughly coincided with the time that people believed she might have come down with Alzheimer’s. Other researchers, surveying a group of nuns, discovered a correlation between linguistic complexity of essays written when the nuns were eighteen and the likelihood of mental deterioration in their latter years. The less “idea dense” the essay, the higher likelihood one would develop some sort of cognitive impairment.
All of this is correlation, of course. No one’s proven one causes the other, even if it does. But it does hint at something. And as a writer, it makes one hesitate a bit before typing out the words. Does my own prose predict what will become of my mind several decades down the road? Does my relatively facile implementation of linguistics ensure that my neurons will be in working order while I’m yelling at the kiddies to get off my lawn? Or does every trip to the thesaurus damn me to the drooling stare of senility?
“More research is needed before you jump to conclusions,” you might say. And I’d say that you are right. Whatever the case, though, this podcast struck a nerve. I’m not afraid of getting old, per se. It’s not about getting wiser or being more experienced. It’s not about moping about things that could have been because I’ve never had the courage to do things while I was younger. It’s not even about dying–because everyone dies. It’s about losing mind and memories, because it’s those two things that make us who we are. Without them, our identity is gone. And I find that frightening. Terrifying.
On the other hand, losing your mind in a Lovecraftian way would be marginally more scary. But it would, at least, be a far more spectacular way to go.