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Subtleties in the language people use may reveal physiological stress.


Psychologists found that tracking certain words used by volunteers in randomly collected audio clips reflected stress-related changes in their gene expression. The speech patterns predicted those physiological changes more accurately than speakers’ own ratings of their stress levels.


The research, which is published on November 6 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that changes in language may track the biological effects of stress better than how we consciously feel. It’s a new approach to studying stress, says David Creswell, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and one that “holds tremendous promise” for understanding how psychological adversity affects physical health.

这项11月6日发布于《美国国家科学院学报》的研究暗示出:用语中的变化能比我们有意识的感觉更好地追踪压力带来的生物效应。“这是一条研究压力的新路”,卡耐基梅隆大学(宾州匹兹堡)的心理学家David Creswell如是说,这条新路在理解心理逆境如何影响机体健康上,“蕴含着极大的前景”。

These biological changes seem to represent the body’s evolutionary response to threat, says Steve Cole, a genomicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a co-author on the paper. But he was always troubled by a “nagging observation”: they don’t tally well with how stressed people say they are.

“这些生物上的变化看上去是代表着机体演化出的对威胁的反应”,来自加州大学(洛杉矶)的遗传学家 Steve Cole连同论文中的联合作者如是说。但他常被一种“无法释怀的观察结果”困扰:这些观察结果与受压中人们的那些自述无法吻合。

Cole wondered whether stress biology is triggered instead by an automatic assessment of threat in the brain, which doesn’t necessarily reach conscious awareness. To find out, he and his colleagues teamed up with Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson, who studies how stress affects language.

Cole想知道压力带来的生物学现象是不是被脑中对威胁的自动评估进程触发的,而不一定会抵达意识能觉察到的层面。为了弄个水落石出,他和他的同事与亚利桑那大学(图桑)的心理学家Matthias Mehl开展了团队合作,后者研究的是压力如何影响语言。

He was particularly interested in what psychologists call 'function' words, such as pronouns and adjectives. “By themselves they don’t have any meaning, but they clarify what’s going on,” says Mehl. Whereas we consciously choose 'meaning' words such as nouns and verbs, researchers believe that function words “are produced more automatically and they betray a bit more about what’s going on with the speaker”. Mehl and others have found, for example, that people’s use of function words changes when they face a personal crisis or following terrorist attacks.

他对心理学家口中的“功能性”词汇尤感兴趣,譬如说代词和形容词。Mehl说,“它们本身没有任何意义,但它们(被使用的方式)呈示出当时(说话者的精神状态)发生了什么”。 与我们有意识地选择“有意义的”词汇诸如名词和动词相反,研究者们相信功能性词汇“被造出来的时候更浑然而不经思索,它们泄露出了更多讲话者本身正在发生的状况”。Mehl和其他研究者已经发现,当人们面对个人危机或恐怖袭击时,他们使用的功能型词汇发生了变化。

The researchers compared the language used by each volunteer with the expression in their white blood cells of 50 genes known to be influenced by adversity. They found that the volunteers’ use of function words predicted gene expression significantly better than self-reports of stress, depression and anxiety.


People with more stressed-out gene-expression signatures tended to talk less overall. But they used more adverbs such as 'really' or 'incredibly'. These words may act as “emotional intensifiers”, says Mehl, signifying a higher state of arousal. They were also less likely to use third-person plural pronouns, such as 'they' or 'their'. That makes sense too, he says, because when people are under threat, they may focus less on others and the outside world.


He cautions that more research is needed to test these specific effects, and to assess whether stress influences language, or vice versa. But he suggests that the approach could ultimately help to identify people at risk of developing stress-related disease. Doctors may need to “listen beyond the content” of what patients tell them, he says, “to the way it is expressed”.

他告诫说,需要更多的研究来检测这些特定的效果,然后才能判断压力是否能影响语言,反之亦然。不过他暗示,这种方法最终能够帮助鉴定出那些处于压力相关疾病病情恶化风险中的人们。 医师们可能需要“听听弦外之音”,在病人告诉他们的内容之外,“听听表达这些内容时的方式”。

Cole suggests that assessing language use could help to test whether interventions aimed at reducing stress really work. Perhaps “you could even ditch self-report stress measures”, he says, and instead listen passively to how trial participants speak.