December 27, 2005

The brave new world of computational neurolinguistics

Yesterday I wrote about an ITV documentary, airing today, that promises to unveil some weird-sounding "neurolinguistic" research on the endorphin-stimulating effects of Agatha Christie's prose style. I asked British readers for more information, and even before seeing the program, Ray Girvan was able to help:

Being commissioned for a ITV documentary marking the 75h anniversary of the creation of Miss Marple, the exercise has "promotional" written all over it. ITV has an ongoing coproduction agreement with Chorion plc, rights owners and makers of Agatha Christie TV films.

The premise of the enduring popularity of Christie's text doesn't entirely bear scrutiny. Sales of her books were declining in the late 1990s, and have only risen again after extensive rebranding and promotion by Chorion plc, who bought the rights in 1999.

See here and here.

Now why didn't the Times, the Guardian, the BBC and the rest of the British mainstream media give us this sensible account of the commercial forces behind the Agatha "research"?

Take a look at the breathless BBC story headlined "Scientists study Christie success". Its subhead was "Novelist Agatha Christie used words that invoked a chemical response in readers and made her books 'literally unputdownable', scientists have said." The lead sentence was "A neurolinguistic study of more than 80 of her novels concluded that her phrases triggered a pleasure response".

The BBC article gives us no hint that ITV has a financial interest in the "enduring popularity" of Christie's work. The article is in the entertainment section, not the science section or the business section; but a majority of readers will surely see it as a story about the popularization of scientific research, not a story about a public relations stunt in support of a commercial partnership. (There may well be some real science behind the program -- I'll reserve judgment on that until the work is described somewhere in enough detail to evaluate.)

Well, I've made a New Year's resolution to look on the bright side, so I'm going stop berating science journalism at the BBC-- clearly a lost cause -- and focus instead on the wonderful new opportunity here for enterprising teams of computational and neurological linguists.

The recipe is simple. Take one fading literary property with a cash-rich proprietor, one statistical string analysis algorithm, and a sheaf of brain images with hot and cool color patches. Mix well. Sprinkle with neurotransmitters; add sex and violence to taste; and serve on a bed of fresh press releases.

A few years in the future, I look forward to reading the first of a veritable river of publications from the Doubleday Institute of Computational Neurolinguistics at UCSC: Pullum, G. et al., "The obsessive-compulsive code: effects of anarthrous noun phrases on striatal dopamine D2 receptors".

[I should stress that the neuroscience of language is an eminently respectable field, where rigorous and exciting work is being done; and that integration of advanced computational techniques into this field is one of its most promising areas. In this post, I'm poking fun at a case where press reports suggest that the field is being exploited for publicity purposes by a partnership of media companies.]

[Update: Ray Girvan emailed:

I watched the programme, and updated my weblog entry with the notes I made. I admit I'm biased - I think Agatha Christie's work is execrable - but the programme was nevertheless very poor science.

They did various computer analyses of word and phrase distribution: pretty standard computational linguistics stuff. The shaky part was the interpretation of the results by various non-mainstream pundits - a Lacanian psychoanalyst, a stage hypnotist, and two Neuro-linguistic Programming experts - who all asserted that the observed word distributions literally hypnotised the reader.

In his weblog entry, Ray Girvan describes the program at greater length:

The main experts were computational linguist Dr Pernilla Danielsson (billed as "academic champion of communications") and Dr Markus Dahl, a research fellow (a Johnny Depp lookalike, including top hat) at the University of London Institute of English Studies. The camera tracked around them portentously as they sat at glowing laptops in a dimly-lit smoky room and, bit by bit, revealed the purported secret of Christie's success. As LL guessed, Dr Roland Kapferer wasn't among them; he was revealed in the credits as the associate producer/writer for the programme.

The science boiled down to a) computerised textual analysis - word frequencies, and so on - and b) subjective psychological interpretation of the results thereof. Christie's nearly invariable use of "said", rather than said-bookisms, was claimed to enable readers to concentrate on the plot. Her works' narrow range on a 3D scatter plot (axes and variables unknown) indicated a consistent style, assumed to be a Good Thing compared to Arthur Conan Doyle. Sudden coherent sections in her otherwise messy notebook indicated her getting "into the flow" - a trancelike writing state (Darian Leader, a psychoanalyst, endorsed the idea that she had been in a similar, deeper trance during her famous 10-day disappearance) and Dr Dahl argued that this trance transferred to the reader.

The trance theory was the central thrust of the programme. David Shephard, a Master Trainer in Neurolinguistic Programming, asserted that the level of repetition of key concepts over small spaces (e.g "life", "living", "live", "death" in a couple of paragraphs) consolidated concepts in the reader's mind. He claimed further that we can only hold nine concepts in the mind at once (I assume a reference to Miller's classic Seven plus or minus two figure for short-term memory capacity) and that Christie's use of more than nine characters overloads the reader's conscious mind, making them literally go into a trance. Dr Dahl cited a further textual result - Christie's "ingenious device" of controlling the reading speed by decreasing the level of detail toward the ends of books, and stage hypnotist Paul McKenna claimed that this invoked the neurotransmitters of craving and release, making the books addictive.

Finally they rolled out the big gun, Dr Richard Bandler, "father of Neurolinguistic Programming", who repeated the assertion of Christie literally hypnotising readers, and said the lack of detail helped maintain that trance. And that was it: "extensive computer analysis", concluded the Joanna Lumley voiceover, has enabled a "quantum leap" in understanding the source of Christie's enduring popularity. Why, surely only a cynic could remain unconvinced by such rigorous science...

I expect we Americans will be able to see this on the Discovery Channel or the History Channel before long. If so, my New Year's Resolution to focus on the positive side of linguistics in the media will be subjected to a rigorous test. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 27, 2005 07:05 AM