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Linguistic Analysis of Memories of People with MDD

PLoS One; ePub 2018 Nov 26; Himmelstein, et al

Results of a recent study align with literature implicating rumination and intensive self-focus in depression and suggest that interventions targeting specific word use may be therapeutically beneficial in the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD). This study examined the content of specific autobiographical memories (AMs) recalled by individuals with MDD during an autobiographical memory task. Researchers examined various features of the text as well as their associations with clinical and cognitive features of MDD (depression severity, autobiographical memory specificity, amygdala activity), in 45 unmedicated adults with MDD compared to 61 healthy controls. They found:

  • When recalling positive memories MDD individuals used the word “I” less, fewer positive words, more words indicating present focus (present tense verbs), and fewer words overall to describe memories compared to controls.
  • When recalling negative memories, MDD individuals used “I” more, more words indicating present focus, and more words overall to describe memories relative to controls.
  • Depression severity was correlated with word count, the use of “I,” and words indicating present focus in negative memories and inversely correlated with word count and the use of “I” in positive memories.

Himmelstein P, Barb S, Finlayson MA, Young KD. Linguistic analysis of the autobiographical memories of individuals with major depressive disorder. [Published online ahead of print November 26, 2018]. PLoS One. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0207814.


This investigation supports existing studies regarding verbal language used by patients with major depressive disorder (MDD). Intuitively, patients with MDD would be expected to use more words with negative connotations similar to findings by other studies. However, this study specifically investigated MDD patients’ positive and negative memories of their own autobiographical events, where MDD patients used fewer positive words for fond memory events and greater use of negative words regarding poorer memories. Interestingly, a previous similar study compared anxious and MDD patients and found that MDD patients used more negative utterances and words with more negative connotation suggesting linguistic differences between DSM-5 diagnostic categories. This current study contributes to the idea that language may be important to diagnosis and ultimately, treatment of MDD.—Thomas L. Schwartz, MD; Senior Associate Dean of Education, Interim Chair/Professor of Psychiatry, SUNY Upstate Medical University.