The Language of Introspection

She said nothing. Sitting on the subway traveling 8 stops from the center of Madrid to the northern outskirts of Tres Olivos, her face remained stoic, emotionless and void of thought. As passengers came and went, brushing her sleeves, hitting her knees with their bags or simply falling on top of her in a rushed attempt to make it to the door, she never, ever moved. The only sign of consciousness was a tight, jagged twitch from the right corner of her mouth just before the interior lights went black.

During my two year stint in Madrid, blackouts in subways were as common as impromptu jam sessions between stations. These episodes only lasted a few seconds, but for her, it was an eternity. By the fourth blackout, something snapped. Her eyes bulged, her heartbeat soared, and her fists started pumping in a slow rhythmic beat.

For all practical purposes, she was a normal woman going on her everyday life, unless…you were reading the signs.

A few days ago, I stumbled upon Mariano Sigman’s Ted Talk on how your words may predict your future mental health. Through semantic coherence, Mariano has developed an algorithm that can predict the future development of psychosis. By analysing the pattern of your speech – or the speed in which you jump from one semantic group (fruit) to another (cars) – he can measure discordance. It’s an incredible breakthrough in neuroscience, but relies solely on one’s verbal communication.

What if words aren’t giving away the psychosis? What if the psychosis, the pain, are being communicated another way?

On that steamy summer morning in Madrid, the world continued on. Books were read. Phones were engaged. People were ignored. Instead of connecting to one another, from reading one another’s signs and patterns, we disconnected. We checked out, because it’s a hell of a lot easier to wrap ourselves in apathy then to live in empathy.

By the 5th stop, I was able to persuade a kid to switch seats with me so that I could sit beside her. Gently taking an apple out of my bag, I offered it to her, sharing how I had procured it from a quirky vendor who lived just up the street from me.

Looking at me, she smirked, patted my leg and took an enormous breath. On the exhale, it was if her entire life blew out across the train, a bittersweet release of responsibility and fear. And though she never took the apple, nor uttered a word to me, her face softened to into a soft fleshy mound of content.

One of the greatest tools we have is our ability to connect, to listen, to watch, to participate in the world around us. Can Mariano’s research potentially help thousands of people get the support they need before a psychosis gets out of hand? Absolutely! But what about the here and now? What about you in that moment? The woman on the subway may not have been able to scream her anxieties and fears to a crowd full of strangers, but her nonverbal gestures were blatant.

Maybe it’s time we learn how to read the world without words…

“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”  ― Daniel Goleman



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