Feeling emotional? At a loss for words? Write it down and Israeli researchers might just be able to figure out what you’re feeling based on how — not what — you write, according to a new study.
The new research, unveiled this year by researchers at the University of Haifa, examined how actual changes in handwriting, including shapes of letters, spaces between words, and the pressure of the writing tool on paper, can be used to identify a person’s emotional state of mind.
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“There’s a problem measuring emotions using objective indexes that are completely free of what the subject tells us,” Clara Rispler, a doctorate student from the Human Services Department at the University of Haifa and one of the authors of the study, said in a university statement. “An ability to identify the subject’s emotions easily and non-invasively could lead to a breakthrough in research and in emotional therapy.”
Rispler, who conducted the study in collaboration with Dr. Alon Kahane and Prof. Gil Luria of the same department, worked with Prof. Sara Rosenblum of the Department of Occupational Therapy to complete the research. Rosenblum had already been studying the correlation between cognitive therapy and handwriting for years. According to cognitive theory, when the brain “executes several actions simultaneously, the secondary actions — including the automatic ones — are impaired.”
Rosenblum used this theory to develop software that can meticulously measure specific changes in handwriting, Rispler tells NoCamels. The computerized handwriting evaluation system, called the Computerized Penmanship Evaluation Tool (ComPET), is used with an electronic writing board, known as a digitizer, to make handwriting come out extremely clear. It can measure elements in the form of writing, such as the space between letters.
“The relevance of the ComPet to the current study is that it can document the writing act even when the subject writes in the air, as well as on the special board. This means that the handwriting is done naturally,” Rispler explains. “The computerized system enables, for the first time, an objective look into the very complex world of handwriting. We wanted to examine how handwriting, an everyday behavior, can help differentiate between moods”
Utilizing the software, Rosenblum has already discovered other important characteristics that the software can interpret — like when a person lies or displays early signs of Parkinson’s disease.
The new study divided 62 participants randomly into three groups. Each group then watched different movies that were meant to put them in different moods, including positive, negative, and neutral. Each participant was then asked to write a paragraph on the computerized system, including all the letters in the Hebrew alphabet.
Results revealed differences between the three groups in various parameters relating to handwriting, the university said. Participants in each group were in different moods and this could be seen in their handwriting. “For example, the height of the letters written by people in a negative mood was significantly lower than in the case of people in a positive or neutral mood.” Researchers also reported that participants in a negative mood showed quicker writing and narrower width of letters than those in a positive or neutral mood.
“As far as we know, this is the first study to utilize this technique (the ComPET) in relation to the measurement of moods,” Rispler tells NoCamels, “Usually moods are measured subjectively, and here it is done objectively, as the ComPET documents the handwriting process supplying objective measures, while a person writes on an electronic tablet (digitizer).”
“There were statistically different results in the measurements of the handwriting between the different mood groups,” she adds.
While there are various techniques and methods of evaluation to decipher moods, physiological tests are complex, expensive, and often disrupt routine. A person who is unaware of his or her mood might also report the wrong mood for a variety of reasons. Researchers believe the ability to develop an objective and simple index that causes no disruption to regular functioning is very important to the field for therapeutic purposes.
“The findings of the study may help therapists identify their patient’s actual mood, something that naturally is very significant for the therapeutic process,” Prof. Rosenblum affirms, “No less importantly, we therapists can see whether our therapy is improving the patient’s feelings, or at least involving the patient in a meaningful process, for better or for worse. In the future, we will try to examine whether we can also measure the level of the mood, i.e. how happy or sad someone is.”
Studies indicate that focusing on daily functional deficits, without delay, may prevent future socio-economic complications and health status deterioration, Rispler suggests.
“It is important to develop and see how evaluation tools which are effective due to their high sensitivity to daily function events and efficient in detecting human performance (such as handwriting), may contribute to early and improved diagnosis. Early or improved diagnosis will enable development of focused quality-of-life promoting intervention methods among people with developmental delays and other varied diseases along the life cycle.” she says.