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Repeatedly writing about a traumatic event can be therapeutic. This may be due to fuller cognitive processing of the traumatic memory. Greater written coherence, or the degree to which ideas relate to one another within a document, is one potential marker of cognitive processing. This investigation set out to determine how assigned writing topic affects coherence in a set of personal narratives (n=246). Participants were asked to come into the lab three times to write about either their daily activities (neutral condition) or the most traumatic event of their lives (trauma condition). The resulting narratives were submitted to a program called Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA), a corpus-based method of detecting meaning from text based on the interrelationships of all words in a series of documents. LSA can assign ratings of textual coherence similar to those of human judges and was used to analyze how the coherence of these narratives changes over the course of three 20-minute writing sessions. An ANOVA revealed that neutral narratives were more coherent than trauma narratives overall, but that from the first session to the third session, neutral narratives decreased in coherence while trauma narratives increased in coherence. This meaningful increase in coherence for trauma narratives suggests that participants were cognitively processing the trauma between writing sessions, creating a consistent and intelligible mental representation of the event. This may be a mechanism by which expressive writing about a traumatic event produces mental and physical health benefits.
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