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Sticks and Stones may Break your Bones but Words will Change your Brain

Updated: Jan 19

We’ve heard the phrase “words matter” a lot in the political arena. Everyone knows that the words we use make a difference in the way information is received. But did you know that words we speak, hear, and even read can actually change the brain?

Many of your brain regions that process language also control other parts of your body such as major organ systems, hormones and neurochemistry, and your immune system. Scientists refer to these brain regions as the “language network.” Not only do they enable you to read, speak, and comprehend words, they also impact your heart rate, glucose production that fuels your cells, and neurochemistry that either strengthens or weakens your immune system. “Words matter” is not just a catchy tagline. It’s neuroscience.

In one research study, participants were asked to lie still in a brain scanner and listen to short descriptions of situations, like this one:

You are driving home after staying out drinking all night. The long stretch of road in front of you seems to go on forever. You close your eyes for a moment. The car begins to skid. You jerk awake. You feel the steering wheel slip in your hands.

As the participants listened, researchers saw increased activity in regions of their brain that are involved in movement, even though their bodies are lying still. We see other activity in regions involved in vision, even though their eyes are closed. And here’s the coolest part: there’s also increased activity in the brain regions that control heart rate, metabolism, the immune system, hormones, just from hearing and processing the meanings of words!

The words we use have a direct effect on our own brain and bodily systems, and they have that same effect on other people. Your brain syncs up with other brains, whether you like it or not. Whether you intend for it to happen or are even aware that it’s happening – it doesn’t matter. It’s how we’re wired.

According to neuroscience research, hearing or speaking positive and optimistic words stimulate frontal lobe activity. This area includes specific language centers that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action. The parietal lobe, responsible for perception of self and others, is also affected. A positive view of yourself will create a bias in seeing the best of others.

Conversely, one negative word can create a profound neurological effect by way of the amygdala releasing stress hormones that actually drive you to make another negative statement and yet another one. Negative thoughts result in you being more critical and suspicious of others. There is where the 3 to 1 positivity ratio becomes important. If you don’t experience at least 3 positive thoughts for every negative one, you’ll mental state will become increasingly more negative as you get trapped in what scientists call the “vicious cycle.” Studies have shown that people who can generate a 5 to 1 positivity ratio have healthier relationships, are more collaborative, and more successful professionally.

In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, authors Newberg and Waldman write: “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.” In their research, they’ve explored how positive words, such as “peace” and “love,” alter the expression of genes, strengthen the logic and reasoning centers located in the frontal lobes thereby enhancing mental acuity. Angry words and words with negative connotations alert the brain to a potential threat and they pause activity in the frontal lobes. In short, the right words can sharpen our mental acuity while the wrong words can hijack it.

Scientific findings and empirical evidence also prove that the use of passive sentence structures versus active sentence structures can unconsciously influence the way we receive information and the conscious decisions we make.

Passive language seems feckless and invites doubt where the active phrases convey accountability and confidence. For example, when a hotel guest calls the front desk to report a clogged bathroom drain, there is a big difference between “Let me see what I can do” and “I will definitely take care of that.”

When a diner asks his server if a dish can be prepared differently than is listed on the menu, “Let me find out for you” delivers a much different feeling than “I don’t know but I’ll ask the chef.”

Even a simple response to “thank you” can create increased emotion in a very common exchange. “You’re welcome” is the standard, “of course” is dismissive, but when you respond “It’s my pleasure” implies you enjoyed the opportunity to do that thing.


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