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The Power of Words

by LISA FELDMAN BARRETT

Why do you feel delight when someone gives you a compliment? Why do you feel stung when someone insults you? Neuroscientists ask the same questions and are now starting to craft some surprising answers.

Many of your brain regions that process language, it turns out, also control the insides of your body, such as your major organ systems, your hormones, and your immune system. These brain regions are contained in what scientists call the “language network” because they participate in language-related functions. They allow you to read and understand these words and to explain them to someone else who speaks your language. At the same time, these brain regions guide your heart rate up and down. They adjust the amount of glucose circulating in your bloodstream to fuel your cells. They change the flow of chemicals that support your immune system. When people talk about the power of words, it’s not a metaphor. It’s in your brain wiring. It’s also in the brain wiring of other animals; for example, brain cells that are important for birdsong also control the organs of a bird’s body.

The power of words over your biology can span great distances. Right now, I can text the words I love you from the United States to my close friend in Belgium, and even though she cannot hear my voice or see my face, I will change her heart rate, her breathing, and her metabolism. Or someone could text something ambiguous to you like Is your door locked? and odds are that it would affect your nervous system in an unpleasant way.

Your nervous system can be perturbed by words not only across distances, but also across the centuries. If you’ve ever taken comfort from ancient texts such as the Bible or the Koran, you’ve received metabolic assistance from people long gone. Books, videos, and podcasts can warm you or give you the chills. These effects might not last long, but research shows that we all can tweak one another’s nervous systems quickly with mere words in very physical ways that go beyond what you might suspect.

In my research lab, we run experiments that demonstrate the power of words to affect the brain. Our participants 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 our participants listen to these words, we see 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 system that controls heart rate, breathing, metabolism, the immune system, hormones, and other internal gunk and junk… all from processing the meanings of words!

Other people’s words, then, have a direct effect on your brain activity and your bodily systems, and your words have that same effect on other people. Whether you intend that effect is irrelevant. It’s how we’re wired.

This power of words is just one aspect of a more general truth: we humans are a social species, and we regulate one another’s metabolisms. Other social animals do this too. Ants, bees, and other insects do it using chemicals such as pheromones. Mammals like rats and mice use chemicals to communicate by smell, and they add vocal sounds and touch. Primates like monkeys and chimpanzees also use vision. Humans are unique in the animal kingdom, however, because we also regulate each other with words. For your whole life, outside of your awareness, you make deposits of a sort into other people’s nervous systems, as well as withdrawals, and others do the same for you. And we often do it with words.

Being a social species sometimes has measurable effects. Changes in one person’s body often prompt changes in another person’s body, whether the two are romantically involved, just friends, or strangers meeting for the first time. When you’re with someone you care about, your breathing can synchronize, as can the beating of your hearts, whether you’re in casual conversation or a heated argument. This sort of physical connection happens between infants and their caregivers, between therapists and their clients, and among people taking a yoga class or singing in a choir together. We often mirror each other’s movements in a dance that neither of us is aware of and that is choreographed by our brains. One of us leads, the other follows, and sometimes we switch. In contrast, when we don’t like or trust each other, our brains are like dance partners who step on each other’s toes.

We also adjust each other’s metabolisms by our actions. If you raise your voice, or even your eyebrow, you can affect what goes on inside other people’s bodies, such as their heart rate or the chemicals carried in their bloodstream. If your loved one is in pain, you can lessen her suffering merely by holding her hand.

We even change each other’s brain wiring. In general, your brain wiring changes with new experiences, a process that scientists call plasticity. Microscopic parts of your neurons change gradually as you go through your day and, importantly, when you interact with others. Little by little, your interactions with family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers contribute to your brain’s structure and function.

These interactions also help to keep us healthy. For example, we live longer if we have close, supportive relationships with other people. It may seem obvious that loving relationships are good for us, but studies show that the benefits go beyond what common sense would suggest. If you and your partner feel that your relationship is intimate and caring, that you’re responsive to each other’s needs, and that life seems easy and enjoyable when you’re together, both of you are less likely to get sick. If you’re already sick with a serious illness, such as cancer or heart disease, you’re more likely to get better. These studies were conducted on married couples, but the results likely hold for close friendships too, and even for pet owners.

On the other hand, we also get sick and die earlier when we persistently feel lonely—possibly years earlier, based on the data. Without someone else helping to regulate our nervous systems, we bear an extra burden. Have you ever lost someone close to you through a breakup or a death and felt like you’d lost a part of yourself? That’s because you did. You lost a source of keeping your bodily systems in balance. The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, famously wrote, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” In neuroscience terms, a breakup might make you feel like you’re dying, but constant loneliness is likely to hasten your death. This is one argument for why solitary confinement in jail—enforced loneliness—is like capital punishment in slow motion.

Another advantage of being a social species is that we do better at our jobs when we work with peers and managers whom we trust. Some employers intentionally foster that trust and reap the benefits. For example, some companies provide free meals to their workers, not just as a tasty perk but also to encourage employees to socialize and brainstorm together. Some offices also contain plenty of impromptu workspaces so employees can collaborate away from their desks. When people work in an environment where they can learn to trust one another, they’ll have less burden on their nervous systems, saving resources that can be invested in new ideas.  When your nervous system is supported by those around you, you are more likely to be a visionary spender.

Many other kinds of animals are social species. Termites and ants build underground castles together. Prairie dogs build intricate burrows that are like towns, with nurseries for their babies and sentinel posts for safety. What do humans build? Countries and governments. We begin with a physical world and we overlay a social world on top, full of rules and roles.

In the United States, our social world includes democracy, where traditionally, we strive to find the best path forward by reasoned debate. Here too, we influence one another’s bodies and brains with words. But words alone are not enough. Speaking is only half the job of communicating. The other half is being heard. This is true whether you’re in a living room, a boardroom, or the halls of Congress.

I’m not saying we always have to agree. This country is full of diverse people with diverse ideas and values. I’m also not saying we have to be nice to each other all the time. Sometimes it’s necessary to say things that other people don’t like or even find offensive—that’s an essential part of democracy. But, as members of a social species, it’s a good idea to speak in a way that encourages others to listen. There is a real biological benefit when people treat one another with basic human dignity. We live longer, collaborate better, and innovate more. We also learn from each other better, which ultimately helps us forge a stronger democracy.

Your brain secretly works with other brains, whether you know it or not, and whether you like it or not. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, left, right, or center, we are all social animals, regardless of our stripes.  This means that it really matters how we speak to one another—not because we are weak or so-called snowflakes, but because we are human.  Words matter to the health of your body and the health of our nation in a very real, brain-wiring way. When we speak to each other, particularly about contentious issues, it makes sense to communicate in ways that encourage others to listen. Like it or not, we help to wire the brains and bodies of those around us with our actions and words, and they return the favor.

Adapted from Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Copyright © 2021 by Lisa Feldman Barrett. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
All rights reserved.


This excerpt was featured in the November 15, 2020 edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper publishes News and Views that Rise Above the Noise and Inspires Hearts and Minds. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

LISA FELDMAN BARRETT

Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, is among the top 1 percent most cited scientists in the world for her revolutionary research in psychology and neuroscience. She is a University Distinguished Professor at Northeastern University with appointments at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. For more information, visit lisafeldmanbarret.com.

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