“I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.” ― Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
For my nineteenth birthday, I asked my closest friends to not buy me anything, but instead write down what they liked most about me. I asked them this, because at the time, I was hearing a lot of negative words from one person who is very important to me, and it affected me greatly. Because of this person, I was thinking less of myself, and even thought things about myself that I had never thought before. I thought I was lazy, selfish, undetermined, a burden, and a terrible person. When I read what my friends wrote about me, it gave me the greatest happiness and reassurance. To this day, no other present I’ve ever received has made me happier than their words.
It’s not such an unknown fact that words affect people. What people say matter to us, whether the words are directed at us or to someone else. There's even a love language dedicated solely to words - words of affirmation. People who have this love language express and receive love the most by what is said. Positive reaffirming words matter the most to these people. So, negative words can be the most hurtful. In Tammy Klind’s Ted Talk “How to Save a Life,” she says that “words are currency,” and they have more value than gold, diamonds, or the money in your bank account. She says, “Words can build and words can destroy. Words can strengthen and words can weaken and break.”
So what happens when we hear what other people are saying? How does our brain respond to them, and why do they affect us so much? To start with, Sophie Scott, an expert in speech neurobiology at University College London, has found that “the brain takes speech and separates it into words and "melody" - the varying intonation in speech that reveals mood, gender and so on.” Words are taken to the left temporal lobe for processing, and the melody is taken to the right side of the brain, which is a region stimulated by music. The whole speech and listening process is very complicated, yet amazing.
In an interview conducted by Jamie Cone, he asks Andrew Newberg, co-author of Words Can Change Your Brain, about the book’s message of “compassionate communication.” Newberg explains that, “the human brain can really only hold on to four things at a time,” which is why only part of lengthy speeches and conversations are remembered. To really get your point across, it’s important to just say one or two sentences, which is about 30 seconds of talking, because that’s all the human brain can take in at one time.
For the article, “The Psychology of Language: Why Are Some Words More Persuasive Than Others?” Leo Widrich’s research on speech and persuasive communication led him to discover that adjectives are the enemy. He says that adjectives “make a listener or reader lose trust… [and] using less words builds trust.” Adding words that are meaningless can make someone else lose interest in what you’re saying.
If you are really trying to capture someone’s attention, there is one word that is believed to be the “#1 power word out of a supposed 12.” That word is “you,” or your own name. Gregory Ciotti says, “According to recent research examining brain activation, few things light us up quite like seeing our own names in print or on the screen. Our names are intrinsically tied to our self-perception and make up a massive part of our identity.” When someone uses our name, we trust them more, and we also pay attention more. If you don’t believe the power that your name has, just think about whenever one of your parents uses your full name – it creates a very strong feeling inside of you (usually one of fear, because you’re probably in trouble).
Our names are far from the only part of language that shape our identity. Widrich's reasearch found, “Alfred Korzybski, the creator of General Semantics, was firmly convinced that the ‘to be' verbs like “I am, he is, they are, we are” promoted insanity.” Douglas Cartwright explains, “This X = Y creates all kinds of mental anguish,” because we “reduce ourselves to single concepts.” We believe that we are more complex than being one single thing, “yet unconsciously accepting this languaging constrains us to believe we operate as nothing more or less than the idea we identified ourselves with.” He is speaking of labeling here, and it is best exemplified like this: “He is an idiot vs. He acted like an idiot in my eyes;” “She is depressed vs. She looks depressed to me;” “I am a failure vs. I think I've failed at this task.”
Because it is so easy to accept this kind of labeling, the negativity or positivity of the words we use are very important. Newberg says, “Starting in childhood, humans’ brains are molded by the words they hear, and they claim that teaching children to use positive words helps them with emotional control and can even increase their attention spans.” He believes that people are very reactive, and that as soon as we hear something, we have emotional responses before even realizing what we’re listening to. This is also true for whenever we look at someone, because parts of our brain reflect their expressions within ourselves. That is why smiles are contagious.
Newberg and co-author of their book, Mark Waldman, also posted an article for Pyschology Today titled, “The Most Dangerous Word in the World.” They explain the effects that negative and positive words have on our brains. They have found that are brains are hardwired to worry and have a lot of reactions to negativity, possibly to help us survive and alarm us to threats. If you were in an fMRI scanner and the word “no” was flashed in front of you for less than one second, “you’d see a sudden release of dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemicals immediately interrupt the normal functioning of your brain, impairing logic, reason, language processing, and communication.”
Ruminating in negative words can “damage key structures that regulate your memory, feelings, and emotions. You’ll disrupt your sleep, your appetite, and your ability to experience long-term happiness and satisfaction.” Vocalizing negativity and listening to it releases stress chemicals for both the listener and speaker, which will increase anxiety and irritability. The more you engage in negative thinking and speaking, the harder it is to stop. When you speak negative words with anger, an alarm message is sent through the listener’s brain, “interfering with the decision making centers in the frontal lobe, and this increases a person’s propensity to act irrationally.”
Though it may be difficult, if you want to live a healthier and happier life, and not harm other people, you need to change your negative words into positive words, which will require a great deal of effort. I was once told that when he hear a positive story, we’ll share it with one person, but when we hear a negative one, we’ll share it with ten (this is not accounting for social media). The reason is that our brains barely respond to positive words and thoughts, because “they’re not a threat to our survival, so the brain doesn’t need to respond as rapidly as it does to negative thoughts and words.”
To be more positive, we must “repetitiously and consciously generate as many positive thoughts as we can.” It is a choice to be positive, and for your own mental health, it is important to “generate at least three positive thoughts and feelings for each expression of negativity.” Researchers have found, though, “that if you want your business and your personal relationships to really flourish, you’ll need to generate at least five positive messages for each negative utterance you make.”
Newberg and Waldman found, “Positive words and thoughts propel the motivational centers of the brain into action and they help us build resilience when we are faced with life’s problems.” Our brains are hardwired to be negative, but the more repetition of positive words you say and hear “will turn on specific genes that lower your physical and emotional stress.” When your environment is more positive, “the more neural connections you make; the brain itself is just more highly connected and more able to be creative. When you are placed in an environment that is very deprived and very negative, the brain makes much fewer connections.”
Geoffrey Crossick, chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Board, says, “Language is at the very heart of what makes us human… It is about how we think, understand the world and communicate with each other.” Kling says that humans are three parts: mind, body, and soul. When the mind is suffering, there are psychologists, and when the body is suffering, there are doctors. But when people are still suffering, it is because “we are neglecting the thing that's unseen – the soul.” We can’t see that when the words enter our minds, they often settle in our hearts.
p.s. I’d like to end with a poem by a cat:
I am intelligent
I am attractive
I am powerful
I am proactive
I have value
I have health
I have strength
I am surrounded by love
I am a beacon of hope
I – HORKFLAKGLORKSPUKE
That was a hairball
And I am a cat
And what just happened
I am fine with that
-Actually by Francisco Marciuliano, I Could Pee On This