Your words matter

New science shows brains are wired to respond to certain kinds of speech. An expert explains -- and talks politics

Published June 3, 2012 3:00PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>Bangkokhappiness</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Bangkokhappiness via Shutterstock)

Everyone’s had the experience of leaving a conversation feeling frustrated, convinced the other person didn’t understand a word of what they were saying. Whether it’s a bad meeting with a coworker or an argument with a spouse, ineffective or negative communication may lead to more than just a bad day; new research has shown that it can change the neural pathways in our brains and foster long-lasting negativity. On the other hand, there’s evidence to suggest that positive words expressing values such as kindness and respect can go a long way toward building a better brain.

That’s the central premise of "Words Can Change Your Brain," co-authored by Loyola Marymount communication professor Mark Robert Waldman and Andrew Newberg, M.D., director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College. Their book argues that our minds are hardwired to respond favorably to certain types of speech and negatively to others. 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. Their book describes “compassionate communication,” a method they believe can help people express themselves more effectively, but it also offers a fascinating overview of the latest science around speech and neuroscience.

Salon spoke with Newberg over the phone about why mimicry creates good will, how the Mona Lisa won the heart of humanity, and why “hope” was the magic catchword of a successful presidential campaign.

You argue that people need more of something called “compassionate communication.” What is that?

Often what happens when people are just talking to each other in their everyday lives is that they are just talking and talking and no one is really listening. Then when every once in a while somebody does listen, they have some kind of overreaction to what someone said or how someone said it; therefore, there’s a great deal of miscommunication going on, and you don’t create a sense of intimacy and connection between you and the other person. Most of the time when people speak to each other, they’re doing a number of things that ultimately don’t lead to good communication. For one, people are very reactive in the ways that they respond; they hear something and, even before they realize what they’re hearing, they have emotional responses. People can get very defensive very quickly, and therefore we’re not always keeping an eye on how we are responding to what someone is saying.

You also recommend that people keep their communication brief. Why does the human brain respond better to succinct statements?

Sometimes we speak beyond what someone is able to listen to. What the research shows is that the human brain can really only hold on to four things at a time, so if you go on and on for five or 10 minutes trying to argue a point, the person will only remember a very small part of that. We developed compassionate communication with the idea of having several goals, and one of them is to speak briefly, meaning that you speak one or two sentences, maybe 30 seconds worth or so, because that’s really what the human brain can take in and absorb.

What about facial expressions? The book makes an interesting reference to the Mona Lisa. You suggest that we can learn something from her smile.

What’s amazing is that the brain has a lot of structures in it that respond more to our body gestures and facial expressions than even to the words themselves. Whenever we look at somebody, there are parts of our brain that reflect those expressions within ourselves. If we look at somebody who’s smiling contentedly, like the Mona Lisa, inside we feel a sense of contentment, a sense of warmth, a sense of love. Of course, if you see an angry face, you feel angrier and you recoil inside.

We know that smiling is a very powerful gesture; we were doing a research study looking at different symbols, and the symbol that was rated with the highest positive emotional content was the smiley face. The painting of the Mona Lisa is one particular example of that feeling of calmness. That’s part of why it’s had such an impact on society, because it just engenders that kind of positive feeling.

We’ve all heard that if you want someone to like you, you should mirror their hand gestures and speech patterns. What have you discovered about the science behind this phenomenon?  

There are actually things called mirror neurons that react to what other people are doing and saying in our environment. What the studies have shown is that when people are able to communicate effectively with each other, they create a sense of neural resonance; their brains start to respond in a very similar way to the feelings and ideas coming across in the dialogue, and that’s very different than when they’re not connected. A very crucial element built into compassionate communication is that notion of creating similar kinds of responses to get into almost a ritualistic cadence with another individual. As you do that, you connect with them, and the research suggests that literally it’s not just a dialogue that’s going smoothly, but it’s the brains themselves which are connecting with each other. There are things we can do, like keeping a smile on our face and trying to respond in kind to what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Those are all things that help people to feel connected to you.

In your book you suggest that people should try to make three positive comments for every negative statement. How does looking on the bright side help us communicate more effectively?

Well, sometimes there’s a problem that needs to be resolved, and whenever there’s a problem, there has to be a negative aspect to it. The idea is to minimize the specific negativity that goes on in those conversations and to not (focus) on the negative but to start thinking about how that negative can be turned into something positive. There’s a lot of evidence to show that negative words and negative emotions are detrimental to the brain, while positive words and positive emotions are beneficial. When you get into a dialogue with somebody to discuss any particular issue, a three-to-one ratio is a relatively good benchmark to think about; you wind up creating the opportunity for a more constructive dialogue and hopefully a better resolution.

Research has shown that the number of words spoken in the home has a huge impact on the verbal development of children. You argue that the positivity (or negativity) of those words also has an impact on the development of communication skills.

Yes, as children grow, they are establishing fundamental neural connections. When there are more positive ideas written into the brain, it changes the actual set point in the brain in terms of how we regulate our emotional responses and how our body responds. If you’re always emotionally [stressed as a child], you become more easily stressed and more anxious throughout the rest of your life, almost. Those early childhood years are really essential for trying to create connections in the brain that foster more compassion, love and forgiveness and less fear and anxiety. What studies [conducted mostly with] animals but also [with some] humans show is that the more positive and enriching an environment you have, 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. In fact, when you’re stressed, you release something called cortisol, which actually damages the brain, so that actually means you won’t create a brain that is as well developed and interconnected as it could be.

For parents, it’s important to try to have children raised in an environment that really fosters a lot of positivity. Now again, you need negative, too; it’s not to the point of exclusion of the negative, because you need to know what you should do and what you should not do, but it’s always to the goal of being more constructive and more positive. That’s such a prime time for the development of the human brain, so that’s when you really want to do your best to create the kind of connectivity in the brain that supports those positive feelings. During childhood is your best opportunity to do that, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t do it later on; it’s just harder to do it later on, when those negative connections are already written.

You mention the topic of “inner values” being popular in the 1950s and 1960s, pointing out that over the past 20 years values-based research has mostly disappeared. Why is it important for us to establish our own inner values, and how does doing so help us communicate more effectively?

First of all, we’ve found that a lot of times people do get a little lost in things. When we run people through our communication programs, we find that, early on, people cite more monetary, vocational kinds of values or goals ... Then after they go through the process of the compassionate communication techniques, they realize more specifically where their real goals and values are, and they become more personally based, more family based, and more driven [by] values such as being loyal, being respectful [and] being compassionate and understanding to other people … Sometimes you don’t connect with them right away, and it does take a little time before you realize what is important to you.

The reason why we think that is so valuable is several-fold. One is that it connects you back to yourself. Oftentimes, we don’t even communicate with ourselves well. We start doing things, and we’re not talking to ourselves and telling ourselves what is important to us. Each person is different, but if they have values of respect or loyalty, for example, they take that into a conversation in the workplace or with a family member or friend, and now they’re speaking from a different perspective. It’s not from a selfish perspective, it’s not from a "What’s in it for me?" kind of perspective, but from the perspective of "Am I able to engage this person and maintain my values in the dialogue?" If respect and loyalty are important values to you, now you’re talking to them from a position of, "I need to respect this person; I need to be loyal to this person."

You said that when you started writing the book you were inclined to think humans are innately selfish, but now you believe the species to be cooperative by nature. What changed your mind?

Well, yeah, I mean, there’s been so much emphasis over the years on humanity being selfish; obviously a lot of people note that in our everyday lives. To some degree there is an inherent selfishness that we all need to have; we have to make sure we get the resources we need to survive, so there is a selfishness that’s built into us. But as you also mention, for humanity to have done as well as it has, it’s really been the social element of our brain — the ability to not be selfish and to be more compassionate, to be able to connect with other people — that in many ways has been sort of the fundamental driver in making us who we are as a species.

As we look at the different parts of the brain, there’s always a bit of a battle going on between our selfish urges and our selfless urges, but those selfless urges are very, very strong. The more we started to look into the research of how different parts of the brain work, especially, in human beings, those higher parts of the brain which help to foster feelings of compassion — those are in the higher parts of the brain, the parts that are most developed — [it] led me to believe that was one of the essential features of what makes human beings who we are. To some degree we’re continuing to grow beyond the more basic, selfish element of ourselves and always trying to expand our ability to connect with others and to create that social network. I began to realize that the notion of being very, very selfish — it’s really not as correct as it could be, and we really need to think more and more about the compassionate side of ourselves and really try our best to develop that because it really is an important part of who we are.

Texting and email have a bad rap for being too impersonal, causing people to frequently misunderstand each other. Are there ways to be more clear (and to convey more compassion) when using these methods of communication?

Obviously technology has radically changed the way we talk and communicate; it leads to a lot of problems. I’m sure we’ve all experienced getting an email from somebody and thinking, "Wow, they’re really angry at me!” and then they’re like, "What? I was on the train; it was a little hard for me to write the email."

To some degree, there are certain benefits to text message. The beauty of Twitter and all that kind of [technology is that it] plays right into the heart of one of the elements of compassionate communication, which is being brief and being able to express everything that you need to express in one burst. It’s not a surprise that things like Twitter and text messaging will wind up being excellent ways of communicating with each other, but there are other elements with regard to facial and body gestures and emotional inflections that don’t often come across. But I think the basic principles apply: figuring out what are your inner values, thinking about whether you’re respecting somebody when you’re sending them this text message or email, asking yourself how you think it’s coming across, being aware of your responses to things, and making sure that you’re interpreting things correctly. To some degree that’s true no matter what. We can all misunderstand each other, whether we’re speaking face to face or sending a text.

I would imagine that we’re also more apt to like people when we observe them communicating effectively with others, even if we’re not a part of the conversation. How does this play into politics and the way we perceive different political candidates when we see them interact with others?

I think that on a lot of levels it is very important. You know, they so often talk about the candidates that are “likeable.” What does that mean? It’s a nondescript way of saying, do they connect with people? Do people feel comfortable with them? Do they feel they can talk to the candidates, that they will listen to them and that they’re compassionate and understanding? In a debate, you need a certain amount of negativity to say, "I’m right and he’s wrong." But as we also have seen in different elections, when the campaigns get really negative, voters really hate that. That’s not what people feel good about; it makes them feel stressed. It makes them feel anxious.

The Gettysburg Address was one of the greatest speeches in history, and it was very brief and spoken with great conviction, great sincerity, great compassion, and from a point of view of tremendous inner values about what’s right and what’s wrong. Very few speeches hold up to that in terms of its ability to express something. As we get into the debates, it’s going to be crucial for the candidates to be able to express their ideas and to explain why they’re different from each other, why they offer more constructive ideas about the United States and how we move forward. Part of Obama’s last campaign was the idea of hope — that there was something constructive we could do, something better than where we are today. That, to some degree, is what every politician needs to say: Things are perhaps not as good as they could be, but there are things that we can do to make it better and to provide hope. That is an essential element, I think, of a lot of communication: that we can hope to better understand each other, and that we can create that optimistic sense of hope that has been shown to be so helpful from a mental health, as well as a physical health, perspective.

By Jaime Cone

Jaime Cone is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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