The neuroscience of communication
Source: Words Can Change Your Brain
I learned about this book from one I’m currently reading – Positivity Bias : Thought leaders from all walks of life have been raving about “Positivity Bias,” the newly-released book on the teachings of the Rebbe by Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson, and its life-changing perspective.
From the book, Ch. 9:
Then Rabbi Hecht thanked the Rebbe for the great favor he had done for him personally—for having aroisgeshlept, shlepped or dragged him out of his troubles. The Rebbe raised his hand in surprise and replied, “Aroisgeshlept? Oifgehoiben! (Schlepped you out? Uplifted!)” To the Rebbe, the idea of dragging him out implied that Rabbi Hecht had been in a bad place and had perhaps left it unwillingly. Whereas to be oifgehoiben, uplifted, suggested that Rabbi Hecht’s state simply went from the everyday to much better. The Big Idea This seemingly random rephrasing of Rabbi Hecht’s words in the midst of a conversation was far from an isolated incident. There many stories of the Rebbe adjusting someone’s language—whether spoken or written—ever so slightly to reflect a more positive predisposition. When taken as a whole, it becomes clear that each of these incidents represents an expression of the Rebbe’s general theory and practice of putting thoughts into words: Our language defines us and the world we inhabit; our words can limit or liberate us. Therefore, we need to choose them carefully and consciously. The idea that words are the medium through which thoughts become things is rooted in centuries of Kabbalistic teachings and based on a metaphysical understanding of the beginning of the Torah in which G-d speaks the world into being. Detailing the many ways in which the Divine cosmogonic power of speech trickles down to human expression is beyond the scope of this present volume. Suffice it to say that a heightened sensitivity to the power of language is a foundational principle that runs through every facet of rabbinic teaching and text—including the Torah, prayers, the binding nature of oaths, and the spiritual and interpersonal repercussions of gossip. This in-depth understanding of the relationship between our words and our experience is not limited to Kabbalists. According to neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and Professor Mark Robert Waldman, words can actually change your brain. In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, they write, “A single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.” For instance, MRI scans demonstrate that a single negative word can increase the activity in the amygdala, the fear center of the brain. In fact, just seeing a list of negative words for a few seconds will make a highly anxious or depressed person feel even worse, and the more you ruminate on them, the more you can damage key brain structures that regulate memory, feelings, and emotions, further impacting your sleep, appetite, and overall sense of wellbeing. Moreover, if you vocalize your negativity, even more stress chemicals will be released, not only in your brain, but in the listener’s brain as well. Both people will experience increased anxiety and irritability,142 undermining potential for mutual cooperation and trust.143 Conversely, research indicates that the longer you concentrate on positive words, the more you begin to affect other areas of the brain. For instance, functions in the parietal lobe start to change, which changes your perception of yourself and the people you interact with. Studies have shown that positive words such as “peace” and “love” can actually alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning. Over time, the structure of the thalamus, which is the part of the brain that acts as a center for perception, changes in response to your words, thoughts, and feelings, affecting the way in which you perceive yourself, others, and the world. Using the right words can literally transform your reality. The Rebbe understood this metalinguistic dynamic in a very profound yet practical way. What follows are a number of stories and examples demonstrating this particular aspect of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias in a wide array of contexts, including casual conversations, public speeches, and written correspondence.