“Be careful with our words. Once they are said, they can be only forgiven, not forgotten.”
“Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.” -Yehuda Berg
Why write another book on personal transformation? Why write a book period? Seems like a waste of paper. My answer to the question is simple. Neuroscience and positive psychology strongly suggest that words have transformative power. I agree. Getting my uniquely positive words and coping skills out into the world can make a difference. Let me illustrate the power of words.
Repeat the word “no.” Now try the word “No!” with more emphasis.
How does the word feel? Maybe our eyebrows rose, and our muscles tighten? Any facial reaction? A smile or frown?
An fMRI scanner—would record, in less than a second, a substantial increase of activity in our amygdala and the release of dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemicals immediately interrupt the normal functioning of our brain, especially those that are involved with logic, reason, language processing, and communication. Negative words like “no” flood our brains with the chemistry of stress.
Given the effects of negative words on our brain chemistry imagine what happens when we focus on negative words and thoughts. By ruminating on the negative, we can actually damage key structures that regulate our memory, feelings, and emotions.1 Additionally, we will likely disrupt your sleep, your appetite, and the way our brain regulates happiness, longevity, and health.
That’s the power of a single negative word or phrase. And if we vocalize our negativity, even more, stress chemicals will be released. And in the listener’s brain. Ponder for a moment the toxicity of an argument between spouses. Both will experience increased anxiety and irritability generating mutual distrust and suppressing empathy and cooperation. Oddly, our brain experiences the same effects from a violent scene in a movie. The brain doesn’t distinguish between fantasies and facts in its perception of a negative event. Instead, the primitive parts of our brain assume that a real danger exists.
Any form of negative rumination like worrying about our financial future or health will trigger the release of destructive neurochemicals. Also constantly thinking about negative possibilities and persistently ruminating about problems that have occurred in the past can result in clinical depression.3 The pattern persists in children: the more negative thoughts they have, the more they experience emotional turmoil. Redirecting kids to think positively can turn their lives around.4
Angry like “no” words send alarm messages through the brain shutting down the logic-and-reasoning centers located in the frontal lobes. However, fearful words like “sickness,” “loneliness,” and “death” stimulate many centers of the brain. The fight-or-flight reaction triggered by the amygdala begins to fantasize about negative outcomes rehearsing possible counterstrategies for a myriad of possible and improbable futures. Our fearful simulation overtaxes our brains as we ruminate on fearful fantasies.
Being hardwired to worry is an ancient artifact from ancestral times when there were countless threats to our survival.
Words are tools to change our emotions. In fact, a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress. Each word we use is endowed with layers of personal meaning. The right words, spoken in the right way, can bring us love, money, and respect, while we have seen the impact of negative words on our being. Only by carefully orchestrating our language and speech can we achieve our goals and accomplish our vision.
Although we are born with the gift of language, research shows that we are surprisingly unskilled when it comes to communicating with others.5 We often choose our words without thought, triggering collateral emotional impacts on others. We talk more than we need to. We listen poorly, without realizing it, and we often fail to pay attention to the subtle meanings conveyed by facial expressions, body gestures, and the tone and cadence of our voice—elements of communication that are often more important than the words we actually say. The modern evolution of texting complicates interactions eliminating non-verbal communication and its vast nuances.
Let’s not forget to assess an individual’s words with their actions. That disconnect or incongruence in a love relationship can be devastating. We can easily project our ideal notions onto a potential partner, blinding ourselves to the mismatch between their words and actions. Why is that important? The words “I love you” have many different meanings with varying expectations across our society and between genders.
Also, according to neuroscience love is expressed through one of the most complicated and complex circuitries in our brains.6 The language of love is our most sophisticated connection process necessitating the vast nuance of non-verbal communication. And we wonder why an errant text might trigger a spat between lovers.
The Power of Positive
Unfortunately, due to our evolutionary wiring “yes” does not have the same power as “no.” What does brain-scan technology tell us about hearing positive words and phrases? Because positive words are not a threat to our survival, our brain doesn’t get triggered by the word “yes.” The challenge is that positive words and thinking are building blocks in healthy relationships and work productivity. Fortunately, we can train our brains to become more responsive to “yes,” but only in an indirect way.
Through intense repetition focused on positive images, feelings, and beliefs, we can enhance a person’s sense of happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction.7 Positive thinking can shift the inner narrative of those born with a genetic propensity toward unhappiness to become more optimistic.8
In a landmark study a large group of adults, ranging in age from thirty-five to fifty-four, were asked to write down three things that went well for them each day with a brief explanation. Over the next three months, they became happier. Their feelings of depression decreased, even if they were initially suspicious of the experiment.9 This research forms the basis for the idea of sitting in gratitude each day to refine our positive perspective on our reality. Using positive ideas and emotions enhances our overall well-being.
Positive words and thoughts propel the motivational centers of the brain into action, 10 and they help us build up resilience when we are faced with the myriad problems of life.11 Sonja Lyubomirsky, one of the world’s leading researchers on happiness, suggested that to develop lifelong satisfaction, we should regularly engage in positive thinking about ourselves, share our happiest events with others, and savor every positive experience in our life. Our inner dialogues, conversations, words, and speech should remain positive to push us in the most life-enhancing direction.
By holding positive and optimistic thoughts in our minds, we stimulate frontal lobe activity. This area includes specific language centers that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action.12 Research further suggests the longer we focus on positive words, the more we begin to affect other areas of the brain. Functions in the parietal lobe start to change altering our perception of ourselves and the people we interact with. A positive view of ourselves will bias us toward seeing the good in others. By contrast, a negative self-image will incline us toward suspicion and doubt. Over time the structure of our thalamus will also change in response to our conscious words, thoughts, and feelings. And it is believed that those thalamic changes affect the way in which we perceive reality.
Brain-scan research shows that concentrating and meditating on positive thoughts, feelings, and outcomes can be more powerful than any drug, especially when it comes to changing old habits, behaviors, and beliefs. The entire process is driven by the language-based processes of the brain.13 Positive refocusing, positive affirmations, relaxation, hypnosis, and meditation are effective in disrupting negative ruminations and depressive thoughts. 14 By changing your inner language, you can transform the reality in which you live.
Optimistic thinking can actually add two years to your life according to a forty-year Mayo Clinic study (see graphic below) that followed seven thousand people.15 Choosing our words carefully will influence our happiness, relationships, and personal wealth.
In the graphic above the PSM Optimism-Pessimism scale found a distinctive break in predicted longevity at ten years increasing almost every year thereafter. That difference in optimism versus pessimism added several years to the individual’s life. It is worth noting that NOT being a pessimist improved the study’s participants’ longevity.
“All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.” -Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche certainly believed in the power of the written word. Additionally, neuroscience has revealed the power of positive words, phrases, and narratives for each of us to use to improve lives and increase our lifespan.
Until next time. Travel safe.
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4) “Protocol for a randomized controlled trial of a school-based cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) intervention to prevent depression in high-risk adolescents (PROMISE).” Stallard P, Montgomery A. A., Araya R, Anderson R, Lewis G, Sayal K, Buck R, Millings A, Taylor J. A. Trials. 2010 Nov 29; 11:114.
5) Newberg, Andrew B., and Mark Robert Waldman. Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy. Avery, an Imprint of Penguin Random House, 2013.
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10)“What is in a word? No versus yes differentially engage the lateral orbitofrontal cortex. “Alia-Klein N, Goldstein R. Z., Tomasi D, Zhang L, Fagin-Jones S, Telang F, Wang G. J., Fowler J. S., Volkow N. D. Emotion. 2007 Aug; 7(3):649–59.
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12) “Grasping language—A short story on the embodiment.” Jirak D, Menz M. M., Buccino G, Borghi A. M., Binkofski F. Consciousness and Cognition. 2010 Sep; 19(3):711–20.
13) Newberg, Andrew B., and Mark Robert Waldman. Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy. Avery, an Imprint of Penguin Random House, 2013.
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15) “Prediction of all-cause mortality by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory Optimism-Pessimism Scale scores: Study of a college sample during a 40-year follow-up period.” Brummett B. H., Helms M. J., Dahlstrom W. G., Siegler I. C. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2006 Dec; 81(12):1541–44.