The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Choosing Positive Words Improves Mindset and Performance

Cognitive scientists confirm the power of affirmative language.

Mary Kay Ash said famously, “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t you’re right.” Cognitive scientists continue to explore how the brain processes negative versus positive sentence structures. Positive self-talk has the power to kick-start a neural chain reaction that motivates you to succeed.

We all have the power to turn on what I call our "volition switch" by choosing words—in particular verbs—that spark a positive mindset and trigger our free-will to kick into action. Scientists have now shown that creating positive sentence structures can induce a physical response that increases strength. Saying, "Yes, I can do this!" can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pia Aravena and colleagues from the Institute of Cognitive Sciences in France recently discovered that hearing a verb related to physical action automatically increases the force with which people grip objects. If the word is presented in the negative form, it does not increase strength. The researchers observed a significant increase in strength when words were presented in an affirmative sentence, but no such reaction when the same action words were presented in a negative context. 

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This research was published on December 5, 2012 in the open access journal PLOS ONE. This is one of the first research studies to explore the effects of sentence-dependent context on language-induced motor activity. "These findings could open possibilities for the evaluation and rehabilitation of motor and language disorders" says Aravena.

In 1963 John Eccles won the Nobel Prize in medicine for finding specific signal transmissions among neurons in the brain. In the 1970s his research focused on the cerebral cortex, which is the seat of higher reasoning and oversees movements of the body. Eccles discovered that a few milliseconds before a person decides to carry out a willful action, specific neurons in the cortex discharge an electrical readiness surge signal that cues the appropriate motor neurons to fire. But what is the flint that sparks this intent? Turns out it may be the use of positive verbs.

Eccles believed that the volition neurons of the self-willed mind were always ready to fire. Just triggering one of these specialized neurons could create a domino effect that spreads like wildfire from a few thousands of neurons to engaging billions of synapses. Can you feel your volition switch turn “on” when reading the verbs: "Go. Jump. Attack." and “off” when reading: "Stop. Sit. Surrender.”? Researchers can literally see the spark of volition go ‘on’ and ‘off’ in a brain-imaging fMRI, just as you can feel it.

Anytime you decide to take action remember you have flicked the volition switch on. Anytime you decide to quit, you have turned it off. As an athlete, I have always visualized the volition switch to literally look like a large light switch just behind my eyes that I can keep locked in the "on" position by using positive self-talk. The use of affirmative language keeps the neurons linked to peak performance engaged and firing.

I know the draining power of negative self-talk from personal experience. Anytime, I heard the whispers of negativity enter my inner-dialogue during an ultra-endurance event I could feel those words literally suck my energy like a psychic vampire. If I started saying to myself, "I can't do this. I'm not going to make it. I'm falling apart." a rapid downward spiral would begin.  My volition switch was being turned off at a neural level and making me physically weaker. To combat this, I would start chanting positive affirmations such as "Yes, that’s right. Keep going, Chris. You have the power. You can do this!" again and again like a mantra.  It always worked to shift my mindset and give me the strength to cross the finish line.

Scientific findings and empirical evidence continue to prove that you can use positive language to help you stay motivated and succeed anytime you face a challenge in life or sport.

 

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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