The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Scientists Find That a Single Word Can Alter Perceptions

Language has the power to make the invisible appear real.

study released on August 26, 2013 confirms that language has the power to reshape our knowledge and expectations of the world we see. Interestingly, another study released the same day found that one’s “dispositional attitude” is what makes some people love everything they see and others to hate everything. Put together, this new research offers clues on ways that someone can change his or her explanatory style to be happier and more optimistic.   

As an athlete, I have always used self-talk to create a parallel universe where anything is possible and the world around me is cooperating to help me achieve a goal. Whether I’m running 135-miles through Death Valley in July, or 154-miles in 24 hours on a treadmill — my inner dialogue always stays positive, optimistic and upbeat. I consciously reframe reality to make adverse or 'disagreeable' physical conditions become agreeable.

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It’s a thin line between being a Pollyanna and denying the harsh and cruel aspects of the world around us in a way that is slightly delusional and being a pragmatic optimist. However, a perpetual state of negativity and dwelling on all the things that are wrong without taking action to change them or your attitude will keep you stuck in a rut of negativity and cynicism.

The Power of a Single Word Like: “Yes”

In a new study titled, “Language Can Boost Otherwise Unseen Objects Into Visual Awareness,” researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison cognitive scientist and psychology professor Gary Lupyan, and Emily Ward, a Yale University graduate student confirm the power of language to alter perceptions. Their findings are published in the August 2013 journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Words create reality. The inner-dialogue you attach to any given situation makes it a reality in your mind. The subjective nature of reality can create problems and lead to failure if you are someone who is inclined to be negative.

Luckily, because every part of your brain works together to interpret stimuli from the world around you to create ‘reality', you can use language and positive self-talk to intercept and reshape perceptions. This is called ‘top-down’ processing. You can use the executive function of your prefrontal cortex (up brain) to send declarative messages to your more subconscious ‘down brain’ where implicit memories are formed and stored to create an optimistic perspective of the world.

"Perceptual systems do the best they can with inherently ambiguous inputs by putting them in context of what we know, what we expect," Lupyan says. "Studies like this are helping us show that language is a powerful tool for shaping perceptual systems, acting as a top-down signal to perceptual processes. In the case of vision, what we consciously perceive seems to be deeply shaped by our knowledge and expectations."  

Our expectations and perceptions of optimism can be altered with a single word like "yes." On the flip-side, we all know the power of “no” to instantly take the wind out of your sails and make you feel negative. The declarative word “yes” is like an implicit green light that implies "go." On the other hand, “no” is an implicit red light that implies "stop." As Mary Kay said famously, “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right."

The self-talk you use regularly creates your reality and your destiny. As an athlete, I always utter a series of positive affirmations in the third-person throughout a race and especially when the going gets tough. I say things like: “Keep going Chris, you can do this.” or “Yes, that’s right Chris. Keep doing what you’re doing.” Even the slightest whisper of self-doubt or negativity drains my energy and makes the wheels come off the bus.

The next time you find yourself struggling in life or sport try talking to yourself in a supportive third person coaching voice and silence the inner skeptic. Positive language helps to create a self-fulfilling prophecy at a neurobiological level.

To discover just how deeply words can influence perception, Lupyan and Ward used a technique called continuous flash suppression to literally make objects invisible for a group of volunteers. In the study participants were shown a picture of a familiar object – such as a chair, a pumpkin or a kangaroo – in one eye. At the same time, their other eye saw a series of flashing, "squiggly" lines. "Essentially, it's visual noise," Lupyan says. "Because the noise patterns are high-contrast and constantly moving, they dominate, and the input from the other eye is suppressed."

Then researchers asked the participants to indicate whether they saw something or not. When the word they heard matched the object that was being wiped out by the visual noise, the subjects were more likely to report that they did indeed see something than in cases where the wrong word or no word at all was paired with the image.

"Unless they can tell us they saw it, there's nothing to suggest the brain was taking it in at all," Lupyan says. "If language affects performance on a test like this, it indicates that language is influencing vision at a pretty early stage. It's getting really deep into the visual system."

The study demonstrates a deeper connection between language and simple sensory perception than previously thought, and one that makes Lupyan wonder about the extent of language's power. The influence of language may extend to other senses as well.

"A lot of previous work has focused on vision, and we have neglected to examine the role of knowledge and expectations on other modalities, especially smell and taste," Lupyan says. "What I want to see is whether we can really alter threshold abilities," he says. "Does expecting a particular taste for example, allow you to detect a substance at a lower concentration?"

As an athlete, I have always used smells to create an optimistic mindset. As sophomoric as it may sound, the smell of sunscreen always reminds me of clear blue skies, summertime and feeling happy. This mindset translates into optimal performance. I have a crate full of essential oils and various colognes each encoded with positive associations that I use while training and competing. Like "Rememberance of Things Past," even on cold and rainy days these smells literally take my mind back to a place in my past linked to positive implicit memories and allow my declarative mind to see the bright side, even on the bleakest days. This would be called "bottom-up" processing.

Why do haters have to hate?

In another study released on August 26, 2013 researchers discovered a potential reason why some people seem to dislike everything while others seem to like everything. Apparently, it's all part of our individual personality — a dimension that researchers have coined "dispositional attitude." But can this attitude be changed? I believe the answer is yes.

The theory is that if individuals differ in the general tendency to like or dislike objects and that someone’s attitudes toward independent objects are actually related. The researchers found that people with a positive dispositional attitude have a strong tendency to like things, whereas people with a negative dispositional attitude have a strong tendency to dislike things.

The study titled, "Attitudes Without Objects: Evidence for a Dispositional Attitude, its Measurement, and its Consequences," was written by Justin Hepler, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Dolores Albarracín, Ph.D., the Martin Fishbein Chair of Communication and Professor of Psychology at Penn is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"The dispositional attitude construct represents a new perspective in which attitudes are not simply a function of the properties of the stimuli under consideration, but are also a function of the properties of the evaluator," according to the authors. "[For example], at first glance, it may not seem useful to know someone's feelings about architecture when assessing their feelings about health care. After all, health care and architecture are independent stimuli with unique sets of properties, so attitudes toward these objects should also be independent."

The researchers emphasize that the most critical factor to remember is that an individual's attitudes are formed by the individual but some may have a proclivity to be negative. "Some people may simply be more prone to focusing on positive features and others on negative features," Hepler said. Luckily, because of the power of neuroplasticity mindset is never fixed. Through mindfulness training I believe that we have the power to rewire our minds at the deepest level.

Conclusion: Mind Creates Reality

If you are someone who is inclined to be negative and see the proverbial glass as perpetually half-empty it is in the locus of your control to begin using positive self-talk to change your explanatory style at a neural level. You can use your imagination and declarative language to alter perceptions of the world around you. 

One of the great benefits of meditation or having a mantra is that through mindfulness and the simple chanting of a word like ‘om’ or ‘aum’ you can create a sense of calm and genuine belief at a neural level that all systems are go, life is good, and that you are safe and sound.

The researchers conclude that people with positive dispositional attitudes are more open than people with generally negative dispositional attitudes. In day-to-day practice, this means that people with positive dispositional attitudes follow positive actions.

"This surprising and novel discovery expands attitude theory by demonstrating that an attitude is not simply a function of an object's properties, but it is also a function of the properties of the individual who evaluates the object," concluded Hepler and Albarracín. "Overall, the present research provides clear support for the dispositional attitude as a meaningful construct that has important implications for attitude theory and research."

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

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