Words Can Change Your Brain

The neuroscience of communication

The Most Dangerous Word in the World

This word can damage both the speaker’s and listener’s brain!

If I were to put you into an fMRI scanner—a huge donut-shaped magnet that can take a video of the neural changes happening in your brain—and flash the word “NO” for less than one second, you’d see a sudden release of dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemicals immediately interrupt the normal functioning of your brain, impairing logic, reason, language processing, and communication. 

In fact, just seeing a list of negative words for a few seconds will make a highly anxious or depressed person feel worse, and the more you ruminate on them, the more you can actually damage key structures that regulate your memory, feelings, and emotions.[1] You’ll disrupt your sleep, your appetite, and your ability to experience long-term happiness and satisfaction.

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If you vocalize your negativity, or even slightly frown when you say “no,” more stress chemicals will be released, not only in your brain, but in the listener’s brain as well.[2] The listener will experience increased anxiety and irritability, thus undermining cooperation and trust. In fact, just hanging around negative people will make you more prejudiced toward others![3]

Any form of negative rumination—for example, worrying about your financial future or health—will stimulate the release of destructive neurochemicals. And the same holds true for children: the more negative thoughts they have, the more likely they are to experience emotional turmoil.[4] But if you teach them to think positively, you can turn their lives around.[5]

Negative thinking is also self perpetuating, and the more you engage in negative dialogue—at home or at work—the more difficult it becomes to stop.[6] But negative words, spoken with anger, do even more damage. They send alarm messages through the brain, interfering with the decision making centers in the frontal lobe, and this increases a person’s propensity to act irrationally.  

Fear-provoking words—like poverty, illness, and death—also stimulate the brain in negative ways.  And even if these fearful thoughts are not real, other parts of your brain (like the thalamus and amygdala) react to negative fantasies as though they were actual threats occurring in the outside world. Curiously, we seem to be hardwired to worry—perhaps an artifact of old memories carried over from ancestral times when there were countless threats to our survival.[7]

In order to interrupt this natural propensity to worry, several steps can be taken. First, ask yourself this question:  “Is the situation really a threat to my personal survival?” Usually it isn’t, and the faster you can interrupt the amygdala’s reaction to an imagined threat, the quicker you can take action to solve the problem. You’ll also reduce the possibility of burning a permanent negative memory into our brain.[8] 

After you have identified the negative thought (which often operates just below the level of everyday consciousness), your can reframe it by choosing to focus on positive words and images. The result: anxiety and depression decreases and the number of unconscious negative thoughts decline.[9]

 The Power of Yes

When doctors and therapists teach patients to turn negative thoughts and worries into positive affirmations, the communication process improves and the patient regains self-control and confidence.[10] But there’s a problem: the brain barely responds to our positive words and thoughts.[11] They’re not a threat to our survival, so the brain doesn’t need to respond as rapidly as it does to negative thoughts and words. [12] 

To overcome this neural bias for negativity, we must repetitiously and consciously generate as many positive thoughts as we can. Barbara Fredrickson, one of the founders of Positive Psychology, discovered that if we need to generate at least three positive thoughts and feelings for each expression of negativity. If you express fewer than three, personal and business relationships are likely to fail. This finding correlates with Marcial Losada’s research with corporate teams,[13] and John Gottman’s research with marital couples.[14]   

Fredrickson, Losada, and Gottman realized that if you want your business and your personal relationships to really flourish, you’ll need to generate at least five positive messages for each negative utterance you make (for example, “I’m disappointed” or “That’s not what I had hoped for” count as expressions of negativity, as does a facial frown or nod of the head).

It doesn’t even matter if your positive thoughts are irrational; they’ll still enhance your sense of happiness, wellbeing, and life satisfaction.[15] In fact, positive thinking can help anyone to build a better and more optimistic attitude toward life.[16] 

Positive words and thoughts propel the motivational centers of the brain into action[17] and they help us build resilience when we are faced with life’s problems.[18] According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, one of the world’s leading researchers on happiness, if you want to develop lifelong satisfaction, you should regularly engage in positive thinking about yourself, share your happiest events with others, and savor every positive experience in your life.[19]

Our advice: choose your words wisely and speak them slowly. This will allow you to interrupt the brain’s propensity to be negative, and as recent research has shown, the mere repetition of positive words like love, peace, and compassion will turn on specific genes that lower your physical and emotional stress [20]. You’ll feel better, you’ll live longer, and you’ll build deeper and more trusting relationships with others—at home and at work.

As Fredrickson and Losada point out, when you generate a minimum of five positive thoughts to each negative one, you’ll experience “an optimal range of human functioning.”[21]  That is the power of YES.

 For more information on the effects of positive and negative speech, see Words Can Change Your Brain (Newberg & Waldman, 2012, Hudson Street Press), and for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit www.MarkRobertWaldman.com.

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[1] Some assessments of the amygdala role in suprahypothalamic neuroendocrine regulation: a minireview. Talarovicova A, Krskova L, Kiss A. Endocr Regul. 2007 Nov;41(4):155-62.

 [2]HaririAR, Tessitore A, Mattay VS, Fera F,Weinberger DR.. The amygdala response to emotional stimuli: a comparison of faces and scenes. Neuroimage. 2002 Sep;17(1):317-23.

 [3] Duhachek A, Zhang S, Krishnan S. Anticipated Group Interaction: Coping withValence Asymmetries in Attitude Shift. Journal Of Consumer Research. Vol. 34. October 2007.

 [4] The Role of Repetitive Negative Thoughts in the Vulnerability for Emotional Problems in Non-Clinical Children. Broeren S, Muris P, Bouwmeester S, van der Heijden KB, Abee A. J Child Fam Stud. 2011 Apr;20(2):135-148.

 [5] Protocol for a randomised controlled trial of a school based cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) intervention to prevent depression in high risk adolescents (PROMISE). Stallard P, Montgomery AA, Araya R, Anderson R, Lewis G, Sayal K, Buck R, Millings A,Taylor JA. Trials. 2010 Nov 29;11:114.

 [6] What is in a word? No versus Yes differentially engage the lateral orbitofrontal cortex. Alia-Klein N, Goldstein RZ, Tomasi D, Zhang L, Fagin-Jones S, Telang F, Wang GJ, Fowler JS, Volkow ND. Emotion. 2007 Aug;7(3):649-59.

 [7] Wright, R. The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. Vintage, 1995.

 [8] Erasing fear memories with extinction training. Quirk GJ, Paré D, Richardson R, Herry C, Monfils MH, Schiller D, Vicentic A. J Neurosci. 2010 Nov 10;30(45):14993-7.

 [9] Generalized hypervigilance in fibromyalgia patients: an experimental analysis with the emotional Stroop paradigm. González JL, Mercado F, Barjola P, Carretero I, López-López A, Bullones MA, Fernández-Sánchez M, Alonso M. J Psychosom Res. 2010 Sep;69(3):279-87.

 [10] [Negative and positive suggestions in anaesthesia : Improved communication with anxious surgical patients]. Hansen E, Bejenke C. Anaesthesist. 2010 Mar;59(3):199-202, 204-6, 208-9.

 [11] Kisley MA, Wood S, Burrows CL. Looking at the sunny side of life: age-related change in an event-related potential measure of the negativity bias. Psychol Sci. 2007 Sep;18(9):838-43.

 [12] May I have your attention, please: electrocortical responses to positive and negative stimuli. Smith NK, Cacioppo JT, Larsen JT, Chartrand TL. Neuropsychologia. 2003;41(2):171-83.

 [13] Losada, M. & Heaphy, E. (2004). The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. Losada M, Heaphy E. Am Behav Scientist. 2004 47 (6):740–765.

 [14] Gottman J. What Predicts Divorce?: The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Psychology Press, 1993.

 [15] On the incremental validity of irrational beliefs to predict subjective well-being while controlling for personality factors. Spörrle M, Strobel M, Tumasjan A. Psicothema. 2010 Nov;22(4):543-8.

 [16] The value of positive psychology for health psychology: progress and pitfalls in examining the relation of positive phenomena to health. Aspinwall LG, Tedeschi RG. Ann Behav Med. 2010 Feb;39(1):4-15.

[17] What is in a word? No versus Yes differentially engage the lateral orbitofrontal cortex. Alia-Klein N, Goldstein RZ, Tomasi D, Zhang L, Fagin-Jones S, Telang F, Wang GJ, Fowler JS, Volkow ND. Emotion. 2007 Aug;7(3):649-59.

 [18] Happiness unpacked: positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience. Cohn MA, Fredrickson BL, Brown SL, Mikels JA,Conway AM. Emotion. 2009 Jun;9(3):361-8.

 [19] Pursuing Happiness in Everyday Life: The Characteristics and Behaviors of Online Happiness Seekers. Parks AC, Della Porta MD, Pierce RS, Zilca R, Lyubomirsky S. Emotion. 2012 May 28.

 [20] Genomic counter-stress changes induced by the relaxation response. Dusek JA, Otu HH, Wohlhueter AL, Bhasin M, Zerbini LF, Joseph MG, Benson H, Libermann TA. PLoS One. 2008 Jul 2;3(7):e2576.

 [21] Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. Fredrickson BL, Losada MF. Am Psychol. 2005 Oct;60(7):678-86.

Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Robert Waldman are the authors of Words Can Change Your Brain. more...

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