The surge in hateful speech and acts is harmful not only to our interpersonal relationships and our environment, but it also changes the brain.

Scientist, Cindy Mason, Ph.D., lays out the newest research on this subject in this blog post. Mason has been a research scientist at Stanford and U.C. Berkeley's
BISC Institute for the past 15 years, and collaborates with emotion researchers
in Spain, Hungary, Finland and other places. She has worked with seriously ill patients using compassion-centered psychophysio-philosophy at Stanford Hospital
and other places and pioneered the concept of compassionate intelligence for
robots in the field of artificial intelligence. Stanford web page here
Understanding how emotions affect healing might help us deal better with an increasingly troubling world.

Mind Crime by Cindy Mason, Ph.D.

There is an increasing sense of worry in the U.S. about our rising levels of hate speech, cyberbullying and divisiveness. Time Magazine’s cover recently alerted the public to the state of affairs—as a nation we are uttering an unprecedented amount of hate speech on the internet.

Remember the old saying “sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you.”  Wrong. As we will see in the remainder of this article, hateful words and bitter relationships actually create an invisible, cunning physical assault on our bodies. It's a kind of “mind crime.” But just as powerfully, warm positive words and relations can also be deeply protective for the body’s systems. These include our immune system, cardiovascular system, and the brain.  

Did you know, for example, that our rate of wound healing is slower in high conflict relationships (Kiecolt-Glasner, et al., 2005) or that psychosocial stressors disrupt our brain glucose metabolism (Kern, et al. 2008)? This is important because the disruption of normal glucose metabolism forms the basis for many brain disorders (Mergenthaler, Lindauer, Dienel and Meisel, 2013).  Fortunately, there is some good news here. Positive relationships have an equally important effects on us.

Perhaps the most striking demonstration of the impact of positive warm relationships is what has been called The Rescuing Hug (shown in the picture below) (Townsend, 2001).  

 Worcester Telegram & Gazette November 18, 1995
Source: Used with permission: Worcester Telegram & Gazette November 18, 1995

The Rescuing Hug.

The newborn twins shown here spent their first week of life in their separate incubators. When one of the twins was struggling for its life and was not responding to standard treatment, a hospital nurse took a chance and placed the twins together, violating standard hospital policy. Immediately, the stronger twin reached out its arm to hold and comfort its sibling. The rescuing hug stabilized the ailing twin’s heart rate and body temperature. Today the twins are healthy grown adults and the hospital has changed its policy.

Positive emotion holds every aspect of our lives together—our economy, our relationships and our health. Who wants to work with someone they distrust? Neuroeconomists will tell you businesses and countries run on trust (Zak and Knack, 2001;  Zak, Borja, Matzner & Kurzban, 2005). Not only is it important in business but when it comes to relationships without positive emotion we find it difficult to show affection. Would you want to hug someone who acts aggressively? Our instincts are a big N-O! One explanation for this instinct can be found through Michael Meaney and his team’s animal research on motherly tenderness at McGill University. Their work showed that the creation of neural stem cells governing short term memory and the expression of genes regulating the stress response are positively affected by motherly interactions (Meaney, 2001).   So there’s a biologically based reason we cultivate warm trusted sources of affection and avoid hostility.

Stress and hostility are known risk factors for heart disease and their effects are measurable on social media. Researcher JC Eichstaedt and team looked at Twitter language patterns in a large scale study (country-level) (Eichstaedt et. al., 2015). They discovered that negative language patterns used on Twitter are a significant predictor of age adjusted mortality in artherosclerotic heart disease. The predictor is more than 10 other well known risk factors such as smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure. Further, the Twitter study showed that positive emotions and engagements appear protective.   

My hope in writing this post is that by drawing attention to some of these discoveries, it will begin a conversation. We are at a unique juncture in time where we are aware of two important things. First, that words are powerful things that impact our health. Second, that we can have a positive influence on ourselves and our society just by being nicer. As the rescuing hug shows, love can truly rescue us from difficulties.

We live in a country where spiraling healthcare costs are among the top reasons for bankruptcy and the quality of care we receive is rated last in the modern world (Bortz, 2011). Walter Bortz, MD, a retired physician from Stanford who has spent many years studying the U.S. healthcare system, believes that the way to conquer big diseases like cancer and heart disease is through prevention (Bortz, 2011). When we begin the conversation on how positively health can be influenced by the way we treat one another, we also tackle prevention. Being nice to one another costs nothing but poor health is very expensive. How do we get the conversation started?

The U.S. is fascinated by football, violent video games, and gory movies. The soft touch seems to run counter to this culture of violence and to a fast paced modern world. We need to make love, positive speech and motherly care cool. Is it simply a matter of marketing? The facts are that violence costs us as a society but motherly tenderness and positive care can save our health (and its costs). Yet if football players intentionally injure one another, about half the population would be fascinated and amazed. It would be part of the conversation. We cannot see the effects of ugly words slowly disrupting our brains and DNA, slowing down our wound healing and increasing the odds of a heart attack. These are health problems that could cost you your life savings, house, job, or your ability to lead an active life. 

As educators, therapists, regulators, parents and as a society, we should ask ourselves what might happen if all those who read this “pay it forward” with kind words, every day? What these studies show is that as individuals we are empowered by our speech to create unprecedented health prevention simply by being nicer. I think this is possible.  


Bortz, W., II. (2011).  Next Medicine: The Science and Civics of Health, Oxford University 


Eichstaedt, J.C., Schwartz, H.A., Kern, M.L., Park, G., Labarthe, D., Merchant, R.M., Jha, S., Agrawal, M., Dziurzynski, L.A., Sap, M., Weeg, C., Larson, E.E., Ungar, L.H., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2015). Psychological Language on Twitter Predicts County-Level Heart Disease. Psychological Science Kern, S., Oakes, T.R., Stone, C.K., McAuliff, E.M., Kirschbaum,  C.,  & Davidson, R., 

(2008). Glucose metabolic changes in the prefrontal cortex are associated with HPA axis response to a psychosocial stressor. Psychoneuroendocrinology 33: 517–529, doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.01.010

Kiecolt-Glaser, J., Loving, T., Stowell J., Malarkey, W., Lemeshow, S., Dickinson, S., & Glaser, R. (2005). Hostile marital interactions, proinflammatory cytokine production, and wound healing. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(12):1377-1384.

Meaney, M.J. (2001). Maternal care, gene expression, and the transmission of individual 

    differences in stress reactivity across generations. Annual Review of Neuroscience,           24:1161-1192. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.24.1.1161

Mergenthaler, P., Lindauer, U. , Dienel, G., & Meisel, A. (2013). Sugar for the brain: The role of glucose in physiological and pathological brain  function. Trends in Neuroscience, 36(10):587-597, doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2013.07.001

Stein, J. (2016). Why We’re Losing The Internet to the Culture of Hate [Cover Story]. Time Magazine, August 27, 2016.

Thaddeus W., Pace, Negi, L.T.,. Adame, D.D., Cole, S.P., Sivilli, T.I., Brown, T.D., Issa, M.J., & Raison, C.L. (2009). Effect of Compassion Meditation on Neuroendocrine, Innate Immune and Behavioral Responses to Psychosocial Stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2009 Jan; 34(1): 87–98. doi:  10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.08.011

Townsend, L. (2001). Premature Twins Thrive  with a “Rescuing Hug”. Retrieved from

Zak, P., Borja, K., Matzner, T., & Kurzban, R. (2005). The Neuroeconomics of Distrust: Sex Differences in Behavior and Physiology. American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, (95:2):360-364. Zak, P. and Knack, S. (2001). Trust and Growth. The Economic Journal, (111:470 ): 295-321.

About the Author

Ilene Serlin, Ph.D.

Ilene Serlin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Union Street Health Associates and the Arts Medicine Program at California Pacific Medical Center.

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