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How Words Affect our Brains

The human brain has evolved over six millions years. The most primitive parts of our brain operate at a deeply unconscious level, and influence a great deal more of our conscious behavior than most of us realize. As we added more complex structures to support critical thought, reasoning, language, and social behavior, our frontal lobe grew larger to accommodate a great workload. However, this part of the brain continues to be cross-wired with the more primitive structures that support survival. This is a simplified explanation of why a dispute at work can generate a “fight or flight” response when our physical survival is not even remotely threatened.

While the precise language timeline is hard for science to pin down, our capacity for language developed only recently. And yet, language doesn’t operate simply at the newer, conscious level of the brain. We respond to words at a visceral, autonomic level as well. Understanding the impact of words on the brain can help us to become better managers, parents, negotiators—almost any other role in which we as human capital professionals may find ourselves.

Prime the brain with words

The University of Georgia is teaching lawyers how to use words to prepare clients for mediation. Harvard is studying the effect of using positive words or images, such as those related to rewards, victory, or security, at the start of a negotiation, rather than focusing on the items in dispute. This priming can trigger the production of oxytocin, the neurochemical that helps trigger feelings such as well-being, affinity, and security. Change management plans might be more effective if we are careful to prime our communications with positive images and emotions. Managers might choose words very carefully in performance reviews, recognizing that certain words will trigger a fight-or-flight response and shut down the higher cognitive functions in an employee’s brain. And since you are hearing yourself using these words, be mindful of the effect of your own words on your brain. You may be telling yourself a situation is a “problem” when you are trying to present that it simply is a puzzle that you expect to solve.

On the other hand, there are times when the fight-or-flight response is exactly what is needed. In that case, the same principle applies. Don’t wash over difficult issues with soft words, or you risk losing the impact you need to stimulate your audience to action.

Words and neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe how the brain continues to re-invent itself. Older, unused pathways fall away, and new ones, with repetition and focus, emerge. What we think about actually rewires our brains—for better or worse. We now know that our choice of words has a direct and immediate effect on our emotional response and makes our brains inclined to respond in specific ways. This is true whether we are reacting to spoken words delivered by someone else, or to the inner self-talk that we hear ourselves “saying” inside our heads.

Are we a race of singers?

An intriguing theory out of MIT suggests that human language may have evolved from imitating the songs of birds. As we learned how to express a wide range of emotions in song, we starting adding the first simple words to further clarify our meanings. We may be a race of singers. Could this be why American Idol seems to tap into something deeply tribal for so many of us?

What tune is your brain singing to you? What song do you want it to sing? How can you teach that song to others?

Margie Meacham

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