The Power of Words (And What They Do For Your Brain)

It’s long been said that the pen is mightier than the sword — that the written word is a far more effective catalyst at impacting the world — shaping society and individual thought more significantly than any weapon ever has. Edward Bulwer-Lytton actually coined the phrase around 1837, sometime after the sword had been an obsolete weapon in battle — but we all knew what he meant.

Emotions can be channeled through a riveting speech or a favorite book and allow you to enter one’s mind. By the same token, our own words in daily conversation can have a more powerful effect that we never anticipated, should other people take them the wrong way. Now, neuroscience has an explanation for why.

When we so much as hear a new word, our neurons are already at work, forming new chemical and physical pathways to each other in order to make sense of it. This is why we adapt to a native language at a young age, quickly learning how to filter out other sounds from words in our own language — depending on which sounds we hear repeated the most often.

Neural pathways strengthen around these particular sounds, and we gradually adapt to separate these from the sounds of foreign languages that we don’t hear as often. Being born into a family that speaks more than one language — their native language at home versus an adoptive language at school and work, for example, could give you a greater window of sound processing, prolonging the time that your brain absorbs sounds.

At one time, it was believed that the brain only had room to carry all the particulars of one language, that regions of the brain had limited space — but now we know nothing could be further from the truth, as the brain is constantly seeking to form new connections while strengthening old ones. This time for learning new words is hardly restricted to infancy — as a new review of 180 studies suggests.

Even taking up another language later in life can make a difference in the concentration of the brain’s gray matter. An even minimal amount of exposure to new linguistic sounds has shown significant brainstem development in studies, the journal Behavioral and Brain Functions reports. Therefore, people who are fluent in two languages are also at an advantage when it comes to learning a third or a fourth, due to this increase in neuroplasticity.

Many of these ideas have been suspected for some time, but only over the last several decades have we had the capability to study how the human brain responds to hearing and discerning words — thanks to PET (positron emission tomography) scans and functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology. The shaping of languages is therefore thought to play a significant role in human evolution.

Evidence suggests that one of the first things humans did socially was build basic tools — shaping rocks into wedges or spears for hunting, and needed to formulate words to guide the task at hand. Without them, technology would hardly be possible — nor would massive waves of migration that allowed us to thrive on multiple continents, using verbal cues and signals to lead the way.

The effects done to a few cortices in the brain by learning a new language are hardly stationary to any particular region in the brain. People who were bilingual also showed an increase in white matter, the neural connections that allow cross talk between brain regions — suggesting that the brain’s subcortical sensory and motor regions could be using new connections to delegate information more efficiently across the brain.

Knowledge isn’t just power — it’s also a more efficient state of being.

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