Words Can Change Your Brain

The dynamic duo of Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman who brought us “Born to Believe: God, Science, and the Origin of Ordinary and Extraordinary Beliefs” and “How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist,” have served up another vital and necessary guidebook to our sustainable well-being, namely “Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy.” Brain World had the opportunity to speak with the authors about their book.

Brain World: What’s the big picture behind “Words Can Change Your Brain”?

Mark Robert Waldman: Language is one of the most important tools we have. In fact, our newest research show that it’s essential for actually building the framework of consciousness itself. But compared to other species, it turns out that we’re very poor communicators, and we don’t even know it! We spend years teaching our children how to read and write, but we don’t teach them how to speak. We give them the basics, but by the time they reach 11 or 12, we say to our kids, “Okay, we’re done learning about speaking and listening skills, now let’s start to read books and study other things.” So it’s not surprising that most people still communicate with each other on the level of a 12 year old.

But a 12 year old doesn’t even have the neurological ability to experience empathy and compassion. These too are communication skills, and without them we can’t relate to how other people are feeling, or tell them about our own emotional needs. This why so many people in their 20s and 30s get divorced: they just haven’t even learned how to communicate what they mean by love. They don’t know how to “read” between the lines, to accurately perceive the emotional expressions on the other person’s face, or hear their feelings in the tone of their voice.

We wrote this book to help people to speak more honestly with each other, and to listen to each other more deeply. And we also wrote this book because the newest findings in neuroscience can teach us how to become better communicators, how to build deeper bonds of trust, and how to resolve conflicts without getting frightened or mad. We wrote this book to talk about the power of words, but we also want to make the point that words are the least important part of the communication process. In other words, there are seven other key elements that make communication effective.

The most important part is hidden in our facial expressions, and we have to learn how to study the other person’s face to see what they really mean. But staring makes people feel uncomfortable. But if we use a specific type of positive facial expression — a soft eye gaze and a half smile — people will automatically trust us. But the muscles controlling this facial expression are involuntary. In other words, you can’t fake kindness, but we discovered a really cool trick to develop that soft eye gaze and Mona Lisa smile. We just ask a person, before they engage in a conversation with someone else, visualize someone they deeply love, or recall an event that brought them deep satisfaction and joy. It’s such an easy exercise, and we train people to do it in our workshops.

First, we have people stand up and face each other, and then gaze at each other’s faces. Lot’s of nervous giggling goes on and 75 percent of the room will say it feels uncomfortable. Then we ask them to close their eyes and deeply relax because any body tension will be perceived by the listener as a threat. Finally, we ask them to focus on that loving memory. You’ll see this incredible expression of serenity appear on everyone’s faces, and when they open their eyes, everyone feels very comfortable with each other, like old friends!

BW: Do you find that a lot of the problem lies in the fact that people don’t know how to listen?

MRW: Nobody ever taught us what to listen for. Again, it’s not the words that are most important, it’s the tone. And every single tone of voice conveys a different emotion. For example, you can say “Yes” a dozen different ways — loud, soft, fast, slow — and each one of these conveys a different meaning.

And then there’s the way we gesture with our hands and body. Without those cues it’s easy to misread the underlying emotions the person is trying to get across. So the eye gaze, the facial expressions, the tone of voice, the body language — all of these things convey far more than the words themselves.

BW: What happens when you have a conversation that’s conflict oriented?

MRW: From my perspective, the slightest frown in your face will increase a conflict between you and another individual. If you can create a kind of soft Mona Lisa smile and gentleness in your eyes, we’ve seen that this creates a neurological trust in the person watching you. The more conflicted the situation, the more conscious you have to be aware of your tone of voice expressing defensiveness. The moment you create the defensive response to what the other person says it’s a downward spiral.

Andrew Newberg: There are always going to be conversations that you have that will have a certain confrontational tone about it. For instance, sometimes you have to talk to someone about a problem. Part of the goal here is to avoid it spiraling out of control into a truly negative interaction and turning it instead into something that is much more positive and ultimately constructive. How you hold yourself in the conversation, how you look at the person, how you engender a sense of intimacy and trust, even though it may be a confrontational topic or something problematic, is something that can end up in a positive way.

MRW: What we try to show in the book is that in a conflictual situation, you have to know the basics of effective communication to start out with and that most people don’t realize that the way in which they normally talk is already creating subtle distances and defensiveness in the other person. As far as we can tell, the brain’s default mechanism looks for signs of threat in the world. If we see a face, we immediately identify if it is a frowning face or smiling face; is it a threatening face or nonthreatening? Our brains enter the world in a state of anxiety and uncertainty. The first thing it does is it looks for a sign of threat because it is a survival-oriented mechanism. Once we see that then hopefully we can relax our defenses and go through deeper steps of intimacy in our communication process. We spend a lot of time in the book teaching a person to spend a few minutes before they walk into a conversation to create in their own face, body, tone of voice a very warm, welcoming, and safe environment so that when a person hears their voice and sees their face they will immediately be put at ease. We want to eliminate the possibility of conflicts coming up.

BW: Tell us about the 30 second rule and why we should speak only one or two sentences at a time.

AN: That’s really based on the data we get in terms of the working memory of the brain — how much information the brain itself can hang onto at any one time. When you look at studies that have documented the capacity of the human brain, they show that the brain is really good at being able to hold onto four to six chunks of information or 20 to 30 seconds worth of information at a given time. So when you extrapolate that to a conversation and someone goes on and on talking for 15 minutes, you’re not going to hold onto any more than 30 seconds or a minute of that. The idea is to try and have conversations with people so you can be really sure they’re hearing the essence of what you’re trying to say in a very concise and brief way.

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