A sarcastic twitch of an eyebrow. A cryptic, sharp or brusque word. A scathing exchange.
It all has the power to alter your brain’s chemistry.
On the other hand, gentle reinforcement, loving words, can do just the same too. As Ahmed Ebied, a neurologist specialist at Medcare Hospital, Sharjah explains: Don’t view your brain as some fixed organ; it’s a garden that keeps responding to stimuli and encounters. “Words, actions and sensory experiences act as gardeners, pruning the neural pathways. This contributes to shaping who we are and who we can become,” he says.
It comes under the umbrella of neuroplasticity, a phenomenon that empowers our brain to change, and adapt through life. “It’s woven intricately with our senses,” he adds.
The body ‘budget’
How do the people around you influence your body budget and rewire your adult brain? Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman in her 2020 book, 7 ½ Lessons About The Brain, explains the impact humans have on each other, in terms of ‘body budgets’. “For your whole life, outside of your awareness, you make deposits into other people’s body budgets, as well as withdrawals, and others do the same for you. This has pros and cons, as well as profound implications for how we live our lives,” she says.
Our brain changes its ‘wiring’ after new experiences. The neural pathways change every day. Gradually, your brain becomes more tuned to interact with others, she says. Everyone in your daily life, family, friends or neighbours contribute to your brain’s structure.
We also adjust to each other’s body budgets with our actions. So, when you raise your voice or an eyebrow, you can cause changes in other people’s bodies, such as their heart rate or the chemicals carried in their bloodstream. If someone you love is in pain, you lessen their pain by holding their hand, explains Feldman. However, this also depends on how close someone is to you: The more familiar someone is to you, the more efficiently the brain predicts their struggles.
Our words affect each other, adds Feldman. Kind words soothe you, for instance, when you are praised. Cruel, negative words may lead your brain to flood your bloodstream with stress hormones, compromising on your physical and mental health.
The power of words
You probably heard this refrain ad nauseum in childhood: Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Well, sticks and stones can break your bones and the truth is, that words can hurt you too.
As humans, we mostly communicate with each other using our voice and body language. Depending on the closeness and complexity of a relationship that we share with someone, their words can have a profound impact on us. "When we connect with others, our bodies sync up without us even realising it," says Rajshekher Garikapati, Neurology specialist, at Aster Hospital Mankhool. "Breathing and heartbeats align, showing how our social world profoundly influences our bodies. This happens not just with close friends but also in everyday situations like therapy or group activities," he adds.
“When we engage in meaningful conversations, debate, or lose ourselves in a story, the neurons fire in concert. This forges new connections, while strengthening existing ones,” says Ebied. Language crafts our cognitive landscape, influencing memory, imagination and even social perception. For instance, even learning a new language revitalises the neural pathways. It demonstrates the power of words to reshape our neural terrain, he says.
When we engage in meaningful conversations, debate, or lose ourselves in a story, the neurons fire in concert. This forges new connections, while strengthening existing ones. Language crafts our cognitive landscape, influencing memory, imagination and even social perception. For instance, even learning a new language revitalises the neural pathways.
"Words are powerful tools that can impact our brains and bodies. A simple text message can actually affect our heart rate and metabolism. Our brains are wired to respond to language, and the words we use can have real, physical effects on ourselves and others," says Garikapati.
However, on hearing negative words and perceiving corresponding actions, there’s a release of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemicals can disrupt the functioning of your brain, impairing logic, reason, language processing, and communication, explains Dubai-based Satish Chandran, a neuro-psychiatrist. The choice of words can lead to certain areas of the brain to activate and can affect a person’s subjective experience of pain.
“When a person suffering from depression or anxiety keeps seeing or hearing negative words, they will start feeling worse. It begins to damage structures in the brain that regulate memory, feelings and emotions,” he says. Harsh and hurtful words send alarm bells across the brain, and they affect the decision-making centers in the frontal lobe, which can lead to a person acting irrationally. As a result, words can have a direct impact on a person’s brain activity. It doesn’t matter whether you intended it or not, it’s how a person is wired, explains Feldman.
How words can affect the brain: What research says
When we say a hateful word to someone else, there’s a high chance of stress-related hormones being released into the bloodstream. On the other hand, positive words can have the opposite effect.
In a 2010 study titled Do words hurt? Brain activation during the processing of pain-related words, published in Germany, 16 healthy people had their brains scanned. They were subjected to pain-related negative words.
The researchers found increased activation in different parts of the brain, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), inferior patietal gyri and precuneus when processing pain-related words, as compared to others. However, when they were focused on something else, and the words were in the background, there was a decrease in activation in different regions of the brain that were linked to emotion and cognitive processing.
The DLPFC is implicated in higher cognitive functions, such as switching attention, working memory, maintaining abstract rules, and inhibiting inappropriate responses. The inferior patietal gyri is involved in the perception of emotions and interpreting sensory information.
In 2021, a study titled Does verbal encouragement change dynamic balance, published on National Library of Medicine, researchers found that verbal encouragement, specifically the words “go, go, go” and “go as far as you can,” resulted in improved performance on a balance test for people experiencing chronic ankle instability.
In another study, published in 2020 on the global platform National Library Of Medicine, titled Effect of the Verbal Encouragement on Psychophysiological and Affective Responses during Small-Sided Games, researchers observed the effects of a sports teacher’s encouraging words to teen players during games. The teacher’s encouragement resulted in increased physical intensity, enjoyment and a better mood state among the players.
The power of positive words and actions
Believe it or not, words like love and peace can change your brain’s neural pathways and boost the cognitive reasoning. As we keep trying to practise affirmations, new neural pathways are carved in our brain, explain the neurology experts.
Positive affirmations need to be cultivated as early as possible in childhood itself, explains Chandran. A child’s brain is malleable, and they develop neural synapses through different experiences. Adults have a profound impact on a child’s upbringing: Each word and action impacts their neural landscape. Everything a child hears or observes, the neural pathways are strengthened. This helps in forming their belief systems and habits.
“So, when you say words calming words like ‘you can do it’, it has a profound effect on the brain. It bolsters the neural connections between the regions that control emotion, cognition and memory,” he says. “This hones their ability to confront their feelings. On the other hand, negativity blocks their train of thought,” he says.