Connecting the power of words, our minds, relationships and the planet.

When a subject keeps popping up, curiosity sends my research brain into action. The latest is the ‘Power of Words”.

I became aware of Positive Psychology and Positive Affirmations in the 1980’s when Zig Ziglar informed me that my life would be more successful if I called stop lights ‘go lights’. Louise Hay persuaded me to recite lovely prose to lift my soul every morning. But then, during the darker days of my life journey in the beginning of the new century I paid the philosophies little attention.

Just recently I have come across several different articles and audio clips that reminded me that the words we chose can have a great effect not only on our communication but also our brain. Further studies are indicating words, or at least language and the intent of those words can affect humanity. Recently I have had conversations with people from Traditional  cultures that led to subsequent reading. This revealed they have witnessed the power of words spoken for thousands of years, most notably causing death of another. I am really curious about that. But for now I will get to the topic my Game Changer colleagues asked me about. Changes in humanity and the environment can also lead to the need for new words.

An article in Yes Magazine described a feeling of anxiety that people were feeling when facing devastating loss and grief from destruction of the environment such as large cut-face coalmines and catastrophic fires. Glenn Albrecht , an Australian philosopher, found that people were struggling to describe the angst you might feel when the environment around you starts to change, so he created the word solastalgia. He created the word from the suffix -algia, meaning “pain,” and the same Latin roots as the words “solace,” “console,” and “desolation.”

He found that the people he was interviewing found relief in being able to articulate their feelings.

Naming is powerful. It gives shape, substance, and legitimacy to the things we experience. When you name a shared feeling, it lets people know that they’re not alone.”

Next he set about finding a word for ways of overcoming the sensation. He chose sophillia and then tested the word with people. He found that people felt less alone and this gave them comfort.

“… philia means love, and this is Albrecht’s name for “the solidarity needed between people to actually restore and repair damaged environments.” 

So when people respond with a form of activism,” he says, “whether it’s joining a social protest movement or planting trees, that negates the solastalgia.” This idea lines up with research by psychologists such as Stephen Post, who have found that volunteering, giving, and getting involved in community lowers stress levels. It seems that taking responsibility for environmental problems might actually make people more able to cope with them.” (Yes Magazine, accessed 18/10/16) http://www.yesmagazine.org/planet/when-words-fail-does-a-warming-world-need-a-new-vocabulary

The interviewer asked Albrecht about people who are extremely concerned or alarmed about climate change. Could fears of the climate-anxious also be called solastalgia? Albrecht replied no there is another word for this—eco-anxiety. The cure is the same as for solastalgia, “working with other people to stop further degradation of the environment through whatever the cause is.”

As seen the English language is a hybrid of several ancient languages but the grammar can create challenges, one being there is no plural for you. I was listening to a recording of Eckhart Tolle when he paused mid-sentence and apologized that he may be going to say something politically incorrect. He took a short deviation from his talk to discuss the latest word to be outlawed by some – “You guys”. Some people have argued that it shouldn’t be used when referring to women. Eckhart’s ponderings rang true. We change words, add many and drop the use of a few as culture changes and people become more conscious. ‘You guys’ has come to mean you plural. The Australian Aboriginal languages that I have become vaguely familiar with have different words for you singular and you plural so when talking in English the words “you mob’ became common in use. Many of the Aboriginal people I know happily refer to their own tribe as ‘Black fella’s”. They don’t see either term as derogatory.

Cat Thompson wrote “ The Power of Language” in 2002. Similar to the messages I heard in the 80’s and 90’s when the message was about the affect on our success in life, there is a difference between using, ‘I think I can’ and ’I can’ for example or “I’ll try” and ‘I will”. When I hear ‘I’ll try’ I assume the person will not do it. Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back made this famous: “Do, or do not. There is no try”. Cat Thompson looks beyond single words and looks at the language that surrounds words. Factors like intention, tone, power balance and manipulation have an effect on communication.

Dr Rick Hanson, world-renowned Mindfulness presenter has many posts related to words and tone. To follow is a recent reflection he posted:

We are particularly reactive to negative tone, due to the negativity bias in the brain. Not only does tart tone hurt others, but it also often triggers others to react in ways that harmful.   

On the other hand, paying attention to tone and containing negative tone prompts you to open to and deal with any underlying stress, hurt, anger. It reduces the chance that the other person will avoid dealing with what you say by shifting attention to how you say it. 

As the Buddha said long ago, “Getting angry with others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.” Much the same could be said about throwing tart tone.

So is there any science to back up the power of words and language? Psychology researchers have used human observation and case studies and I even came across a study on rats. I found studies on swearing, especially related to Tourette Syndrome, particularly tics, and strokes that had involved fMRI images of the brain to locate areas of language and emotion in the brain. These were all enlightening but I was having difficulty finding neuroscience studies related to the effects on the brain.

I believe there is a lot of cross over from the hundreds, possibly thousands of studies on Mindfulness and meditation and changes in the brain and state of being of the subjects being studied with use of language. Dr Dan Siegel explains the relationship of the mind, consciousness and the brain based on these studies as well as mathematical and quantum science equations. His research has found that how you focus the attention of your mind can shape the activity and structure of your brain. Dan lectures students on an amazing body of information and propositions related to the integration within the body, between people we are communicating with and even between the planet and ourselves. I will come back to that, but firstly I want to share this excerpt from an article about Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman’s new book, Words Can Change Your Brain, where they write: “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”

According to the authors, using the right words can transform our reality. The article linked the changes to the neurotransmitters released when we are in emotional states such as bliss and anger. To find exactly how they made these links I will need to read their book :

By holding a positive and optimistic [word] in your mind, you stimulate frontal lobe activity. This area includes specific language centers that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action. And as our research has shown, the longer you concentrate on positive words, the more you begin to affect other areas of the brain. Functions in the parietal lobe start to change, which changes your perception of yourself and the people you interact with. A positive view of yourself will bias you toward seeing the good in others, whereas a negative self-image will include you toward suspicion and doubt. Over time the structure of your thalamus will also change in response to your conscious words, thoughts, and feelings, and we believe that the thalamic changes affect the way in which you perceive reality.

I find re-wording to reduce Dan Siegel’s lecture information really difficult so I have chosen to string together some quotes from a transcript.

After a definition of the mind, Dan describes the brain as a system.

“You can show that regulating, for example, emotion or attention or relationships even depends on integration of this brain, and certain areas carry out linking functions, and certain areas are clusters of differentiated zones. How these differentiated zones are linked to each other is a part of a new beautiful set of studies called the International Human Connectome Project, and we’ll review some of the findings there soon.

…here’s something that connects these three fundamental aspects into one system. The system has as its components: the embodied brain, meaning the brain and the whole body; the relationships—how we communicate with each other, and not just other people but with the planet; and this term “mind.” I ask you to consider, what connects these together?

The system we’ve just defined with our triangle is not limited by skull or skin. The system is energy and information flow that’s going between ourselves and these bodies, and other people in the planet, and it’s moving within the whole body, including within the skull or what you call the brain. Yes, there’s an embodied mechanism of how energy information flow is shaped. There are ways we can control how that happens—for example, with mindfulness training.

There’s a sharing that happens between us and the planet—how we deal with our recycling, how we approach sustainability, and how we deal with climate change are all aspects of relationship with the planet. And how we deal with each other—how we distinguish what someone who is similar to us is going to be treated like versus someone who’s different from us. How we let go of our judgments and our expectations and realize we’re part of one whole human family. That will determine the future of humanity.

All these things, relationships in the brain somehow connect to this issue of mind. We’re going to get into that here, but from a system points of view, the system is open and capable of chaotic behavior and it’s what’s called nonlinear. Those three features make it what’s called a complex system. Complex systems have emergent properties. The particular emergent property we want to look at today is self-organization. What self- organization does is it regulates the flow of energy and information, and its location, we’re proposing, is both within us (the body including its brain) and between us (between ourselves and other people, and ourselves and the planet). “

So, there is ‘science’ to back up our ‘connectedness’ and I am excited to keep learning about the interconnections. To describe it and our growing consciousness we borrow words from Buddhist teachings and create new ones: Interbeing and Human Becomings are two I have recently learnt.

Let me know what new words you have learnt and how this ‘new story’ of our connectedness with the world affects you and your ‘being’.


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