Monday, June 06, 2016

Language Creates Reality

I took a course in rhetoric in college. It was one of the most useful classes I ever took. Essentially we studied the art of persuading or motivating others. One of the messages I took away from the class was the professor's assertion that "language creates reality."

In the context of this particular class, of course, he meant that a deft use of specific words could literally shape one's audience's world, which is what lies at the heart of the art of rhetoric. And then he went on to prove it to us by one day successfully making the argument that altruistic acts are really acts of base selfishness, then the next persuading us that those very same acts were evidence of the existence of God.

I've carried that phrase "language creates reality" with me for most of my adult life and have come to understand that it didn't just apply to those I was attempting to motivate, but also to myself. We all carry a running narrative or dialog within ourselves. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that this conversation we're having with ourselves is a reaction to our reality -- that lousy drivers, those rotten kids, or our doting husbands -- and it can be, but more often than not the script we're running in our heads is actually creating that reality for better or worse.

I found a great deal of support for this notion in the work of the great early psychologist and philosopher William James who said, "It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome," and "belief creates the actual fact." It was James who first suggested that one of the best ways to create a better reality was to simply stand up straight, put one's shoulders back, breath easy and walk tall.

This is deeper than simply having an optimistic or pessimistic attitude, but that, in part, lies at the heart of it.

Today, scientists have proven the actual physical truth of my professor's rhetorical assertion. Dr. Andrew Newborn, a neuroscientist and Mark Robert Waldman, a communications expert, in their book Words Can Change Your Brain, write: 

(A) single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.

In other words, the words we use both when speaking aloud or in our heads literally change our brains:

Angry words send alarm messages through the brain, and they partially shut down the logic-and-reasoning centers located in the frontal lobes.

This certainly explains much of our nation's political disfunction. So much of our political discourse is of the day-to-day, outrage-to-outrage variety, which is why so much of it makes no sense at all.

But on the other hand . . .

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 the negative self-image will incline 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.

In other words, practice thinking and saying good words about yourself and the world will become a better place. 

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Rebecca deCoca said...

Sort of like a mantra. :)

Helen Garnett said...

Brilliant. Am writing a book on empathy, and one of the chapters is on positive language and the impact on the child. Am using the same research!!

Helen Garnett said...

BRILLIANT! I am writing a book on empathy and one of the chapters is on positive language and empathy. I am using the same research!! Love your post.

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