By Kimberly Bustamante
Picture yourself hiking in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Miles of warm, red soil stretch out in front of you, dotted by jagged rocks and sporadic cacti. In the distance the sharp ridges of a mountain range catch the sun.
What words would you use to build out this scene? Unwelcoming? Desolate? Foreboding? Beautiful? Wonderous? Tranquil? The words that come to mind have a physical effect on your brain and a powerful effect on your behaviors, feelings and actions.
Brain scan research performed by Andrew Newberg, MD and Mark Robert Waldman, detailed in their book, “Words Can Change Your Brain,” reveal that concentrating and meditating on positive words, phrases and thoughts strengthens physical areas in the frontal lobe of the brain. This stimulates the motivational center of the brain, promotes cognitive functioning and bolsters a sense of well-being.
Conversely, when researchers asked participants to think of negative words and thoughts, brain scans revealed sudden releases of dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters that interrupted the normal functioning of the brain. This physical reaction occurred even when they just flashed the word “no” in front of the participants for less than one second.
Compounded Over Time
When particpants continued to concentrate on negative words and images, even for short periods of time, logic, reason, decision-making, language processing and communication became impaired. The amygdala, the fear center of the brain, increased activity and the subjects became very anxious and disheartened. Over longer periods of time, appetite, sleep structure and the experience of long-lasting contentment and fulfillment were disrupted. The brain’s ability to process information and tackle complex tasks was also disrupted.
The opposite was also true. The longer the subjects focused on positive words and thoughts, the better their brains functioned. Neural pathways were created and stress was reduced. The centers of the brain that control communication, logic and reason became more active. The participants’ levels of consciousness and self-awareness increased. Subjects developed more positive self-perceptions and attitudes towards tasks, challenges and activities. It affected how they interacted with others and their perception of those around them.
These effects (both negative and positive) on the brain and its functioning were long-lasting and influenced future behaviors and actions.
What can you do to improve brain functioning?
Training your brain to replace negative thoughts with positive ones will lead to a higher functioning brain, less anxiety and depression, greater self-esteem and stronger feelings of joy and fulfilment. It is a challenge because we are evolutionarily pre-dispositioned to emphasize the negative rather than the positive. From our earliest beginnings, the “flight or fight” thought process was a critical survival skill that kept us aware of and avoiding danger.
By consciously focusing on positive words, thoughts and phrases; by purposely seeking out and expressing gratitude; by approaching unpleasant or negative situations in a more productive way (trying to learn from them for example); by evaluating what you’re thinking and working to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you can build up your brain’s resilience to negativity. Over time this becomes a habit and can transform how your brain interprets and responds to information, fortifying divisions in our frontal lobe and preserving resiliency in our future behaviors.
We can help others in this journey as well. Words are how we care and connect to one another. When using constructive and encouraging phrases in conversations and drawing the listener’s attention to the positive in situations by not engaging in negative self-talk or gossip, we can magnify the positive, multifaceted influence we have on others and help them focus on positive thoughts and feelings. Every exposure to this type of interaction increases the resiliency of the brain.
As Chief Operating Officer for Wiss & Company LLP, Kim Bustamante is responsible for planning and executing strategic goals to bring the firm from where we are now to where we desire to be. If you'd like to contact Kim, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 973.994.9400.