The Atlas

Language and the brain

One of my favorite topics is neurolinguistics. Aside from my general fascination with how the brain processes information (and what it means to how we function on a daily basis), growing up in a trilingual household always made this topic seem obviously important to me in a way that single-language environments seem to take for granted.

My favorite example of this was a time when my Spanish-speaking step-mother listened to my father and sister speaking in Russian, and interpreted their discussion as belligerent. In fact, a big part of what she was reacting to was the way the actual Russian language sounds on her more lilting Nicaraguan ears.

And, more importantly, brain.

As someone who was raised surrounded by nearly as much Spanish and Russian as I was English, I sometimes forget that these things have influenced how I think. I was recently reminded when watching a TED Talk on "How language shapes the way we think" by Lera Boroditsky. She cites some great examples that are very illustrative and can make you stop and think. (I have an addiction to online searches about words that exist in other languages that we don't have in English for much the same reason.)

On a purely personal level, however, I find this awareness helpful for a very practical reason: once we start recognizing the the language we are using is influencing how we think about things, the easier it is to recognize the influence that our words have on our thoughts and (ultimately) behavior.

Words have meaning. And they have power. And the first influential source of that power is often the cultural context in which we have learned it. I find that, quite often, people underestimate the impact that they have -- especially when we say them to ourselves.

Coaches are big on self-talk, and people who are not coaches (or neurolinguists) sometimes scoff. But the reality is that -- aside from all the neurological stuff we could get into about how your brain internalizes information -- how we talk to ourselves and the words we choose matter. Especially when we are emotional in responding to mistakes or problems. This can be especially damaging when we do it to ourselves for so long that we think nothing of turning it around on others, especially those closest to us.

When you, or someone you love, is upset:

  • Do you recognize language that implies BLAME?
  • Do you hear assumptions of NEFARIOUS INTENT?
  • Do you find yourself sifting through words that are DEMEANING?

The people in our lives, the ones who know us best and count on us most, are often the ones who feel the sting of our self-criticism first. Not only do they have to watch us do it to ourselves, but as our nearest and dearest, they are usually the first ones to get hit with the overflow.

So next time you are upset, consider how you put words around your feelings. And give some thought to whether or not a different set of words might give you a different set of options in how you look at an issue, and how you deal with someone you love.

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