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How Do Words, such as Yes and No, Change Our Brains and Lives?

The neu­ro­science of lan­guage, con­scious­ness, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion rais­es many fun­da­men­tal ques­tions, the answers to which con­sis­tent­ly defy def­i­n­i­tion. For exam­ple: when we speak, where do our words come from? Our brain, or our mind? And what do we mean by mind? Sim­i­lar dilem­mas arise when we try to study the nature of con­scious­ness. What is it, and where is it? Is it gen­er­at­ed sole­ly by neur­al activ­i­ty, or is it a sep­a­rate force that influ­ences the activ­i­ty of the brain? Hypothe­ses abound, but nobody seems to know for cer­tain.

How­ev­er, we do have a few clues that illu­mi­nate the rela­tion­ship between the brain, the mind, and our abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate effec­tive­ly to oth­ers. For exam­ple, every­day con­scious­ness seems to be depen­dent on an area of the frontal lobes where short-term “work­ing mem­o­ry” is processed. Our brain stores a tremen­dous amount of infor­ma­tion in long-term mem­o­ry, but in order to car­ry out a task, it must select only the most essen­tial pieces of infor­ma­tion in order to respond in a mean­ing­ful and appro­pri­ate way.

How much infor­ma­tion can our con­scious mind hold in work­ing mem­o­ry? About four “chunks,” and only for 30 sec­onds or less (we’ll explain this in more detail lat­er). This tiny bit of infor­ma­tion, con­tained in this tiny win­dow of time, is what we use to com­mu­ni­cate our needs to oth­ers. This evi­dence con­vinced us to mod­i­fy Com­pas­sion­ate Com­mu­ni­ca­tion in a fun­da­men­tal way: when con­vers­ing with oth­ers, we should lim­it our­selves, when­ev­er pos­si­ble, to speak­ing for 20 or 30 sec­onds, for even a sin­gle sen­tence can con­tains more than 4 chunks of infor­ma­tion.

Most peo­ple will say, “But I need more time to explain!” That may be true, but if you talk for sev­er­al min­utes, the oth­er person’s brain will only recall a frac­tion of what you’ve said, and it might not be the ele­ment that you want­ed to con­vey. The solu­tion? Brevi­ty, fol­lowed by intense lis­ten­ing to make sure that the oth­er per­son grasped the key points of what you said. If they did, great! You can speak anoth­er sen­tence. If not, why con­tin­ue speak­ing if the oth­er per­son is not com­pre­hend­ing you?

In busi­ness, time is mon­ey, so brevi­ty is a high­ly val­ued trait. In fact, some exec­u­tives insist that impor­tant ques­tions and state­ments be writ­ten down on an index card, because this will con­vey the most impor­tant infor­ma­tion in the briefest peri­od of time. It’s also a great brain-train­ing exer­cise, because the mere act of writ­ing down a thought forces us to accu­rate­ly con­vey our mes­sage in a mean­ing­ful and con­cise way.

When we lim­it our­selves to this 30 sec­ond “rule,” the brain quick­ly adapts by fil­ter­ing out irrel­e­vant infor­ma­tion. There’s anoth­er advan­tage to speak­ing briefly: it inter­rupts our abil­i­ty to express neg­a­tive emo­tions.

The Pow­er of Yes

What about the pow­er of the word “yes?” Using brain­scan tech­nol­o­gy, we now have a very good idea of what hap­pens when we hear pos­i­tive words and phras­es. What do we see? Not much! Pos­i­tive words do not con­note a threat to our sur­vival, so our brain doesn’t need to respond as rapid­ly as it does to the word, “No.” This presents a prob­lem, because the evi­dence con­tin­ues to grow show­ing that pos­i­tive think­ing is essen­tial for devel­op­ing healthy rela­tion­ships and work pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.

Can we train our brain to become more respon­sive to “yes?” We think so, but in an indi­rect way through intense repet­i­tive focus­ing on pos­i­tive images, feel­ings, and beliefs. And it doesn’t mat­ter if the pos­i­tive think­ing is ground­ed in sci­ence, busi­ness, or the­ol­o­gy. In fact, pos­i­tive irra­tional beliefs have also been proven to enhance a person’s sense of hap­pi­ness, well­be­ing, and life sat­is­fac­tion. Even for peo­ple who are born with a genet­ic propen­si­ty toward unhap­pi­ness, pos­i­tive think­ing can help them to build a bet­ter and more opti­mistic atti­tude toward life.

In a land­mark study that put Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy on the map, a large group of adults, rang­ing in age from 35 to 54, were asked to write down, each night, three things that went well for them that day, and to pro­vide a brief expla­na­tion why. Over the next three months, their degrees of hap­pi­ness con­tin­ued to increase, and their feel­ings of depres­sion con­tin­ued to decrease, even though they had dis­con­tin­ued the writ­ing exper­i­ment. Thus, by using lan­guage to help us reflect on pos­i­tive ideas and emo­tions, we can enhance our over­all well being, and we improve the func­tion­ing of our brain.

Pos­i­tive words and thoughts pro­pel the moti­va­tion­al cen­ters of the brain into action, and it helps us build resilience when we are faced with the myr­i­ad prob­lems of life. Accord­ing to Son­ja Lyubomirsky, one of the world’s lead­ing researchers on hap­pi­ness, if you want to devel­op life­long sat­is­fac­tion, you should reg­u­lar­ly engage in pos­i­tive think­ing about your­self, share your hap­pi­est events with oth­ers, and savor every pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence in your life. If you use your lan­guage – your inner dia­logues and your con­ver­sa­tions with oth­ers, words, your speech – to engage in opti­mism and pos­i­tiv­i­ty, you will find your­self mov­ing in a more life-enhanc­ing direc­tion.

Can pos­i­tive think­ing be tak­en too far? Yes, espe­cial­ly if you engage in exag­ger­a­tion. Peo­ple may begin to dis­trust you because the overuse of extreme pos­i­tive words in speech or writ­ing can be a sig­nal that you are being decep­tive. This hap­pens quite often in busi­ness com­mu­ni­ca­tion and adver­tis­ing, and it isn’t that the pub­lic has become more savvy. It’s a nat­ur­al func­tion­ing of your brain, which is specif­i­cal­ly designed to look for dis­hon­esty in a person’s face or tone of voice. The solu­tion to this com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lem is to be pos­i­tive, but hon­est. You don’t have to over­sell your­self, for if you tru­ly believe in the prod­uct or ser­vice you are offer­ing – if your words feel gen­uine to you, the oth­er per­son will be able to intu­it your authen­tic­i­ty from the non­ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion cues you give out.

Here are some exam­ples of words that turn prospec­tive friends and cus­tomers off: amaz­ing, excel­lent, fab­u­lous, fan­tas­tic, incred­i­ble, mar­velous, great, phe­nom­e­nal, splen­did, and won­der­ful. Iron­i­cal­ly, extreme neg­a­tive words, espe­cial­ly if they are direct­ed toward the oppo­si­tion, appear to give the speak­er more cred­i­bil­i­ty in the eyes of the lis­ten­er by cast­ing doubt on the oppo­nent. It’s just anoth­er exam­ple of the pow­er of “No.”

Peo­ple can also become immune to their overuse of strong­ly pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive words. Their aware­ness and sen­si­tiv­i­ty decreas­es, which may explain why chron­ic com­plain­ers are often unaware of their neg­a­tiv­i­ty and the emo­tion­al dam­age they are caus­ing.

– This arti­cle has been adapt­ed by arrange­ment with Hud­son Street Press, a mem­ber of Pen­guin Group (USA) Inc., from Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Con­ver­sa­tion Strate­gies to Build Trust, Resolve Con­flict, and Increase Inti­ma­cy by Andrew New­berg and Mark R Wald­man. Copy­right 2012 by Andrew New­berg and Mark R Wald­man.

Relat­ed arti­cles:



  • May I have your atten­tion, please: elec­tro­cor­ti­cal respons­es to pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive stim­uli. Smith NK, Caciop­po JT, Larsen JT, Char­trand TL. Neu­ropsy­cholo­gia. 2003;41(2):171–83.
  • On the incre­men­tal valid­i­ty of irra­tional beliefs to pre­dict sub­jec­tive well-being while con­trol­ling for per­son­al­i­ty fac­tors. Spör­rle M, Stro­bel M, Tumas­jan A. Psi­cothe­ma. 2010 Nov;22(4):543–8.
  • The val­ue of pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy for health psy­chol­o­gy: progress and pit­falls in exam­in­ing the rela­tion of pos­i­tive phe­nom­e­na to health. Aspin­wall LG, Tedeschi RG. Ann Behav Med. 2010 Feb;39(1):4–15.
  • Pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy in clin­i­cal prac­tice. Lee Duck­worth A, Steen TA, Selig­man ME. Annu Rev Clin Psy­chol. 2005;1:629–51.
  • Pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy progress: empir­i­cal val­i­da­tion of inter­ven­tions. Selig­man ME, Steen TA, Park N, Peter­son C. Am Psy­chol. 2005 Jul-Aug;60(5):410–21.
  • What is in a word? No ver­sus Yes dif­fer­en­tial­ly engage the lat­er­al orbitofrontal cor­tex. Alia-Klein N, Gold­stein RZ, Tomasi D, Zhang L, Fagin-Jones S, Telang F, Wang GJ, Fowler JS, Volkow ND. Emo­tion. 2007 Aug;7(3):649–59.
  • Hap­pi­ness unpacked: pos­i­tive emo­tions increase life sat­is­fac­tion by build­ing resilience. Cohn MA, Fredrick­son BL, Brown SL, Mikels JA, Con­way AM. Emo­tion. 2009 Jun;9(3):361–8.
  • Detect­ing Decep­tive Dis­cus­sions…. Lar­ck­er & Lakolyuk­i­na: Stan­ford Grad­u­ate School of Busi­ness Work­ing Paper: July 29, 2010
  • Affec­tive habit­u­a­tion: sub­lim­i­nal expo­sure to extreme stim­uli decreas­es their extrem­i­ty. Dijk­ster­huis A, Smith PK. Emo­tion. 2002 Sep;2(3):203–14.

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