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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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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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