I attended an interesting seminar yesterday evening. It was given by José Lázaro MD and Jorge Úbeda PhD.

The speakers started by saying “words are physical”. Neither I nor the rest of the audience fully understood what they meant.

They then asked if we knew roughly how many processes our brains perform every second. No-one knew. The answer is around 10 million. They then asked, of these 10 million processes, roughly how many can we control via our conscious self. The answer, we were told, is a measly 50 or so.

These controllable processes are what we see as us, and they have a direct effect on the remaining millions of processes that we cannot control.

So why are words physical?

A lot of research has been done regarding brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, senile dementia, etc. I published an article a few months back about how learning a second language can slow down the onset of brain deterioration, but until last night, I had no idea that there is a direct correlation between words and our physical self.

The speakers showed us slides where they had run electroencephalograms on people to measure the brain activity that words cause. I didn’t understand half of it but the bottom line was that positive words were beneficial or neutral to the brain’s functioning causing “happy” or neutral thoughts which manifested themselves physically as reducing heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, etc. The results showed a quantifiable, direct link between a positive and negative word and a direct and measurable physical reaction. We aren’t even talking lie-detector questions, these are words like “enthusiastic”“pessimistic”“investigation”, etc. Even physical reactions to “yes” and “no” were different.

Our “self” reacts to the word via the processes we control, which in turn have an effect on the rest of the processes that we do not control. A classic example would be stress induced nausea. Imagine you are called into your boss’s office and told that after 20 years service,“You are fired.” If you are getting close to the age when everyone thinks you are past it, you have a family, mortgage and other financial obligations, your body is going to react. Three words will probably make you feel a bit dizzy, nauseous and physically uncomfortable. Just three words! The exact opposite would be if you were told “You are promoted”. You’d feel light, happy and your face would probably reposition its muscles into a smile before you were aware that it had happened. The difference is one word: “Fired” versus “Promoted”.

Brain studies based on words

We were told that words express thought and that thought and words are inseparably linked. You can’t have one without the other. We speak words, we write words and we think words when we aren’t saying or writing anything. Sometimes we even dream words.

The speakers then showed us extracts of research based on a study of 678 nuns performed by David Snowden. The experiment, called the Nun Study, is considered by experts on ageing to be one of the most innovative efforts to answer questions about who gets Alzheimer’s disease and why. When each nun entered the order she was asked to write up her life story to-date. When, in much later years, a nun passed away, the researchers correlated positive words in the autobiography to the life-span of the nun. They found that there was a relationship between the number of positive words in the autobiographies versus life-span.

More positive words (thoughts and physical reactions) = longer life!!

The conclusion drawn after extensive investigation is:

The Nun Study’s latest published findings offer similarly provocative ideas about how positive emotional state in early life may contribute to living longer. Experts say linking positive emotions in the autobiographies to longer life echoes other studies showing that depression increases risk of cardiovascular disease and that people rated as optimists on personality tests were more likely than pessimists to be alive 30 years later.

They stated that this and other research provides a clear link between our “self” our body and the power that one word can have over it.

They concluded by telling us that we have to manage our words, how we use them, how we receive them and most importantly train our brains to deal with them. Doing this will help stop or reduce the damage that a word can cause to our physical state.

That old saying about turning negatives into positives looks like it is correct. Based on what they said, if we can control words and the physical reactions they cause, we will be happier people and live longer. Not an easy thing to do, but it is worth the effort.

Thanks for reading,

Jim Ross, Director, EBC International TEFL Certificate

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