Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Neurobiology of Yes and No

I teach a fair amount of social neuroscience to parents and parents-to-be. Since I have a very low threshold for repetition and routine, I tend to change things up a lot from class to class. What I like most is to come up with exercises that the whole class can do that best illustrate whatever point I might be trying to make.

One exercise that I’m particularly fond of is a very simple one. I use it primarily to demonstrate the power of language to affect neurobiology. I ask parents to pair up, and then take turns first saying “No!” to each other. After two minutes or so of that, I then ask the same person in the dyad to say,“Yes!” Before the exercise I ask both people to pay close attention to what happens in their bodies. If you’ve been paying attention to your own body while you’ve been reading my description of this exercise, I imagine you already know what people report during the debriefing. In response to “No” they experience lots of muscle tightness, shallow or reduced breathing, very little conscious capacity for expanded thinking, fear, etc. especially when directly contrasted with the “Yes” experience.

It turns out this neurobiological response is significant, especially when it involves yelling, and especially when yelling is insulting, critical or humiliating. Depending upon context and the emotional (dis)organization of the parent, this constitutes emotional abuse. Several years ago the New York Times described a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry that reported emotional abuse as a more powerful predictor of mental illness than either physical or sexual abuse!

The damage caused by yelling is serious. It is suspected to compromise such things as clarity of thinking, susceptibility to further stress, social intelligence and immune function. (In junior high school, I had a classmate named Al Mentone. His mother and father would yell at him to the point of apoplexy. He developed a severe case of acne vulgaris, and I while I only have neurologist, Bob Scaer's The Trauma Spectrum as a general reference, I personally suspect the yelling played a significant role). Unless effectively treated, this damage appears to progress over the lifespan - the key word here being effectively. Trauma that results from emotional abuse needs something in addition to Talk Therapy.

With further respect for the power of words to affect neurobiology, we might also consider something as wild and apparently out beyond the fringe as the findings of Japanese researcher, Masaru Emoto. The words we say to water appear to dramatically affect its crystalline structure. While there has been only one peer-reviewed confirmation study of Emoto’s work as far as I know, what makes his work interesting to me is that they make me want to be more conscious and respectful of the words I use and how I use them. As a speaker, such words, after all, may powerfully impact the water that makes up the 70% of my own body.
But we don’t need scientific studies to tell us that yelling or being yelled at is bad for children and other living beings. All many of us need do is recall what it was like being a kid and how the experience of being yelled at affected us in body,mind and spirit. And also, how the opposite – being affirmed and validated – affected us. I can still clearly remember Vic Weber and Dave Woods, two Yale Divinity School students who worked as counselors at a camp I attended for several weeks one summer. On an overnight camp-out, they asked a Young Woodsman Question: “How wide a cut should you start with when cutting a tree that has to come down?” In the glow of a crackling fire, we all pondered the question deeply. “Well, how big is the tree?” I blurted out. “Exactly,” both counselors responded in unison. I still beam with expansive neuro-pride at my out-beyond-yes-and-no answer more than fifty years later! A very different, memorable experience than being shamed, dismissed or yelled at for not answering correctly. 

What affirmative words have had staying power for you through the years?

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