WHY TOASTMASTERS HAS THE POWER TO CHANGE OUR WORLD
By ANDREW GERAGHTY
Dr Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University, and Mark Robert Waldman, a communications expert, recently wrote a book called “Words Can Change Your Brain.”
A key proposition they made was that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress”.
In short, that words have a power to change not just our minds and mental state, but to alter our gene structure and actually change who we are. The changes have a lot to do with how we react to, and process, words that can alter our mood or mental state (consider these terms as interchangeable in this article).
The basic premise is simple. Positive, uplifting words activate our frontal lobe in particular, while negative terms which create fear or concern push us into our hindbrain (which processes our survival, “fight or flight” responses.)
And one implication is that words have the power to actually begin chemical and molecular processes which mean that the audience who leaves our talk has potentially been changed by that very experience.
So, words filled with positivity, like “love” and “peace”, we can alter how our brain functions by increasing cognitive reasoning and strengthening areas in that frontal lobe. Using positive words more often than negative ones can kick-start the motivational brain centres.
But when we use negative words, we prevent certain neuro-chemicals from being produced which help manage stress. All of us are initially hardwired to worry; it’s how that hindbrain works to protects us from dangerous situations and survive.
When we allow negative words and concepts into our thoughts, we are increasing the activity in our brain’s fear centre (the amygdala), and causing stress-producing hormones to flood our system. These hormones and neurotransmitters interrupt the logic and reasoning processes in the brain and inhibit normal functionality. Newberg and Waldman write, “angry words send alarm messages through the brain, and they partially shut down the logic-and-reasoning centres located in the frontal lobes”.
An excerpt from their book tells us how using the right words can literally change our reality -
"By holding a positive and optimistic [word] in your mind, you stimulate frontal lobe activity. This area includes specific language centres that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action. And as our research has shown, the longer you concentrate on positive words, the more you begin to affect other areas of the brain.
Functions in the parietal lobe start to change, which changes your perception of yourself and the people you interact with. A positive view of yourself will bias you toward seeing the good in others, whereas a negative self-image will include you toward suspicion and doubt.
Over time the structure of your thalamus will also change in response to your conscious words, thoughts and feelings, and we believe that the thalamic changes affect the way in which you perceive reality."
Other studies have shown similar outcomes. A study done by Positive Psychology also showed the effects of using positive words. A group of adults aged 35-54 were given a nightly task of writing down three things that went well for them that day, including an explanation of why. The following three months showed their degrees of happiness continued to rise, and their feelings of depression continued to decline. By focusing and reflecting on positive ideas and emotions, say Newberg and Waldman, “we can improve our overall well-being and increase functionality of our brain”.
The exciting message for Toastmasters is simple but startling. The solution to a better life really is – change your words, change your life.
Toastmasters has been encouraging people to deliver information and encouragement – positive thoughts – for more than 90 years. How? Consider this sentence:
“Neuroplastic mechanisms relevant to the growing number of empirical studies of the capacity of directed attention and mental effort systematically alter brain function.”
Asleep? Maybe. Bored? Terrificly. Isn’t the speaker simply failing to express, concisely and passionately, what we’ve just read above? That is:
“By focusing and reflecting on positive ideas and emotions, say Newberg and Waldman, “we can improve our overall well-being and increase functionality of our brain”.
A review of their book summarised the eight key techniques to effectively deliver positive messages and these are listed below. To Toastmasters, they will seem as obvious as they are hauntingly familiar.
1. Gentle eye contact
2. Kind facial expression
3. Warm tone of voice
4. Expressive hand and body gestures
5. Relaxed disposition
6. Slow speech rate
8. The words themselves
Trust and authenticity, often based on whether we convey a sense that we are subject matter experts, also plays its part.
Effective communication is based on trust, and if we don’t trust the speaker, we’re not going to listen to their words. Trust begins with eye contact because we need to see the person’s face to evaluate if they are being deceitful or not. In fact, when we are being watched, co-operation increases. When we are not being watched, people tend to act more selfishly, with greater dishonesty.
Gentle eye contact increases trustworthiness and encourages future co-operation, and a happy gaze will increase emotional trust. However, if we see the slightest bit of anger or fear on the speaker’s face, our trust will rapidly decrease. But you can’t fake trustworthiness – because the muscles around your mouth and eyes that reflect contentment and sincerity are involuntary.
Solution: if you think about someone you love, or an event that brought you deep joy and satisfaction, a "Mona Lisa" smile will appear on your face and the muscles around your eyes will soften.
The tone of your voice is equally important when it comes to understanding what a person is really trying to say. If the facial expression expresses one emotion, but if the tone conveys a different one, neural dissonance takes place in the brain, causing the person confusion. The result: trust erodes, suspicion increases, and co-operation decreases.
Researchers at the University of Amsterdam found that expressions of anger, contempt, disgust, fear, sadness, and surprise were better communicated through vocal tone than facial expression, whereas the face was more accurate for communicating expressions of joy, pride, and embarrassment. In business, a warm supportive voice is the sign of transformational leadership, generating more satisfaction, commitment, and cooperation between other members of the team.
You can easily train your voice to convey more trust to others, and all you have to do is slow down and drop your pitch. This was tested at the University of Houston: when doctors reduced their speaking rate and pitch, especially when delivering bad news, the listener perceived them “as more caring and sympathetic.” Harvard's Ted Kaptchuk also discovered that using a warm voice would double the healing power of a therapeutic treatment.
If you want to express joy, your voice needs to become increasingly melodic, whereas sadness is spoken with a flat and monotonic voice. When we are angry, excited, or frightened, we raise the pitch and intensity of our voice, and there’s a lot of variability in both the speed and the tone. However, if the emotion is incongruent with the words you are using, it will create confusion for the listener.
Gestures, and especially hand movements, are also important because they help orchestrate the language comprehension centres of your brain. In fact, your brain needs to integrate both the sounds and body movements of the person who is speaking in order to accurately perceive what is meant. From an evolutionary perspective, speech emerged from hand gestures and they both originate from the same language area of the brain. If our words and gestures are incongruent, it will create confusion in the listener’s brain. So practice speaking in front of a mirror, consciously using your hands to “describe” the words you are speaking.
Your degree of relaxation is also reflected in your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, and any form of stress will convey a message of distrust. Why? Your stress tells the observer’s brain that there may be something wrong, and that stimulates defensive posturing in the listener. Research shows that even a one-minute relaxation exercise will increase activity in those parts of the brain that control language, communication, social awareness, mood-regulation, and decision-making. Thus, a relaxed conversation allows for increased intimacy and empathy. Stress, however, causes us to talk too much because it hinders our ability to speak with clarity.
When you speak, slow down! Slow speech rates will increase the ability for the listener to comprehend what you are saying, and this is true for both young and older adults. Slower speaking will also deepen that person’s respect for you. Speaking slowly is not as natural as it may seem, and as children we automatically speak fast. But you can teach yourself, and your children to slow down by consciously cutting your speech rate in half. A slow voice has a calming effect on a person who is feeling anxious, whereas a loud fast voice will stimulate excitement, anger, or fear.
There is an old saying that “your life is in your own hands” insofar as you choose your own direction. But your future is also influenced by the words you choose, the meanings they convey and the way they resonate with others and “ripple outwards”.
The solution to a better life might really be simple but powerful – change your words, change your life.