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Words Can Change Your Brain - critical summary review

Words Can Change Your Brain Critical summary review
Self Help & Motivation

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 1491512652

Publisher: Avery

Also available in audiobook, download now:


Critical summary review

Words have immense power. They can bring us love, money, peace, and respect. On the other hand, when spoken incorrectly, they can cause misunderstanding, conflict and even wars. Therefore, when we communicate, we must choose our words wisely, and in ‘’Words Can Change Your Brain,’’ authors Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman teach us how. Using neuroscientific and psychological research, they have created communication strategies that lead to what they call “Compassionate Communication.” So, get ready to learn how to communicate with others more effectively! 

The power of words

    Say the word ‘’no’’ out loud several times and try to register the feelings it triggers. Do you feel discomfort? Even if you do not consciously notice any changes after saying this word, they do happen in your brain. Experiments with an fMRI scanner have shown that when people say the word ‘’no,’’ hear it, or see it written down, their brain releases dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters that immediately interrupt its regular functioning (especially those areas that are in charge of logical thinking, language processing, and communication). In fact, the authors say, negative words and thoughts affect your brain in the long run, damaging your memory, feelings, sleep, appetite, and health. It does not matter whether negativity comes from you or the people you converse with. Either way, you will experience anxiety, which will disable you from establishing empathy and cooperation when communicating with others. 

    Not only do negative words disturb the functioning of your brain, they can also interrupt the normal expression of genes that regulate the language centers of the brain. Additionally, hostile language damages genes that are instrumental in producing neurochemicals that protect us from physiological stress.

    The negativity disrupts the communication, making all people involved stressed. In addition to that, the more you surround yourself with negativity, the more your brain will generate negative thoughts and feelings. Therefore, shifting to positivity is beneficial for both yourself and the environment around you. 

    To shift to optimism, you first need to reframe negative thoughts and words into positive ones. For example, instead of worrying about a lack of money, think about the steps that can help you improve your financial situation. Or, if you are worried that other people will perceive you in the wrong way, focus on your good qualities and do not think about your flaws. 

Positive thoughts and words can enhance our overall well-being, and it does not take a lot of effort to make changes for the better. The authors say, ‘’Just seeing a list of positive words for a few seconds will make a highly anxious or depressed person feel better, and people who use more positive words tend to have greater control over emotional regulation.’’

Learn how to communicate with your body

    All living organisms have their own unique means of communicating. Take ants as an example: their communication techniques allow them to function harmoniously as a group. In the authors' opinion, ‘’Compared to the communication strategies of ants, human communicational abilities pale.’’ Primates and birds have developed distinct forms of vocal communication that is similar to the way humans communicate. Yet, despite the various ways in which species in nature interact, human communication strategies are unique - they consist of thousands of combinations of facial expressions, body movements, and words. ‘’Even a simple alteration of the rate and rhythm of our speech can change the context of what we say and the way it will be processed in the listener’s brain,’’ the authors say.

All three factors combined - the words that we say, the facial expressions we make, and our body language - make communication complete and effective. The link between words and body language also exists in the brain, since the same neural networks control both language and gesturing. Furthermore, when we listen to other people talking, our brains connect their gestures with their words to perceive the complete meaning of the message.

Numerous examples show that our thoughts are in sync with our gestures. For example, researchers from Stanford University conducted a study that showed that we tend to use our dominant hand to express positive ideas, while we use the other hand when talking about negative ones. Another study conducted by the researchers at the Max Planck Institute revealed that right-handed politicians tend to use right-handed gestures with positive messages, while the left-handed gestures follow the expression of those that are negative. The results were corresponding for left-handed politicians. 

    Despite these findings, you should not rely only on hand gestures when interpreting the meaning they may convey. When people try to talk about something new or difficult to them, there can be a mismatch between their words and their gestures.  

    If you want to be better at communicating, you should practice making different facial gestures in front of a mirror. Imitate the expressions of anger, sadness, fear, and happiness. When talking to another person, try to coordinate your hand gestures, gaze, and body posture with them. It will increase the feelings of mutual understanding.

Achieving Compassionate Communication: steps 1 to 6

     Even though we are born with the ability to communicate, we are often not skilled enough to do it effectively. To weather the communication problems, the authors came up with 12 strategies that lead to Compassionate Communication - a system that builds trust, empathy, cooperation, and intimacy. The first six are the steps you take before engaging in a conversation. The authors advise readers to carry them out in the following order: 

  1. Relax. It is important to enter a conversation free of anxiety as it negatively affects the brain. Therefore, before starting a talk, do relaxation exercises: breath deeply for 30 seconds. Then, if you have a chance, stretch your body, especially your face muscles. 
  2. Stay present. We often do not pay enough attention to what people say because our minds are distracted by something else. To stay focused in a conversation, choose one thing you will focus on, and try to remove all other thoughts that exist in your mind. 
  3. Cultivate inner silence. ‘’Most of us are only able to stay relaxed and in the present moment for brief periods of time. Soon it gets interrupted by our inner speech,’’ the authors note. To control your inner speech and stay focused for longer periods of time, the authors suggest to train yourself to ‘’consciously think about not thinking.’’ The research has found that this exercise can even protect against the cognitive decline associated with aging.  
  4. Increase positivity. Use the power of ‘’non-negative thinking’’ to eliminate the discomfort you might feel before the conversation. Rehearse a dialogue in your mind that is filled with positivity and kindness. 
  5. Reflect on your deepest values. Find a word that is the most powerful for you, the one that represents the most important principle in your life. This word will help you stay focused during the conversation, especially during verbal conflicts. 
  6. Access a pleasant memory. Think about the memories that fill you with happiness and the people you love. Positive feelings will eliminate stress, making you smile and feel relaxed. 

Achieving Compassionate Communication: steps 7 to 12

    The authors emphasize that preparation time (steps 1 through 6) takes only four minutes: a minute to stretch and relax, 30 seconds to bring yourself into the present moment, around 30 seconds to cultivate an inner silence, then another minute to shift to optimism. Finally, you need around a minute to remind yourself of pleasant memories and your values. After completing the preparation steps, you are ready to converse compassionately. These are the steps to follow during the conversation:

7. Observe nonverbal cues. While talking, keep eye contact with the other person. The authors say that eye contact ‘’decreases the stress chemical cortisol, and it increases oxytocin, a neurochemical that enhances empathy, social cooperation, and positive communication.’’ However, be careful not to exaggerate this: a constant gaze might make the other person feel awkward. Observe body language. If the other person seems uncomfortable , you will be able to notice. Check with them whether your impression is correct and try to make them feel less anxious.

8. Express appreciation. Start and end a conversation by complimenting another person: it will establish a relaxed atmosphere. Make sure your words are honest. 

9. Speak warmly. ‘’Using a warm voice would double the healing power of a therapeutic treatment,’’ confirms Ted Kaptchuk, medical researcher of the Harvard Medical School. Train your voice to speak warmly, with confidence, empathy, and hope. 

10. Speak slowly. A slow voice has a calming effect on people. It also increases the listener’s ability to understand what you are saying. Furthermore, the authors note, slower speaking deepens the listener’s respect for you.

11. Speak briefly. The main rule of Compassionate Conversation is,  ‘’Whenever possible limit your speaking to thirty seconds or less.’’ When communicating, break the information into smaller segments. It will allow you to pause and take a deep breath to stay relaxed. Also, it will encourage the other person to pay close attention to what you are saying.

12. Listen deeply. Pay close attention to the words, facial gestures, and body language of the person speaking. ‘’It’s a great gift to give to someone, since to be fully listened to and understood by others is the most commonly cited deep relationship or communication value,’’ the authors write.

Teaching children Compassionate Communication

Learning to communicate compassionately should start in early childhood. Children's brains are active the most between the age of five and 10, so this is the best period of development for parents to teach their children the steps to Compassionate Communication. 

    Parents should focus on teaching children to pay attention to their choice of words, as using the words with positive meanings will increase their attention span and give them more control over their emotions. Concentrating on positive words and actions increases their sense of happiness and well-being, as well. For example, experiments in positive psychology show that high school students can improve their mood simply by writing about the things they did well at the end of each day.

    The author Andrew Newberg shares with readers how practicing Compassionate Communication helped his daughter deal with diabetes. Amanda, Newberg’s 11-year-old daughter, would become grumpy and a bit aggressive whenever she was hungry, as her blood sugar would have dropped significantly. If she did not stick to her eating schedule, she would experience these mood swings almost every time before a meal. Following the 12 steps to Compassionate Communication allowed the whole family to discuss this issue together. Amanda found these techniques interesting and tried hard to follow them. She spoke slowly and briefly (and took care that the rest of the family members were doing the same) and expressed appreciation. For the first time, she was able to talk about her problem calmly. At the end of the talk, Amanda agreed to be more careful about her eating schedule. Newberg writes: ‘’It’s been a year since we had this ‘formal’ dialogue, and Amanda continues to be much better about eating regularly, using her moods as a sign of when she needs food.’’

    The Newberg story shows how effective good communication can be. And the earlier parents teach children Compassionate Communication, the better chance they have to develop a healthy relationship with them. 

Final Notes

    ‘’The practice of Compassionate Communication is an important step toward creating greater empathy and dialogue among all types of people in all sorts of circumstances,’’ conclude the authors at the end of the book. The steps to Compassionate Communication in this book make achieving empathy and productive dialogue easier. As the author Michael Bernard Beckwith wrote, this book is a ‘’must-read for those who want to better understand and communicate who they are in all forms and aspects of relationship.’’

12min Tip

    Try to speak more slowly, briefly, and listen attentively to the person you are talking with. Notice the changes these techniques bring to your communication and relationships with others.

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Who wrote the book?

Mark Robert Waldman is a lecturer, business and personal development coach, and author. His work has been featured on PBS, National Public Radio, Canadian National Television, Oprah and Friends, and in dozen... (Read more)

Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist, researcher, and author. His specialty is studying the relationship between brain function and various mental states. He has published his research in Time, Newsweek, a... (Read more)