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What we and songbirds have in common: powerful language

I ran across an article named The Power of Words by Lisa Feldman Barrett this morning in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper.

The lead paragraph caught my attention:

Many of your brain regions that process language, it turns out, also control the insides of your body, such as your major organ systems, your hormones, and your immune system. These brain regions are contained in what scientists call the “language network” because they participate in language-related functions. They allow you to read and understand these words and to explain them to someone else who speaks your language. At the same time, these brain regions guide your heart rate up and down. They adjust the amount of glucose circulating in your bloodstream to fuel your cells. They change the flow of chemicals that support your immune system. When people talk about the power of words, it’s not a metaphor. It’s in your brain wiring. It’s also in the brain wiring of other animals; for example, brain cells that are important for birdsong also control the organs of a bird’s body. (emphasis added)


Nothing about this surprises me. But it is interesting in that it reinforces what we know intuitively. Words are not just ink on paper. Rather they are part of what makes us tick, what makes us happy or sad, what buoys our spirit or casts us into darkness.

Ms. Barrett’s article doesn’t delve into the creative process of writing, but it is implicit throughout the piece.

If words have that kind of power, if the singing of birds makes our feathered friends hit on all cylinders, if we are hard-wired to communicate and move one another with words, then certainly the creation of words is a double dose of ju-ju.

So it turns out that words affect our innards and the innards of the people with whom we communicate. We have written much about unfiltered writing, the sort of words you write for yourself, yourself as an audience of one. Yet, we know that somewhere down the line a friend or loved one may pick up our rantings and be moved by them, or made to cry, or thrilled into laughter.

And of such is the magic of writing, and the incomparable power of creating words.

And by the way, Professor Barrett has a new book coming out this week called Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain. I’ll have to pick up a copy.

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