People’s words and actions can actually shape your brain

6 min read

Education & Career Trends: October 25, 2022

Curated by the Knowledge Team of  ICS Career GPS

Your family, friends, neighbours and even strangers contribute to your brain’s structure and function.

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We humans are a social species. We live in groups. We take care of one another. We build civilizations. Our ability to cooperate has been a major adaptive advantage. It has allowed us to colonise virtually every habitat on Earth and thrive in more climates than any other animal, except maybe bacteria. Part of being a social species, it turns out, is that we regulate one another’s body budgets — the ways in which our brains manage the bodily resources we use every day. 

For your whole life, outside of your awareness, you make deposits into other people’s body budgets, as well as withdrawals, and others do the same for you. This has pros and cons, as well as profound implications for how we live our lives.

Your family, friends and even strangers contribute to the structure and function of your brain and help it keep your body humming along.

How do the people around you influence your body budget and rewire your adult brain?

Your brain changes its wiring after new experiences, a process called plasticity.

Some brains are more attentive to the people around them and others less so, but everybody has somebody. Ultimately, your family, friends, neighbours and even strangers contribute to your brain’s structure and function.

If you raise your voice or just your eyebrow, you can affect what goes on inside other people’s bodies.

We also adjust each other’s body budgets by our actions.

Being a social species has all sorts of advantages for us humans, including the fact that we live longer if we have close, supportive relationships with others. In general, being a social species is good for us, but there are also disadvantages. 

  • We also get sick and die earlier when we persistently feel lonely — possibly years earlier, based on data.
  • Without others helping regulate our body budgets, we bear an extra burden inside.
  • A surprising disadvantage of shared body budgeting is its impact on empathy.
  • When you have empathy for other people, your brain predicts what they will think and feel and do.
  • The more familiar the other people are to you, the more efficiently your brain predicts their inner struggles.

But there’s a catch — when people are less familiar to you, it can be harder to empathise. 

You might have to learn more about the person, an extra effort that translates into more withdrawals from your body budget. It’s metabolically costly for our brains to deal with things that are hard to predict.

People create so-called echo chambers, surrounding themselves with news and views that reinforce what they already believe — it reduces the metabolic cost and unpleasantness of learning something new.

Unfortunately, it also reduces the odds of learning something that could change a person’s mind.

We also regulate each other with words — a kind word may calm you, like when a friend gives you a compliment at the end of a hard day. 

Why do the words you encounter have such wide-ranging effects inside you? 

  • Many brain regions that process language also control the insides of your body, including major organs and systems that manage your body budget.
  • These brain regions are contained in what scientists call the “language network” and guide your heart rate up and down.
  • They adjust the glucose entering your bloodstream to fuel your cells.
  • They change the flow of chemicals that support your immune system.

Words, then, are tools for regulating human bodies. 

Other people’s words have a direct effect on your brain activity and your bodily systems, and your words have that same effect on other people.

Does this mean that words can be harmful to your health? In small doses, not really. When someone says things you don’t like, insults you or even threatens your physical safety, you might feel awful.

Your body budget is taxed at that moment, but there’s no physical damage to your brain or body. Your heart might race, your blood pressure might change, and you might ooze sweat, but then your body recovers and your brain might be a bit stronger afterwards.

Evolution gifted you with a nervous system that can cope with temporary metabolic changes and even benefit from them. Occasional stress can be like exercise — brief withdrawals from your body budget followed by deposits create a stronger, better you.

It’s important to understand that the human brain doesn’t seem to distinguish between sources of chronic stress.

  • If your body budget is already depleted by the circumstances of life — like physical illness, financial hardship, hormone surges, not sleeping or exercising enough — your brain becomes more vulnerable to the stress of all kinds.
  • When your body budget is continually burdened, momentary stressors pile up, even the kind you’d normally bounce back from.
  • Simply put, a long period of chronic stress can harm a human brain. 
  • When you’re on the receiving end of sustained verbal aggression, studies show you’re more likely to get sick.
  • We are free to speak and act, but we are not free from the consequences of what we say and do.

It’s the fundamental dilemma of the human condition: The best thing for your nervous system is another human and the worst thing for your nervous system is another human. 

Scientists are often asked to make our research useful to everyday life, and these findings about words, chronic stress and disease are a perfect example. There is a real biological benefit when people treat one another with basic human dignity.
A realistic approach to our dilemma is to realise that freedom always comes with responsibility. We are free to speak and act, but we are not free from the consequences of what we say and do. We might not care about those consequences or we might not agree that those consequences are justified, but they nonetheless have costs that we all pay.

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(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article mentioned above are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICS Career GPS or its staff.)

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