• mbgarvey

Be Mindful of How You Use the Limes, and Other Deep Thoughts on Language

My husband went into the fridge this week to get a lime, and my comment to him was "be mindful of how you use the limes." There were, after all, no less than 4 limes in the fridge that already had a wedge taken out of them. I know, who talks like that? Be mindful. Of how you use. The limes.

My teenagers made the prolonged eye contact with each other that can only mean some version of: mom is going bananas. I was just trying not to nag. Okay, I was nagging, but I was trying to do it in a nicer way than usual. Because are you paying attention to the language that is the tenor of most conversations these days? It is so charged. And the language we use, the words we choose, really matter.

The news we consume is pretty persistently negative right now. The talking points around health, safety and reopening our economy is polarized and adversarial. Even the way folks are communicating in daily conversations is more absolute, more unilateral, with less room for nuance or tolerance. Seems everyone has big opinions and strong stances on things. There is a good deal of doom and gloom. And I get all of this. There is a lot going down that we are totally unfamiliar with. But I badly want and need to be connected right now, so I'm very attuned to what makes me want to connect and what makes me want to disengage. I want to try to think and talk about things in a way that invites conversation and connection. So let's talk about…. talk.

According to Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman, authors of Words Can Change Your Brain, words can literally do just that. Newberg and Waldman assert that positive words can alter the expression of genes, strengthen areas in our frontal lobe and promote the brain’s cognitive functioning. Positive words move the motivational centers of the brain and build resiliency.

On the other side, hostile language can disrupt the production of neurochemicals that protect us from stress. Because we are hardwired to worry, as a way to protect ourselves from risk, we can be easily hijacked by negative language. Negative words can increase the activity in our amygdala (which is the fear center of the brain), and releases stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters, which disrupts our brains’ functioning. “Angry or hostile words send alarm messages to our brain, which partially shut down our logic-and-reasoning centers located in the frontal lobes,” write Newberg and Waldman.

Their research shows that by orienting ourselves to positive and optimistic language, we:

• stimulate the part of our brain that includes specific language centers and moves us to action

• develop a more positive perception of ourselves, which in turn enhances our ability to see the good in others (while a negative self-image will incline us toward suspicion and doubt), and

• change the structure of our thalamus, which positively affects the way in which we experience our reality.

This isn’t just feel good thinking. This is based on scientific research that includes brain scans reflecting how our brain is activated by the words we use.

Another reflection on how we use language is this: we also need to be attentive to the words we use in the stories we tell. For example, do we tell a story of isolation and being cut off, or of keeping safe? What about a story that this pandemic will never end, versus a story about the progress we are making toward recovery? In both of these stories, one is both more accurate and more optimistic, than the other.

I had a conversation yesterday with a friend, who started with how bummed he was that he can’t see all his people, but followed with how excited he was about the Moderna news. He was referencing the recent trial vaccine that was showing some early promise. “I’m so bullish that science and human ingenuity is going to solve this. Enough of the new normal talk.” That kind of optimism and enthusiasm always delivers. I move in and out of positivity myself, but that brief conversation really buoyed me.

So back on the home front, my kids are running with my "be mindful" comment and it has turned into a way to nudge each other to pay attention. Be mindful of leaving the mac and cheese out on the counter. Be mindful of mom not having to ask you again to walk the dog for the fourth time. Be mindful that you are on your third hour of television or screen time and maybe you should get a little exercise in. I don't mind them poking fun at me though, if it helps us to be playfully attentive to the little things that can irritate us. Because the little stuff can become big stuff these days.

So it's not really about the limes, and you likely don't have to talk about how to mange the contents of your refrigerator, and other minor nuisances, in a mindful way. But it probably wouldn't hurt. Let's do our best at having conversations we feel good about.

I lost this post after I had finished it on our drive out east when my connection dropped. It took incredible self control not to use the language I wanted to use. A test, apparently. Please excuse any typos. It's always harder to write the second lime around.