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HS 140 – Words Can Change Your Brain with Dr. Andrew Newberg

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Dr. Andrew Newberg

Effective communication is a crucial aspect to success in relationships with others and often one of the most difficult things to learn. Dr. Andrew Newberg, co-author of Words Can Change Your Brain, joins Jason Hartman to talk about the effects of positive and negative words on our own and others’ well-being. Talking to people in a positive, relaxed, compassionate and loving way creates a more intimate and positive experience while talking to others in a hostile or negative way triggers stress, defensiveness and poor outcomes. Dr. Andrew highlights some of the ways that the brain works with regard to interaction with others, such as working memory, emotions, relaxed vs. reactive behavior, etc., and provides suggestions for framing a positive experience. For details, listen at:  www.HolisticSurvival.com.

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Andrew B. Newberg, M.D. is currently the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia. He is also a Professor in the Departments of Emergency Medicine and Radiology at Thomas Jefferson University. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Nuclear Medicine. He has actively pursued a number of neuroimaging research projects, which have included the study of aging and dementia, epilepsy, and other neurological and psychiatric disorders. Dr.Newberg has been particularly involved in the study of mystical and religious experiences, as well as the more general mind/body relationship in both the clinical and research aspects of his career.

He has published numerous articles and chapters on brain function, brain imaging, and the study of religious and mystical experiences, and has authored several books.  He is the co-author of the new book entitled, “Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflicts, and Increase Intimacy” (Hudson Street Press). He has appeared on Good Morning America, Nightline, CNN, ABC World News Tonight, as well as in a number of media articles, including Newsweek, Time, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Readers Digest. More about Dr. Andrew Newberg can be found on his website at www.andrewnewberg.com(Top image: Flickr | skpy)

Check out this episode


Narrator: Welcome to the Holistic Survival Show with Jason Hartman. The economic storm brewing around the world is set to spill into all aspects of our lives. Are you prepared? Where are you going to turn for the critical life skills necessary for you to survive and prosper? The Holistic Survival Show is your family’s insurance for a better life. Jason will teach you to think independently, to understand threats and how to create the ultimate action plan. Sudden change or worst case scenario, you’ll be ready. Welcome to Holistic Survival, your key resource for protecting the people, places and profits you care about in uncertain times. Ladies and gentlemen, your host Jason Hartman.

Jason Hartman: Welcome to today’s show. This is Jason Hartman, your host. And as you may or may not know, every tenth show we kind of do a special tradition here that originated with my Creating Wealth show where we do a topic that is kind of off topic on purpose. Something just to do with general life and more successful living. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do today with our special guest. Again, tenth show is off topic and it is very much intentional just for personal enrichment and I hope you enjoy today’s show. And we will be back with our guest in just a moment.

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Start of Interview with Dr. Andrew Newberg

Jason Hartman: It’s my pleasure to welcome Dr. Andrew Newberg to the show. He is an MD and currently director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and hospital in Philadelphia. He’s also the author, or co-author I should say, of Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 conversation strategies to build trust, resolve conflicts and increase intimacy. So, great topic. Andrew welcome. How are you?

Andrew Newberg: Thanks. I’m doing well, and thanks for having me on your program.

Jason Hartman: Well the pleasure is all mine. Tell us a little bit about the book and how you came to write it.

Andrew Newberg: Well the book really grew out of some existing research that I had been pursuing over the last decade or so, which was really looking at spirituality and the human brain, but even more broadly about how our brain reacts to various things in our environment. And as we kind of explored these different things that affect us as human beings, our language, our words, the ways in which we communicate with each other was something that just kept coming up, kept coming to the floor and we realized that we needed to focus on this if we wanted to truly understand how we as human beings truly work. And of course, this also is very crucial for how we communicate, how we talk to each other, how we begin to express our ideas to other people, and how we create a feeling of a sense of intimacy, compassion, love with other people.

So all of this kind of came together in thinking about how words can change your brain, how the language that we speak, that we receive that we write, that we hear, how does that relate to ourselves, to our brain, to our body, and how can we use this information in a way that can help us to improve our communication with other people, even our communication with ourselves so that we can be more compassionate and more loving people.

Jason Hartman: So in the book, how much of this is based on self-talk? Some people say the most important conversation we ever have are the ones with ourselves, right? And how much of it is based on external communication with others?

Andrew Newberg: Well, it is at least a two part, maybe multi-part process where it has to do a lot with how we communicate with ourselves, as you’ve mentioned. We have to think about the things that we say to ourselves. One of the things that we realized right off the bat was this notion that our brain responds very differently to positive ideas, positive words in comparison to negative words.
So if we are constantly speaking down to ourselves, then we activate the areas of our brain that set up our stress response, make us more anxious, make us more depressed. So if we continue to speak to ourselves in a very negative kind of way then that language, that negative language can greatly contribute to a lot of very problematic psychological processes within us. On the other hand, if we speak positively to ourselves, if we encourage ourselves, if we think the positive thoughts and so forth then that is something that activates the positive emotional areas of the brain and that contributes to our sense of wellbeing, and it lowers our levels of stress and anxiety.

So that is one of the very essential parts of how words change our brain, which are the words that we use to talk to ourselves about. But then we can also extrapolate this to how we communicate with other people. If we’re communicating with other people using very hostile language and very attacking kind of language as many of us do, maybe in the work place or with our spouse or significant other, then that creates a negative response in them, a negative response I their brain, turns on their stress responses; it ultimately leads to a fairly negative kind of conversation.

On the other hand, if we talk to people in a very positive way and we try to relax with them, enter into a feeling of compassionate love with them, make sure that we are understanding them and they are understanding us, then it turns into a very positive conversation where we really can learn from these experiences, we can find what’s really going on in the mind of the other person and that creates a much greater sense of intimacy and depth in the relationship. So there really is a very important both personal component, internal component as well as external component when we start to think about the effect of language and words on our brain.

Jason Hartman: I can’t help but have my mind go to the subject of NLP, neurolinguistic programing because they talk in that world a lot about language and how it affects us. Is that what this is?

Andrew Newberg: Well, to some degree it’s part of it. Part of all the information that we took to come to this discussion about how words change our brain relates to a variety of different approaches and this includes some of the spiritual approaches, meditative approaches, psychological approaches, and even neuroscientific approaches. All of these different perspectives come together in telling us how words truly affect us, which also then allows us to think about how can we convert that information into something we can use positively? So whether it’s neurolinguistics, whether it’s psychology, whether it is meditation practices, all of these are different things that we can potentially use to create a more positive language environment, if you will, for us and for the people who we’re communicating with.

Jason Hartman: Okay, good. So give us some examples of what we should be saying during these communications. Or maybe first, what should be our general outlook at context from where we come to communicate maybe before we talk about actual language.

Andrew Newberg: Well when we actually think about how our brain works, we come to realize that there are 12 specific things that we should think about when we engage in communication with somebody else. And I’m not going to go into all 12 of them, but let me hit the key highlights. One of the things that we have some to learn about how the brain works has to do with something called working memory. Like if you’re using a computer, this is the stuff that you’re doing right at the moment. And it turns out that our brain is only really capable of hanging onto about 4 or 5 chunks of information at any one time. If you extrapolate that into conversation with somebody, that means that if somebody is going on and on and talking to you for 15 or 20 minutes about something, your brain simply cannot hold on to all of that information.

Jason Hartman: Nowadays it’s got to be much worse than ever, right? Because we’ve got the MTV generation. Our attention spans are so short.

Andrew Newberg: Absolutely. But what’s interesting is that happens to be one of the positive things about our ability to communicate with text messaging and with Twitter and so forth, is the notion of being brief. Because if you do go on and on and on, then people tune out and they really can’t follow what’s going on or what you’re feeling about. If you can talk to somebody and speak for only 20-30 seconds at a time before you now wait for them to respond, you can get across your ideas, your thoughts, and they will really understand and get it. Whereas, if you just go on and on which is what we often do when we’re arguing with somebody then you do tend to lose it. So one of the key elements of our knowledge of how we should speak in an overall practice that we refer to as compassionate communication, is speaking briefly. Spending just 30 seconds at a time talking to the other person.

Another very important element has to do with the emotions that we were talking about just a few moments ago. One of the keys is to try to keep yourself in a very positive emotional place when you’re having a conversation with somebody. That means that as you speak to somebody, you’re going to try to not be attacking, not be negative, and try to not be overly reactive to whatever they’re saying to you. But to really listen and to try to respond in a constructive and in a positive way.

What we try to do throughout our book is to talk about the different ways in which you can do that, in fact some of them even incorporate a kind of meditation practice that you can use that is very brief and simple, but keeps you in that positive relaxed state that enables you to have a very positive form of communication with whoever it is that you’re talking with. So those are at least two of the kind of highlight points that anytime anyone goes to have a conversation with somebody, again whether it’s at work or with somebody that you care about, a family member, a child, we speak briefly, we listen clearly and we try to keep ourselves in a relaxed and positive place as we begin to engage in that conversation.

Jason Hartman: Maybe I’ll just share one that has helped me a lot. This may just be a general efficiency thing and now exactly relating to what you’ve covered in the book, but when you talk about being brief, what I find is really helpful is, and my employees get annoyed with me from time to time with this but I think it works good, I say just ask me a question first, what is the question here? You’re coming to me with this thing, I don’t need all this background, just ask the question. And then fill in the background for me after that.

And then my mind instantly goes to okay, how can I help? How can I solve this problem? And then I know why I need this background information. Whereas a lot of times people will give you this big long story and I don’t know why I need to know all this stuff.

Andrew Newberg: Exactly. Intuitively you’ve figured out that very essential element that if you can just get somebody to just kind of focus on the key point, the thing that they really need to talk about and need to express, then you can be much more effective in your response to that. And if they go on for 15 minutes about who said this, and I did that, and then I don’t know what happened…

Jason Hartman: My mind just loses it. I can’t keep track of all that.

Andrew Newberg: Great. And I’ve had that same experience. Sometimes you just go, what are you really asking me for? I have to kind of come back for what exactly are you trying to tell me? And sometimes it’s best if you can get somebody to sum it up in that very, very short period of time.

Jason Hartman: Yeah, a question makes people focus. It forces them to focus on, what do I really need here?

Andrew Newberg: That’s right. But part of it too then is the question phrased in a way that is constructive or destructive. If it’s well, I don’t like the way this person is doing this thing, and how can you help me get rid of them or something…

Jason Hartman: Yeah, maybe the question shouldn’t be why are you such a jerk? That’s probably not a good place to start.

Andrew Newberg: Right. But how can we resolve this? This is what’s bothering me, and how do we begin to think through a solution to that problem so that you and the other person can really engage in a compassionate kind of dialogue where you understand them, they understand you, and together you try to work to some sort of solution to whatever the issue is.

Jason Hartman: Sure. Okay, good. Give us another one, or any other highlights like that.

Andrew Newberg: Well, I guess going a little bit more deeply into this notion of being in a relaxed state. One of the things that we came to in terms of developing this compassionate communication was the notion of being relaxed. And so often times, people wind up being in a very reactive kind of state. Somebody says something to us, and again it might be a worker, it might be our friend or family or spouse, but they’ll say something to us and we immediately react. Maybe we get the sense that maybe we start to get angry with them. And as soon as we do that, they become defensive and angry at us and the whole process just cycles out of control.

But if we can take a step back and very consciously relax ourselves, then we can be able to understand and listen to what this person is saying, and not be reactive but keep them as well as ourselves in a more positive place where we really can listen to each other. So what we do with people is bring them through a variety of relaxation practices; a lot of them are fairly well known or modified from practices that a lot of people know about. It doesn’t necessarily require an hour of deep meditation before you go in and have a dialogue with somebody.

One of the things that we talk about a lot is that if you’re about to go and talk to somebody at work, for 15 seconds, 20 seconds, sit at your desk, take a couple deep breaths, think about something that is maybe a positive idea, a positive thought, maybe even play in your mind the positive outcome of this conversation. If you go into the conversation thinking, this is going to be a disaster, it will be. But if you go in thinking, how can I make this conversation something that will work and be useful for us, then you have a much higher likelihood of having that happen.

So by simply kind of taking several deep breaths, slowing yourself down, thinking through whatever it is that you may ultimately see as how this conversation is going to play out, all of that can be a very effective way that when you now begin to engage this process of communication and dialogue with this other person, you are much more likely to be effective and to be able to have that kind of positive conversation that you might ultimately want to have.

Jason Hartman: Maybe talk about some of the internal dialogue if you would. We talked about coming from the right place, not being defensive, not calming down before the conversation, etc. But what are people saying to themselves that are constructive and destructive things?

Andrew Newberg: Well one of the things, and this is also one of the elements of the compassionate communication process for us, is to have a person think for a while, and for a while this may mean over many days, to keep kind of coming back to a particular question, which is what do you as an individual value in your life? What do you consider to be your inner values? What’s important to you? So it might be, in fact we take people through an exercise where you say, sit down at a table, sit down at your kitchen table or your office table or whatever, quiet your mind down, take several deep breaths, do that for about 30 seconds, 60 seconds, and then answer the question. Write down on a piece of paper, what is your most important inner value right now? And sometimes people will write down… sometimes they are more materialistic, sometimes it’s being successful at work. But as people begin to engage in these kinds of dialogues with other people, we begin to see a shift in a person’s inner values to something that is much more personal, much deeper, it may have to do with a feeling of respect, of love, compassion, family.

So if a person can reflect on what those inner values are, then what we ask them to do is to focus on that inner value when you go into having a conversation with somebody. So for example, and what we’ve seen happen sometimes, we say what is your inner value? They say, my inner value is respect. I think that people should respect each other. And I say, okay so what’s the problem that you’ve been having communication-wise with your spouse? Well we get into these arguments and they’re not listening to me, I’m not listening to them. So we say, well are you following your inner value? Are you respecting them in the context of that conversation? And then we talk to the individual about how do you utilize your inner value in the conversation and in the dialogues that you then have with other people?

And that’s just one example of respect, maybe it’s love or compassion. Whatever it is for another person that we really work with people to try to get them in touch with that inner value. That becomes a very essential element. We’ve actually studied this, that when we train people about how to do the compassionate communication and enhance the person’s positive emotions, their levels of compassion, their levels of intimacy, there’s really a very dramatic shift in those inner values to something that is deeper and is more intimate. So the more that we engage that side of ourselves, the more our brain wraps itself around those very positive kinds of ideas and concepts and utilizes that in whatever language, whatever communication we have with other people.

So I think that that is a very essential aspect of our inner dialogue, which is to have us keep coming back to those inner values and keep utilizing those inner values whenever we have a discussion with ourselves or with somebody outside.

Jason Hartman: So, really it’s a matter of staying focused on what we are, what we’re all about, maybe asking one’s self, is this part of my mission? Does it enhance my mission in life, or is this going down the wrong road that’s incongruent with that? Would that be a good way to put it?

Andrew Newberg: Absolutely. And my colleague Mark Waldman has worked with people in the business world, because we have found that when people engage their business life and the dialogues and the negotiations that they have in the business world, they are much more successful and more effective as an individual and as a team when they are all working on a more compassionate level and all working form those inner values. And there’s research that supports that this actually can enhance not only your own personal life, but actually your business life as well.

Because obviously in business you’re constantly talking to other people. And you don’t necessarily have to be a sales person, but when you’re talking to the people who work under you, the people who work above you, other people who you might engage with, your colleagues and so forth, people from other businesses and other places, you’re constantly talking to them. And if you’re talking to them in a more effective way, you’re going to do better and you’re going to feel better and you’re going to work from a better place.

Jason Hartman: Can you tell us anything more about how this affects the body? The psychosomatic medicine component? I know that you’ve been involved in that area of study in the mind/body relationship. I remember years ago when I read Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins, I got very fascinated by that field of how the body manifests what the mind harbors. Any things that you want to talk about in terms of that relationship, the psyche-soma relationship.

Andrew Newberg: Absolutely. There’s no question that creating a more positive, more intimate level of connection with somebody else actually enhances the brain’s functions, it helps the social areas of the brain to react with more activity, the emotional areas of our brain that helps support our positive emotions, emotions of love, happiness and so forth, they come online, they are more active at that point. Your levels of stress go down, the levels of depression go down, and when you do all of that, that does have a physiological effect on the body itself.

When we are stressed, we have a release of a hormone called cortisol which causes our immune system to not work as well, our heart rate and blood pressure go up. So if we are speaking to somebody from a very consciously relaxed state, from a very positive emotional state, then all of those stress processes go in reverse. Our cortisol level goes down, our immune system function goes up, the areas of our brain that would be activated when we are in a state of stress are quieted down and our overall brain and body function much better. In fact, when you are stressed, when you are anxious and angry, you don’t remember things as well, you don’t listen as well, and your brain doesn’t function as well. so that’s part of why we realize that words really are something that change the way in which your brain and your body ultimately work.

There’s a fair amount of evidence through brain imaging studies, some of which we’ve done, other people have done, as well as the physiological measures themselves of heart rate, blood pressure, immune system function and so forth that all point to the fact that the more we can create a deeper sense of connection with somebody, the more we can communicate effectively. All these things are very important aspects of trying to maintain our psychological and physical health and wellbeing.

Jason Hartman: And I was going to ask you about the neuroimaging side. When you say neuroimaging I assume that’s MRIs and FMRIs?

Andrew Newberg: Well there are several different ways of studying the brain. The MRIs are probably the most commonly used and certainly has been the central approach that’s been used in cognitive neuroscience today. I’ve also been involved in using studies called SPECT imaging and pet imaging. These actually involve injecting small amounts of radioactive materials that measure things like dopamine and serotonin in the brain so we’re really able to get a much greater picture of all the different parts of the brain that become active or inactive when the brain is doing things.

And we’ve used that to study people with depression, anxiety. We’ve used it to study practices like meditation, prayer, a variety of other spiritual practices. And we’re getting a much better picture now of what the brain does when we are spiritual, what the brain does when we are anxious, what the brain does when we communicate with each other both positively and negatively. So we really are able to utilize all of the technologies that we have to start to get a sense of what our brain is doing in a variety of different states.

Jason Hartman: It’s really an amazing time. I’ve been particularly fascinated by the functional MRIs. I think we’re on the verge of mind reading, if we’re not already there. Are we?

Andrew Newberg: We are. we’re getting close. One of the things though, that still to me is very fascinating, and this gets us more into philosophy than anything although it’s an area that I love to talk about, is how much can we rely on the physiology versus the subjective experiences that we have? I always kind of pose this to my students in my classes that if I got a brain scan of you, and the brain scan looked exactly like somebody who has depression and I said you’re depressed, and you said well, that’s great but I feel fine.

Which do I believe? Do I believe the scan or do I believe the person who says I’m not depressed? Now, ultimately I think we have to believe the patient or the person in what they say. And that’s why part of what we build into the studies that we do, whether we’re looking at compassionate communication or spirituality, is what does the person experience? What do they actually feel? But then we want to try to do our best to match that up to the physiology of the brain and see what exactly is going on in the different parts of the brain that support our positive emotions or whatever it is that we’re looking at, and see how they connect to each other.

So we are, it’s been a great period of time from the perspective of studying the human brain. We’re able to see things and study things that we’ve never been able to do before but in so many ways, we’re really just scratching the surface of trying to understand how our brains work in general. They’re so complex and there’s so much richness and diversity in how our brains respond to different things.

And language of course is absolutely essential to human beings. It’s been one of the basic elements of humanity throughout history and that’s why to me it’s something that’s so important for us to really look at and get a much more in depth perspective of how it works and how we can utilize it to our advantage.

Jason Hartman: Fascinating stuff for sure. No doubt about it. Well, Andrew give out your website if you would and tell people where they can get the book and such.

Andrew Newberg: Well, sure. My personal website is just www.AndrewNewberg.com and on there, it has some of the research articles that we’ve published and the other books that I’ve worked on that have to do more with spirituality in the brain as well. And the books that I’ve published can be purchased through that website or through any of the book sellers like Amazon, online or even the book stores, the ones that are left. They should be there. And I always look forward to our website; people can contact me. I’m always interested to hear what people have to say and what their experiences are and hopefully together we kind of build a better understanding of ourselves as human beings.

Jason Hartman: Fantastic. Well Dr. Andrew Newberg, thank you so much for joining us today.

Narrator: Thank you for joining us today for the Holistic Survival Show. Protecting the people, places and profits you care about in uncertain times. Be sure to listen to our Creating Wealth Show, which focuses on exploiting the financial and wealth creation opportunities in today’s economy. Learn more at www.JasonHartman.com or search “Jason Hartman” on iTunes. This show is produced by the Hartman Media Company, offering very general guidelines and information. Opinions of guests are their own, and none of the content should be considered individual advice. If you require personalized advice, please consult an appropriate professional. Information deemed reliable, but not guaranteed.

Transcribed by Ralph

The Holistic Survival Team

Episode: 140

Guest: Dr. Andrew Newberg

iTunes: Stream Episode

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