Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. It sounds good, but it’s not true, is it? Words are powerful, perhaps even more so than actions, because they’re much more subtle, so insidious. We don’t even notice the effect they have on us, but they can change how we think, how we feel and how we behave. They can change our brains.
Words on the brain
Exactly how words are stored and represented in the brain is not known, but we do know that they are associated with all sorts of ideas, memories and images, our perception of which results from activity in specific constellations or networks of brain cells, or neurons (see the video below and the research it describes). Hearing or seeing a word triggers activity in the networks associated with that word. And the more active a network of neurons is, the stronger the connections in that network get. In this way, repeated exposure to certain words or phrases will alter the strengths of connections in certain networks, thereby literally changing the brain.
Networks in our brains that represent negative memories and images are particularly easy to strengthen – negative experiences create memories more easily, which are less easily forgotten. This is called the negativity bias (see Wikipedia for a simple explanation, or read some of the research). There are good evolutionary reasons for this bias – if you’re a caveman and you have a close encounter with a lion, it’s important that your brain can easily learn the things associated with that life-threatening experience so you can avoid it happening again or quickly recognise it if it does. However, we’ve carried this negativity bias into our evolutionarily benign and threatless modern lives. These natural tendencies towards negative wiring mean that we’re also more susceptible to negative words than positive ones – if someone tells you you’re worthless, you’re a lot more likely to remember it than if someone tells you you’re kind.
This effect of negative language has important implications for our happiness.
The drawback of language
The importance of the negative power of words has become clear to me over the past 20 years, during which I have been followed around at various distances by the black cloud of anxiety and depression. During this time, I’ve tried a multitude of ways to blow the cloud away and minimise how much it blocks the sun. A central concept in many of these approaches is to become aware of and try to change negative internal dialogue – the negative words you are exposing yourself to. To catch yourself when your inner voice says you’re stupid or worthless and challenge that thought. The reason is that, over time, a repeated, negative narrative, even if internally generated, will become an engrained belief because the words you use, combined with the negativity bias, strengthen the brain networks associated with the negativity. If you tell yourself enough times that you’re worthless, your brain will change so you believe it. It’s like bullying yourself. And it’s all just words.
A negative internal voice is not the only type of thinking that can harm mental health. A multitude of thinking patterns can be pathological, but they all have one thing in common – words. We think in words, and ‘hearing’ those words – even if they come from within – influences brain networks that get stronger or weaker. How often do you tell yourself you ‘should’ do something, and then feel like a failure when you don’t? It’s the word ‘should’ that leads to the feeling of failure. And the thing with words is that we can, through thinking, expose ourselves to them and their influence repeatedly for no good reason.
Most other animals – at least as far as we can tell – do not have the same level of consciousness as us, and they don’t have the same complex language systems. It’s fairly safe to assume, for these reasons, that they don’t sit around and think about themselves and their experiences, reflect on what they could or should have done differently or better, or what they think they should be doing. They just do what they need to do to survive, reacting to their environment. They almost certainly experience negative emotions like sadness and fear, or something like them at least, but these are most likely to be acute responses – it seems unlikely that they ruminate on them while they try to sleep at night. And of course, they make memories of negative events so that they can learn and respond to situations in the future in a way that increases their chances of survival. But it seems doubtful they recall these at will to think about how badly they dealt with the situation and what that means for their value in the world.
Arguably the most important difference between humans and other animals is language, and I believe that language is what allows us to think in self-destructive ways that animals probably don’t. For all the benefits that language has brought us as a species, it has created the major drawback of being able to make ourselves incredibly unhappy for no external reason. We can name abstract things like emotions and think about them, we can create narratives about things that have happened and tell ourselves things that aren’t true, or at least don’t matter. This is the power of words.
In this project, I want to explore this power of words, the hold they have over us, and how they can have such a detrimental effect. Words have a very clear and (within each language) universal visual representation, so that we can not only hear them but also see them. And when we see them, they take on a somewhat different, more concrete form. Yet words are rarely depicted in visual art – it almost feels like a taboo to include words in an image unless they are incidental or the image is functional design. Words are rarely, if ever, the subject of artwork.
I want to change this, make words the subjects of images and put them in a visual context. By doing this, I hope to explore their power and consider the effects they can have on our thinking and our mental health. Perhaps by exploring words in this way, acknowledging their power over us and examining that power, it could even help to take that power away.