The Brain Chemistry of Communication
TL:DR Takeaway: Give 3 doses of positive statements for every one negative
If, like myself, you enjoy the thrill of a casino, you may have noticed that when you experience a loss, it has a larger emotional response compared to a win of a similar value. In economics this is known as loss aversion and it has been calculated that a loss is three times more emotional than a gain of a similar value.
You may be wondering how financial loss is related to communication. After reading an article this week on the chemistry of communication the connection hit me.
Just as a loss at the casino won’t be offset by a win of a similar value, the same is true when receiving a negative or positive comment from a person.
Imagine you are having your annual review at your job and your boss informs you that you are exceeding expectations. As wonderful as this is to hear, compare it to an alternative scenario where you were told that you failed to meet expectations. Proportionally the negative remark would outweigh the corresponding compliment.
The Brain Chemistry of Negative Communications
The amygdala, the primeval part of our brain, is activated when we hear negative comments directed towards us. We become defensive at the thought of being ostracized from our social setting, something that could have been fatal from an evolutionary perspective, where community living and a hunter gather lifestyle was important.
When we hear negative comments our brains produce cortisol, a hormone that inhibits the prefrontal cortex, or the thinking and rational center of the brain and protective and defensive behaviors are activated.
The cortisol in our body makes us more sensitive to criticism and as we become ‘drunk’ from this hormone we often misinterpret further remarks that we hear, perceiving them to be more cutting or negative than they actually are. This has a snowball effect, as stronger emotions are more likely to become seared on our memory, changing how we behave in the future. The effect of cortisol can last for 26 hours, and as we let negative comments marinate in our minds and we play them over and over in our head, the longer the impact of the hormone will remain.
Chemistry of Positive Communication
When someone says something positive about us, a similar chemical reaction occurs, however instead of cortisol, our body releases another chemical called Oxytocin. You may have heard of this as the ‘love chemical, it is a hormone that we feel when we hug someone or fall in love. Oxytocin has a number of positive effects, it increases our ability to communicate, as well as increasing how likely we are to trust someone Unlike cortisol, it activates regions of the prefrontal cortex, the rational and thinking region of the brain. Another difference between cortisol and oxytocin is the speed that it syntheses within the body. Oxytocin metabolizes quicker, so its effects are not as long lasting.
This knowledge of how chemicals within our body affect our communication, allows us to be more mindful with our interactions with others, and helps to explain why people (including ourselves) can act irrationally (in reality the person is not acting irrationally, it is the chemicals in their body that is making them act as they are. In the same way it wouldn’t be irrational if someone passed out if their body was pumped with a sedative)
When talking or interacting with someone you could imagine they are hooked up to a hospital style drip and how you communicate with them has an effect on what is released from the drip into their body and how the person reacts to you. Also, if you are aware that when someone says something negative towards you, you may not act rationally. If you know you are not going to act rationally because of the chemicals that will be released into your body you can over compensate for the hormones, or wait to respond when your body is clean of them.