Neuroscience and the Power of Speech

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles.” Proverbs 21:23

Scripture often refers to the tongue or lips as the gateway to the heart. Proverbs 21:23 tells us that “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles.” Similarly, Jesus said that it was out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45) while James compares the tongue to a rudder on a ship, capable of defiling the whole body (James 3:3-6).

These verses seem to suggest that speech has an important function in defining who we are. The words that come out of our mouth are formative in determining the spiritual health of our very heart and soul.

Recent discoveries in neuroscience and cognitive psychology support the Bible’s teaching on this subject. Scientists are only just beginning to appreciate the incredible power that speech has in forming both our self-identity and our perception of the world. These discoveries underscore the premium the Biblical writers place on responsible speaking.

What scientists are finding is that speech does not merely proceed from our thoughts like a one-way street. There is also traffic flowing in the other direction: how we speak effects how we think about the world on a level that our conscious minds may never even be aware.

In a fascinating Wall Street Journal article last year, Lera Boroditsky wrote that “the structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express”. Boroditsky gave some examples to illustrate this point. One of the examples showed how the different ways of conjugating verbs effected how people perceived situations:

For example, English likes to describe events in terms of agents doing things. English speakers tend to say things like “John broke the vase” even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say “the vase broke itself.” Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events, construct notions of causality and agency, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others.

In studies conducted by Caitlin Fausey at Stanford, speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese watched videos of two people popping balloons, breaking eggs and spilling drinks either intentionally or accidentally. Later everyone got a surprise memory test: For each event, can you remember who did it? She discovered a striking cross-linguistic difference in eyewitness memory. Spanish and Japanese speakers did not remember the agents of accidental events as well as did English speakers. Mind you, they remembered the agents of intentional events (for which their language would mention the agent) just fine. But for accidental events, when one wouldn’t normally mention the agent in Spanish or Japanese, they didn’t encode or remember the agent as well.

The point of this (and many similar experiments) is that, to quote again from Boroditsky: “if you change how people talk, that changes how they think…”

The history of communication technology points to this same conclusion. In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr gave a fascinating bird’s eye view of the entire history of human communication technologies beginning with clay tablets and finishing with the internet. Carr shows that each of the different tools for communicating alters not only what we say and how we say it, but how we think about the world on an precognitive level. Carr draws on recent discoveries about the brain’s malleability to show that our view of the world is conditioned largely by the tools we use to communicate, and this includes language itself.

Other authors have also testified to this same point. For example, in his book The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge shows that the way we speak effects the actual neurocircuitry in our brains. Or again, in his bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcom Gladwell explores how the way we speak from infancy has an effect on how we view the world and even how well we can compute numbers (click here to read an extract of Gladwell’s fascinating discussion). Or, to quote James Davison Hunter from his book To Change the World, “Language, the most basic system of symbols, provides the primary medium through which people apprehend their conscious experience in the world.”

While this is all the rage in neuroscience at the moment, Christians shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the Bible has always emphasized the formative power of speech.

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If it is true that little things like verb conjugations and communication tools can exercise a subliminal effect on how we perceive the world and other people, this is even more the case when dealing with language loaded with moral and spiritual implications?. Think of the different views of humanity subtly implicated by describing a baby as a ‘fetus’ vs. calling it ‘a human being created in the image of God.’ Or even consider the implication of calling a baby an ‘it’, as I just did in the last sentence. While these alternative ways of talking about a baby may be equally true on a purely factual level, they convey an entirely different sense. Or again, in an article I wrote for my blog last April titled ‘A Festival Not a Machine’, I compared the differences between the medieval way of talking about the universe and the modern way. (Medieval man tended to speak about the cosmos as a great dance, a festival teeming with anthropocentric life. By contrast, after the scientific revolution, the universe began to be described as a cold impersonal machine.)

My point is simply this: language doesn’t just describe what we think about the world, it is also a lens by which understand and interpret the world around us and the events which occur.

Again, this should come as no surprise to Christians. The Genesis creation account seems to specifically link naming with dominion-taking. We also see throughout the Biblical narrative that when God wants to set a person, city or place aside for a special task, He will often call that person or place by a new name. How we speak about something changes how we view it.

This behooves us to think carefully about how we speak. In Psalm 39 we read about how David wrestled with guarding his tongue. When in great distress, he muzzled his mouth so that he would not sin, and only after ‘musing’ (careful reflection) did he dare open his mouth and speak what was in his heart. That remains a great example to us. We all know from personal experience that our words have the power not only to build others up but to tear them down; they can comfort, heal and soothe, but they can also discourage, damage and hurt.

Do you glorify God in how you speak? Have you taken seriously the way language alters the way we view ourselves and the world?

For more insight into this topic, buy Language Acquisition and Conceptual Development, edited by Melissa Bowerman and Stephen Levinson. Also read my articles ‘A Festival Not a Machine’ and ‘Reading Scripture in the Age of Google.

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