Lisa Feldman Barrett
Originally posted 10 Feb 21
Here is an excerpt:
Being the caretakers of each other’s body budgets is challenging when so many of us feel lonely or are physically alone. But social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation. Humans have a special power to connect with and regulate each other in another way, even at a distance: with words. If you’ve ever received a text message from a loved one and felt a rush of warmth, or been criticised by your boss and felt like you’d been punched in the gut, you know what I’m talking about. Words are tools for regulating bodies.
In my research lab, we run experiments to demonstrate this power of words. Our participants lie still in a brain scanner and listen to evocative descriptions of different situations. One is about walking into your childhood home and being smothered in hugs and smiles. Another is about awakening to your buzzing alarm clock and finding a sweet note from your significant other. As they listen, we see increased activity in brain regions that control heart rate, breathing, metabolism and the immune system. Yes, the same brain regions that process language also help to run your body budget. Words have power over your biology – your brain wiring guarantees it.
Our participants also had increased activity in brain regions involved in vision and movement, even though they were lying still with their eyes closed. Their brains were changing the firing of their own neurons to simulate sight and motion in their mind’s eye. This same ability can build a sense of connection, from a few seconds of poor-quality mobile phone audio, or from a rectangle of pixels in the shape of a friend’s face. Your brain fills in the gaps – the sense data that you don’t receive through these media – and can ease your body budget deficit in the moment.
In the midst of social distancing, my Zoom friend and I rediscovered the body-budgeting benefits of older means of communication, such as letter writing. The handwriting of someone we care about can have an unexpected emotional impact. A piece of paper becomes a wave of love, a flood of gratitude, a belly-aching laugh.