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Words that Heal and Reveal

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, March 13, 2015


In his early research career, Dr. James Pennebaker learned that keeping secrets is bad for your health. In fact, he and colleagues found, people who suffered traumas and kept them secret sought treatment for illnesses 40 percent more often than people who talked openly about their past adversities. But you don’t always have to tell the world.

Dr. Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a pioneer in studying  the healing use of language, found that adults who endured the suicide or sudden death of a spouse were healthier a year later if they had talked about it. Gays and lesbians who were open about their sexual status were healthier than those who kept it hidden. Over decades of studying how people dealt with traumas of all sorts—the death of loved ones, natural disasters, divorce, criminal assault, sexual traumas and the Holocaust—he looked at how we use language to process emotional devastation.  And he discovered that writing about deeply disturbing events—even if the writer showed no one else and destroyed the written account—improved the physical health and emotional resilience of those who wrote.

Those who benefit most, he explains, are able to construct a meaningful story of their experience, express more optimism as they acknowledge the worst, and change perspectives. In his newest book, Expressive Writing: Words that Heal, he tells how brief, simple writing exercises have helped people who put their traumas into words. Computer analysis showed many participants in the writing studies had fewer illnesses and improved immune function. Three studies showed higher student grades, possibly, he writes, because more working memory is available for present endeavors if we’ve detoxified past traumas so that we don’t have to be preoccupied with them.  

Dr. Pennebaker has spent decades exploring the power and significance of how we select, use and combine words. In his book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, Dr. Pennebaker examines function words, including pronouns, prepositions and articles, and made some surprising discoveries. He says our words are linguistic fingerprints and keys to the soul.

Pronouns yield profound insights. Scientists interviewed couples after one partner suffered a heart attack and asked them how they had coped and what they had done best.  The more the spouses used the we-words, that is we, us and our, in their answers the healthier the patients were six months later. We-words even impact safety. Researchers have found the most effective airline cockpit crews are close-knit and feel part of a team. In analyzing cockpit recordings of airlines that crashed, the ones clearly characterized by human error are associated with far fewer we-words than were used by the crews of planes that crashed because of unavoidable mechanical error.

Of course, Dr. Pennebaker notes, communal use of we differs greatly from the royal we, often employed by males of superior status, as in, “We need to analyze that data.” Pennebaker calls that the “we as you” use, in which the speaker is trying to be pleasant while issuing an order. There’s also a restrictive we, that means my friends and me, but not you, as in describing a joint activity that didn’t include the listener.

The first person singular holds many clues about mental health, outlook, and power. Analyzing the Twitter feeds of pregnant women, Microsoft computer scientists were able to accurately predict who would suffer postpartum depression. Indicators include increasing use of self-referential pronouns with growing self-focus.  In interaction between people, Dr.Pennebaker’s computer studies have shown, persons with higher social status uses fewer I words and people with lower social status use more I words.

Dr. Pennebaker says he always considered himself an egalitarian guy who treated everyone with the same respect, and he was surprised by a computer analysis of his own emails. In responding to his students, who used many I swords in their messages to him, Dr. Pennebaker rarely used I words. In an invitation to a famous professor he hoped would attend a conference, he used I words liberally.  

Pronouns also show shifting emotion and allegiance, Dr. Pennebaker found. When our favorite sports team is successful, we say “We won.” When the team goes down to defeat, we tend to say “They lost.”

If you’re interested in some self-insights, do some of Dr. Pennebaker’s exercises

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