The power of words and habit formation

How we use and hear words becomes a habit.

A recent study on personal space, reported in Personal Space Is a Fear Response, shows that this fear response can be stimulated by words alone.

When placed in an MRI—and told a person was standing over the machine—[people with normal amygdalae] showed heightened activity in their amygdala; when they were told the person was further away from the machine, the activity returned to normal. This shows, says the study’s leader, Ralph Adolphs, that the belief that someone is too close for comfort is enough to spark the same activity as if they actually are.

You could also say that hearing the words that “someone is too close for comfort is enough to spark the same activity as if they actually are.”

I doubt I need to illustrate this idea as most readers are surely aware that all people have many strong emotional responses to words, gestures, facial expressions, as well as personal space encroachments.

Another recent study, unsurprisingly, shows that forming a habit leaves a lasting mark on specific circuits in the brain. In more detail:

In the basal ganglia, two main types of paths carry opposing messages: One carries a ‘go’ signal which spurs an action, the other a ‘stop’ signal.

Experiments by Duke neurobiology graduate student Justin O’Hare found that the stop and go pathways were both more active in the sugar-habit mice. O’Hare said he didn’t expect to see the stop signal equally ramped up in the habit brains, because it has been traditionally viewed as the factor that helps prevent a behavior.

The team also discovered a change in the timing of activation in the two pathways. In mice that had formed a habit, the go pathway turned on before the stop pathway. In non-habit brains, the stop signal preceded the go.

These changes in the brain circuitry were so long-lasting and obvious that it was possible for the group to predict which mice had formed a habit just by looking at isolated pieces of their brains in a petri dish. (same link as just above)

The study on habits is about mice with sugar habits, but I think it is fair to hypothesize that something similar happens with humans in their use of communication cues.

Humans, in my view, habituate to semiotic stimuli in much the same way that mice habituate to sugar.

The Duke study shows that the stop pathway grew as much as the go pathway in the mice, the main difference being that the go pathway turned on before the stop pathway.

Since human language and its uses is more complex than mice habituated to too much sugar, there must be many more stop and go pathways within the language and communication networks of human beings.

Many of these pathways will be similar among people in the same culture, but many of them won’t. Each human being is a repository of a multitude of idiosyncratic emotional and semantic responses and outputs.

So how do you figure out what your pathways are? And how do you correct ones that aren’t working well? And similarly, how do you figure out your partner’s pathways?

FIML practice helps partners to both identify their idiosyncratic communication habits and correct ones that are not working well. FIML finds and corrects pathways through micro-analysis.

It seems very likely to me that a FIML-style analysis corrects mistaken communication pathways by bringing the stop pathway to the fore. When a particular mistaken response is stopped a few times and under analysis seen to be wrong, the go pathways for that response will tend to be extirpated.

By using words to analyze micro units of miscommunication, FIML partners tap into the power of words to change actual pathways of neurons in their brains, thus reorganizing the deep linguistic basis of habitual psychological responses, no matter how idiosyncratic.

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