Quantcast
Connect with us

Hearing hate speech primes your brain for hateful actions

Published

on

A mark on a page, an online meme, a fleeting sound. How can these seemingly insignificant stimuli lead to acts as momentous as participation in a racist rally or the massacre of innocent worshippers? Psychologists, neuroscientists, linguists and philosophers are developing a new theory of language understanding that’s starting to provide answers.

Current research shows that humans understand language by activating sensory, motor and emotional systems in the brain. According to this new simulation theory, just reading words on a screen or listening to a podcast activates areas of the brain in ways similar to the activity generated by literally being in the situation the language describes. This process makes it all the more easy to turn words into actions.

As a cognitive psychologist, my own research has focused on developing simulation theory, testing it, and using it to create reading comprehension interventions for young children.

Simulations are step one

Traditionally, linguists have analyzed language as a set of words and rules that convey ideas. But how do ideas become actions?

Simulation theory tries to answer that question. In contrast, many traditional theories about language processing give action short shrift.

Simulation theory proposes that processing words depends on activity in people’s neural and behavioral systems of action, perception and emotion. The idea is that perceiving words drives your brain systems into states that are nearly identical to what would be evoked by directly experiencing what the words describe.

ADVERTISEMENT

When you read the sentence, your mind simulates what it would be like to actually live through the experience.
Joyce Vincent/Shutterstock.com

Consider the sentence “The lovers held hands while they walked along the moonlit tropical beach.” According to simulation theory, when you read these words, your brain’s motor system simulates the actions of walking; that is, the neural activity elicited by comprehending the words is similar to the neural activity generated by literal walking. Similarly, your brain’s perceptual systems simulate the sight, sounds and feel of the beach. And your emotional system simulates the feelings implied by the sentence.

So words themselves are enough to trigger simulations in motor, perceptual and emotional neural systems. Your brain creates a sense of being there: The motor system is primed for action and the emotional system motivates those actions.

Then, one can act on the simulation much as he’d act in the real situation. For example, language associating an ethnic group with “bad hombres” could invoke an emotional simulation upon seeing members of the group. If that emotional reaction is strong enough, it may in turn motivate action – maybe making a derogatory remark or physically lashing out.

Although simulation theory is still under scientific scrutiny, there have been many successful tests of its predictions. For example, using neuroimaging techniques that track blood flow in the brain, researchers found that listening to action words such as “lick,” “pick” and “kick” produces activity in areas of the brain’s motor cortex that are used to control the mouth, the hand and the leg, respectively. Hearing a sentence such as “The ranger saw an eagle in the sky” generates a mental image using the visual cortex. And using Botox to block activity in the muscles that furl the brow affects the emotional system and slows understanding of sentences conveying angry content. These examples demonstrate the connections between processing speech and motor, sensory and emotional systems.

ADVERTISEMENT

Recently, my colleague psychologist Michael McBeath, our graduate student Christine S. P. Yu and I discovered yet another robust connection between language and the emotional system.

Consider pairs of single-syllable English words that differ only in whether the vowel sound is “eee” or “uh,” such as “gleam-glum” and “seek-suck.” Using all such pairs in English – there are about 90 of them – we asked people to judge which word in the pair was more positive. Participants selected the word with the “eee” sound two-thirds of the time. This is a remarkable percentage because if linguistic sounds and emotions were unrelated and people were picking at the rate of chance, only half of the “eee” words would have been judged as the more positive.

Just activating your smile muscles tilts your emotions toward the positive.
AshTproductions/Shutterstock.com

We propose that this relation arose because saying “eee” activates the same muscles and neural systems as used when smiling – or saying “cheese!” In fact, mechanically inducing a smile – as by holding a pencil in your teeth without using your lips – lightens your mood. Our new research shows that saying words that use the smile muscles can have a similar effect.

We tested this idea by having people chew gum while judging the words. Chewing gum blocks the systematic activation of the smile muscles. Sure enough, while chewing gum, the judged difference between the “eee” and “uh” words was only half as strong. We also demonstrated the same effects in China using pairs of Mandarin words containing the “eee” and “uh” sounds.

ADVERTISEMENT

Practice through simulation makes actions easier

Of course, motivating someone to commit a hate crime requires much more than uttering “glum” or “suck.”

But consider that simulations become quicker with repetition. When one first hears a new word or concept, creating its simulation can be a mentally laborious process. A good communicator can help by using hand gestures to convey the motor simulation, pointing to objects or pictures to help create the perceptual simulation and using facial expressions and voice modulation to induce the emotional simulation.

It makes sense that the echo chamber of social media provides the practice needed to both speed and shape the simulation. The mental simulation of “caravan” can change from an emotionally neutral string of camels to an emotionally charged horde of drug dealers and rapists. And, through the repeated simulation that comes from repeatedly reading similar posts, the message becomes all the more believable, as each repetition produces another instance of almost being there to see it with your own eyes.

Psycholinguist Dan Slobin suggested that habitual ways of speaking lead to habitual ways of thinking about the world. The language that you hear gives you a vocabulary for discussing the world, and that vocabulary, by producing simulations, gives you habits of mind. Just as reading a scary book can make you afraid to go in the ocean because you simulate (exceedingly rare) shark attacks, encountering language about other groups of people (and their exceedingly rare criminal behavior) can lead to a skewed view of reality.

ADVERTISEMENT

Practice need not always lead down an emotional rabbit hole, though, because alternative simulations and understandings can be created. A caravan can be simulated as families in distress who have the grit, energy and skills to start a new life and enrich new communities.

Because simulation creates a sense of being in a situation, it motivates the same actions as the situation itself. Simulating fear and anger literally makes you fearful and angry and promotes aggression. Simulating compassion and empathy literally makes you act kindly. We all have the obligation to think critically and to speak words that become humane actions.The Conversation

Arthur Glenberg, Professor of Psychology, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Report typos and corrections to [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Melania Trump ripped for bragging about helping children while her husband runs concentration camps for kids

Published

on

Melania Trump was ripped on Monday for pushing her signature "Be Best" campaign against bullying while her husband, President Donald Trump, runs concentration camps for children along the southern border.

"Looking forward to collaborating with all of our #BeBest Ambassadors. Delighted to be working alongside so many people both inside and outside of government to better the lives of children everywhere!" Melania Trump tweeted Monday.

The response was some of the harshest since she wore an "I Don't Care" jacked to visit the border.

Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Border Patrol blocking Americans from donating toothbrushes and diapers for detained children

Published

on

Donald Trump on the US-Mexico Border

On Sunday, Austin Savage and five of his friends huddled into an SUV and went to an El Paso Target, loading up on diapers, wipes, soaps and toys.

About $340 later, the group headed to a Border Patrol facility holding migrant children in nearby Clint with the goal of donating their goods. Savage said he and his friends had read an article from The New York Times detailing chaos, sickness and filth in the overcrowded facility, and they wanted to help.

But when they arrived, they found that the lobby was closed. The few Border Patrol agents — Savage said there were between eight and 10 of them — moving in and out of a parking facility ignored them.

Continue Reading
 

Breaking Banner

Michael Flynn’s legal team is making bizarre moves — signaling he’s still hoping for a Trump pardon

Published

on

When disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn recently hired a new firebrand lawyer, Sidney Powell, it suggested he could be maneuvering to change his legal strategy.

And on Monday, new signs emerged that his legal team is looking to shake things up. Flynn had another status hearing on Monday before Judge Emmet Sullivan as he awaits sentencing for charges brought by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

In the hearing on Monday, Powell, who had been publicly critical of the Russia investigation before joining Flynn’s team, requested a security clearance to review documents in the case. This was a surprising move, because the government said that there was no classified information in the documents it had turned over to the defense.

Continue Reading
 
 

Copyright © 2019 Raw Story Media, Inc. PO Box 21050, Washington, D.C. 20009 | Masthead | Privacy Policy | For corrections or concerns, please email [email protected]

 ENOUGH IS ENOUGH 

Trump endorses killing journalists, like Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Online ad networks are now targeting sites that cover acts of violence against dissidents, LGBTQ people and people of color.

Learn how you can help.
close-link