Negative Emotion can Block Mental Process

Unconscious brain processing can keep certain emotions from registering

(RxWiki News) Not all people who look like they didn’t hear what a person said to them are consciously choosing to ignore the negative words. There may be a natural unconscious decision the brain is making to not register those negative words.

Researchers tested language processing in the brain with bilingual and single language participants.

Results show that the unconscious brain can keep certain information from a person through a primal trigger against negative language being processed.

"It may be necessary to repeat yourself when relaying emotions"

Guillaume Thierry PhD., professor of cognitive neuroscience at Bangor University, UK, and School of Psychology research project support officer Dr. Yan Jing Wu, look at the way the brain processes language and meaning.

When a person reads in their second language they subconsciously access their native tongue to process meaning. Professor Thierry and Dr. Wu have discovered that the brain cuts off the same subconscious access to their native tongue if they read or hear a negative word, such as ‘violence’.

Native Chinese speakers, fluent in English, who heard the word ‘violence’ did not process that word in the brain the same way they did the words ‘holiday’ and ‘theory’. If they heard the word for ‘violence’ in Chinese they would of course understand, but native tongues have deeply embedded definitions in the brain.

Second languages require a higher mental process to define meaning.

Researchers measured electrical activity of the native Chinese speaker’s brains when they were translating English words. There was activity when they were translating neutral words and reduced activity when they were asked to translate negative words. This doesn’t mean that they couldn’t translate the words, it means that their brains didn’t register the emotion of the word if it was negative.

Why does this matter? Knowing what parts of the brain are affected by emotion is important. Emotions can affect things like attention span, memory and even vision and motor control.

Dr. Wu states, “We devised this experiment to unravel the unconscious interactions between the processing of emotional content and access to the native language system. We think we’ve identified, for the first time, the mechanism by which emotion controls fundamental thought processes outside of consciousness.”

This could explain certain aspects of repression. Professor Thierry links their discovery to repression after trauma: “Perhaps this brain mechanism spontaneously minimizes negative impact of disturbing emotional content on our thinking, to prevent causing anxiety or mental discomfort.”

The original hypothesis for the study proposed the brain would react greater to negative words, not block them out completely. Now they know the block exists, and further studies can use this research as a foundation. 

This study will be published in the Journal of Neuroscience, May 9, 2012. No financial information was given and no conflicts of interest were found.

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Review Date: 
May 7, 2012