Our brains can unconsciously decide to withhold negative information, according to new work by psychologists at Bangor University in the U.K.
Writing in the Journal of Neuroscience, the psychologists discovered the unconscious process during their work with bilingual people.
Building on a previous discovery — that bilingual people subconsciously access their first language when reading in their second language — the psychologists found that the brain similarly shuts down when faced with a negative word, such as war, discomfort, and unfortunate.
People have a greater reaction to emotional words and phrases in their first language, the researchers said. That helps explain why bilingual people speak to their children in their first language despite fluency in the language of the country where they currently live. They also point out that it has long been recognized that anger, swearing or discussing intimate feelings has more power in a speaker’s native language.
“We devised this experiment to unravel the unconscious interactions between the processing of emotional content and access to the native language system,” said Yan Jing Wu, Ph.D. “We think we’ve identified, for the first time, the mechanism by which emotion controls fundamental thought processes outside consciousness.”
“We think this is a protective mechanism,” added co-researcher Guillaume Thierry, Ph.D. “We know that in trauma, for example, people behave very differently. Surface conscious processes are modulated by a deeper emotional system in the brain. Perhaps this brain mechanism spontaneously minimizes (the) negative impact of disturbing emotional content on our thinking, to prevent causing anxiety or mental discomfort.”
The researchers said they were surprised by the finding.
“We were expecting to find modulation between the different words and perhaps a heightened reaction to the emotional word, but what we found was the exact opposite to what we expected — a cancellation of the response to the negative words,” Thierry said.
The psychologists asked English-speaking Chinese people whether word pairs were related in meaning. Some of the word pairs were related in their Chinese translations.
Although not consciously acknowledging a relation, measurements of electrical activity in the brain revealed that the bilingual participants were unconsciously translating the words. However, this activity was not observed when the English words had a negative meaning.
Source: Bangor University