Why does putting our feelings into words — such as talking with a therapist or friend, or writing in a journal — help us to feel better?
Matthew Lieberman (Photo by Reed Hutchinson)
That’s a question UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman is endeavoring to answer as he and his colleagues undertake new brain imaging studies that reveal why speaking our feelings makes sadness, anger and pain less intense.
“We want to understand how the brain works, and we are learning that the brain is a fundamentally social entity in so many ways,” said Lieberman, professor of psychology and co-director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience (SCN) Laboratory. “We are social creatures. To understand the brain, you need to understand social behavior.”
Lieberman, whose research is supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health, is one of the founders of the field of social cognitive neuroscience. By using functional magnetic resonance imaging at the UCLA Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center to examine brain activity, Lieberman and his colleagues are exploring how the human brain processes social information and how the brain supports social experience.
For example, when people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they have increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems that protect the body in times of danger.
Lieberman’s exploration of brain functions includes studies of the region in the brain called the amygdala (above in yellow).
Researchers in Lieberman’s SCN lab see a robust response in the amygdala, even when people are shown emotional photographs so quickly that the image doesn’t register in the conscious mind.
But beyond that response to the photo itself, does seeing an angry face and saying it is an angry face produce a different brain response? Yes, according to Lieberman. “When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” he said.
The study showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another region of the brain — the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex — was more active. This region, located behind the forehead and eyes, has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences.
“We’re suggesting that when we think in words about our emotions — in other words, when we label our emotions by talking about them — that may be part of what the right ventrolateral region is responsible for,” Lieberman said.
Most people may not realize why putting their feelings into words is helpful.
“If you ask people who are really sad why they are writing in a journal, they are not likely to say it’s because they think this is a way to make themselves feel better,” Lieberman said. “People don’t typically do this to intentionally overcome their negative feelings; it just seems to have that effect.
“Popular psychology says, ‘when you’re feeling down, just pick yourself up,’ ” he added. “But the world doesn’t work that way. If you know you’re trying to pick yourself up, it usually doesn’t work — self-deception is difficult. However, because labeling our feelings doesn’t require us to want to feel better, it doesn’t have this problem.”
Lieberman’s current findings are based on his study of 30 people who viewed images of individuals making different emotional expressions. Below the picture of the face they either saw two words, such as “angry” and “fearful,” and chose which emotion described the face, or they saw two names, such as “Harry” and “Sally,” and chose the gender-appropriate name that matched the face.
One of Lieberman’s tests looks at how the brain responds to pictures of emotional faces, compared to words that describe the faces.
“When you attach the word ‘angry’ to an image, you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” Lieberman said. “When you attach the name ‘Harry,’ you don’t see the reduction in the amygdala response. So it’s not about using words per se; it’s about putting feelings into words.”
When you put feelings into words, Lieberman continued, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala. “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.
“This is ancient wisdom, but now we can verify it with brain mapping,” Lieberman said. “Putting our feelings into words helps us heal better. If a friend is sad and we can get them to talk about it, that probably will make them feel better.”
A version of this story appeared originally in the Winter 2010 issue of UCLA College Report.