The brain is a fascinating organ. It keeps baffling researchers and lay people alike with what it is capable of. Recently, psychologists from the School of Psychology and Centre for Research on Bilingualism at Bangor University were building on a previous research on bilingualism when they made yet another astounding discovery about the brain.
The previous research had found that bilinguals subconsciously access their first language when reading in their second language. Now, the psychologists have discovered that our brain shuts down that same unconscious access to the native language when faced with a negative word such as ‘war’, ‘discomfort’, ‘inconvenience’, and ‘unfortunate’.
Professor Guillaume Thierry explains: “We think this is a protective mechanism. 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 minimises negative impact of disturbing emotional content on our thinking, to prevent causing anxiety or mental discomfort.”
He continues: “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.”
The psychologists made this discovery by asking 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, uncannily, this activity was not observed when the English words had a negative meaning.
Key to this is the understanding that people have a greater reaction to emotional words and phrases in their first language, which is why people speak to their infants and children in their first language despite living in a country that speaks another language and despite fluency in the second. It has been recognised for some time that anger, swearing or discussing intimate feelings has more power in a speaker’s native language. In other words, emotional information lacks the same power in a second language as in a native language.