Human Motivation & Affective Neuroscience Lab
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Latest Finding: 21 October 2008
What the word “not” may reveal about your ability to handle stress

New research by Friedrich-Alexander University’s Oliver Schultheiss and his coauthors Kathrin Riebel and Nicolette Jones indicates that the negation “not” reveals a lot about people’s ability to cope with stress. According to a paper that will be published in the journal Neuropsychology, the frequency with which people use “not” in written language – considered to be a measure of the disposition to inhibit activity – predicts how strongly the right hemisphere becomes engaged in stimulus processing during stress. And this may explain some consequences of high activity inhibition.

In four studies, Schultheiss and colleagues first measured research participants’ level of activity inhibition by counting the frequency of the word “not” in imaginative stories. Afterwards, they tested the participants for whether their left or their right brain hemisphere was faster at detecting little dots presented on the computer screen. In all studies, participants with high levels of activity inhibition were faster at responding to stimuli presented to the right hemisphere than they were to dots presented to the left hemisphere. This difference between the hemispheres was particularly striking in participants who were either in a bad mood when they came to the experiment or who were put into a bad mood by what they encountered during the experiment (e.g., angry faces or defeat in a competition against another participant). Participants low in activity inhibition, on the other hand, did not show this hemispheric difference in response to dot stimuli. In some, the effect was even reversed: when stressed, they were faster at detecting dots presented to their left hemisphere than dots presented to their right hemisphere.

“This finally provides an explanation for earlier findings reported for activity inhibition,” says Oliver Schultheiss, who heads the Human Motivation and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Friedrich-Alexander University. “People who use the word ‘not’ a lot have been found to be more expressive nonverbally, to have stronger physiological responses to stress, and to act more flexibly and resourcefully when they face challenges. These are all functions of the right hemisphere.”

However, the greater physiological responses to stress may also put people high in activity inhibition at a greater risk for disease. As past research shows, individuals high in activity inhibition are more likely to become severely ill in response to stress. They are also more prone to suffer from cardiovascular disease. Low activity inhibition, on the other hand, may be a protective factor in the context of stress. As Schultheiss and his collaborators speculate in their new paper, the left-hemispheric shift observed in stressed individuals who use the word “not” only sparingly in their verbal utterances may recruit the growth- and repair-related functions of the left hemisphere. This in turn may provide a buffer against the corrosive effects of stress on the immune system and the body.

Previous releases:

Estrogen fuels female power (February 2008)

High-testosterone people reinforced by others’ anger, new study finds (February 2007)

Study finds US students more motivated to achieve, less power-hungry than German students (August 2006)

Are all people stressed out by a defeat or does it hurt some more than others? (April 2006)

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