The brain can unconsciously ‘decide’ to suppress negative information to minimize anxiety or mental discomfort, according to a new study.
Just as psychologists have previously discovered that people who are bilingual and subconsciously access their first language when they are reading in their second language, the latest findings suggest that the brain unconsciously shuts down the same access to a bilingual person’s native language when it encounters a negative word such as war, discomfort, inconvenience and unfortunate.
UK researcher who conducted the study, published Wednesday in the Journal of Neuroscience, believe that a specific unconscious brain reaction that blocks negative language inputs from reaching the part of the brain where primal reactions interact with higher mental processes by shutting down access to certain forms of knowledge.
Experts say that people exhibit greater reaction to emotional words and phrases in their first language, explaining why some bilingual parents choose to speak to their children in their native tongue despite being fluent in the language of the country where they reside.
Researchers also point out that anger, swearing or discussing intimate feelings has more power in a speaker’s native language, and emotional information processing is less powerful in the second language compared to the first language.
“We devised this experiment to unravel the unconscious interactions between the processing of emotional content and access to the native language system,” Dr. Yan Jing Wu of Bangor University said in a statement. “We think we’ve identified, for the first time, the mechanism by which emotion controls fundamental thought processes outside consciousness.”
"Perhaps this is a process that resembles the mental repression mechanism that people have theorized about but never previously located," Wu added.
Psychologists asked English-speaking Chinese participants to compared pairs of words in both languages. Researcher monitored the brain activity of the bilingual subjects by electrical measurements and found that while positive and neutral English words were automatically translated in the participants’ unconscious minds, the same electrical activity, which indicated subconscious translation, was not observed when participants viewed a negative English word.
Researchers believe that the process of the unconscious brain blocking access to the native language when faced with a negative word is a protective mechanism to minimize a distressing emotional reaction.
“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 negative impact of disturbing emotional content on our thinking, to prevent causing anxiety or mental discomfort," Professor Guillaume Thierry explained in a news release.
"We were extremely surprised by our 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 added.