Why we need to talk: A neurological explanation
Updated: Jun 5
Talk, talk and more talking. I always thought there was an overemphasis on the importance of talking. The majority of mental health campaigns and celebrities today emphasise the importance of talking to help deal with mental health issues. But why? What is it about the act of talking about how you’re feeling that makes you feel better. Does unloading the burden of your negative emotional cycles onto someone else really make you feel better. However, this is because I didn't understand why talking is essential. Neurological research is beginning to demonstrate the reason.
It is now common knowledge that we have two sides of our brain: The right hemisphere and the left hemisphere, which we’l call the right and left brain. The right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body. While they are connected by something known as the corpus callosum (I promise no more big fancy words), they do operate independently. The left hemisphere (the side of your left hand) is the more logical and linear side and this likes lists. Lot’s of l’s. Bit of a loser. It is the side of the brain that allows us to speak and write. On the other side, the right hemisphere is non-verbal. It is the emotional side and is responsible for remembering facial expressions, body language and eye contact. The gut feeling we get is from the right hemisphere. Oh and the right brain is also attached to our autobiographical memory, which allows us to remember emotional situations. And finally, this might scare you but the right brain essentially has a life of it’s own despite not being able to talk. To be amazed but slightly freaked out, take a look at ‘You are two’ on Youtube, which refers to epilepsy patients who had their corpus callosum removed. So we have two independently operating brain areas and it’s crucial that we have both working together. If we had no linguistic left brain, we would be no different to our chimp counterparts and if we had no emotional right brain, we would basically be robots.
The right brain and the left brain are like two little children that need to be told stories to comprehend what is happening in the outside world. However, the difference is that the left brain can talk back to you while the right brain cannot because the right brain has no language. The left brain will articulate everything but it might not be correct all of the time. For example, it might tell us that John didn't invite me to the party because he hates me. Regardless of if it's correct, it will then pass on this information to the right brain. Let’s take an example. You’re at the cinema and you think a film is particularly enjoyable. While your right brain is experiencing joy and interest, it doesn’t know why because it does not have any language. However, your left brain will articulate that you’re feeling joy and interest because the film is well produced, has an interesting plot and great acting. It can explain this because it has language. You will think about these thoughts and you will then discuss them with your friends afterwards. They will help verify your thoughts or create a better articulation.
By thinking and talking about it, the left brain makes sense of what is happening and then passes on the information to the right brain via the corpus callosum. Everything makes sense and the brain is said to be integrated, a term coined by neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel. Because the right brain is also attached to our autobiographical memory, we will also have fond memories when we think about the movie in the future. The brain is operating successfully.
So what then happens if the brain isn’t integrated? Well let’s take a more serious situation here to really explain the dangers. Let’s say Tim’s wife Carrie is just after passing away unexpectedly. This of course would make his right brain experience the emotion of sadness. He doesn’t want to seem weak to those around him and he is now under financial pressure to provide for his two children as a single parent. Consequently, he pushes his sadness to the side and focuses on his work. On the surface, Tim is busy so everything seems fine. However, in his brain, there is a very different story.
His right brain is feeling overwhelming sadness and the left brain is passing on no explanation to it other than we need to work to provide for our children. This then puts the right brain into overdrive in need for an explanation and this causes the sadness to linger at a higher intensity. By not talking, Tim has a lack of brain integration, almost like a sports team made up of individuals trying to do everything themselves. This can then lead to chemical imbalances or a more painful, disabling type of sadness, which we understand as depression. However, by talking about the situation with friends or better again, with a professional therapist, Tim articulates that he is extremely sad because he feels incredibly lonely, he is afraid that he won’t be a good parent and he is angry that the world took his wife away from him, his left brain is then feeding information and explanations to his right brain and hence, integrating his brain. The brain is in sync. A football team passing and working together.
But then why can’t you just think about this stuff rather than needing to talk to someone. Well because, what you think isn’t always correct and sending your right brain incorrect information is as useless as sending it nothing. This is us only using our left brain and our left brain might create reasons and ignore the sadness. In Tim’s case, he might think ‘I actually don’t care that she’s gone because we were fighting a lot anyway and we were probably going to get a divorce’. It ignores the emotions and as mentioned above, we're no better than robots. We need to talk to others to make actual sense of how we’re actually feeling, rather than what we want to believe by avoiding difficult emotions. And this is why it’s always better to talk to psychologists rather than loved ones. It’s a psychologists’ job to make straighten out the thought patterns of clients. And finally, it should be noted that talking is not the only way to articulate how we are feeling. Language and writing is limited and therefore, it won’t always be able to explain how we’re feeling. Fortunately enough, there is more than one way to express yourself. While it might not make sense to you or I, people will also express themselves directly through their right brain via creative forms such as art, music or dance, which immediately feed the non-verbal right brain. And voila, why the right brain is known as the creative side.
In conclusion, on the surface, it might seem like it is only important to talk because a problem shared is a problem halved but it’s much more that. Talking helps our brain operate to its full capacity, and a happy brain is a happy mind.
Yours Sincerely, The Motus Movement.