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Vowels and metaphors: Can they affect health and well-being?

In Tuesday’s New York Times, evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson asked the provocative question:

“Do some languages contain an intrinsic bias towards pulling happy faces? In other words, do some languages predispose – in a subtle way – their speakers to be merrier than the speakers of other languages?”

Judson said she was able to track down only this “smidgen of evidence to suggest the idea’s not crazy”:

A set of experiments investigating the effects of facial movements on mood used different vowel sounds as a stealthy way to get people to pull different faces. (The idea was to avoid people realizing they were being made to scowl or smile.) The results showed that if you read aloud a passage full of vowels that make your scowl – the German vowel sound ü, for example – you’re likely to find yourself in a worse mood than if you read a story similar in content but without any instances of ü. similarly, saying ü over and over again generates more feelings of ill will than repeating a or o.

Judson would like to see researchers test her hypothesis. In the meantime, you can be a study cohort of one: Try smiling more today. See if it changes your mood.

Metaphorically speaking
On a (sort of) related topic, BBC radio ran a short segment Tuesday (accompanied by a written article) on how the metaphors used by doctors and other medical professionals may influence a patient’s ability to endure a medical treatment.

The segment also suggests that a doctor’s choice of metaphor may even influence a patient’s decision to undergo a particular treatment:

Dr. Grahame Brown, a musculo-skeletal specialist at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham, claims he is able to save hundreds of patients from the need to have spinal surgery every year simply by “reframing the negative metaphors that have been unwittingly used by their doctors that can lead to a destructive and self-fulfilling cycle.”
Many of the patients he sees have been referred for surgery after becoming convinced their spine is “crumbling” or that they have “degenerating” disc disease, when in fact they have a prolapsed disc or other normal wear and tear that is common in most people.
Yet anxious patients latch on to these suggestions and become convinced that things are only going to get worse.
Dr. Brown, who has trained in the metaphor-based Human Givens therapy, claims that nine out of ten of his patients no longer require surgery after undergoing linguistic treatment.
“I tell patients who work in computers that I’ve examined their hard drive and it’s functioning well but that the software is corrupt and needs to be deleted and replaced with a new, more positive programme.”

As Brown doesn’t present any studies to support his “nine out of 10” patients statistic, I’m going to remain skeptical about that claim. (And his mode of therapy — Human Givens — apparently has a poor record of backing up its claims with empirical evidence.) But it’s certainly not unreasonable to assume that how a physician frames a patient’s treatment options (whether or not that framing involves metaphors) will influence the patient’s decision-making process.

If you want to catch the 25-minute-long BBC audio segment, “Metaphor for Healing,” you can do so here. (You have six more days to listen to it.)

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