February 14, 2009 / 7:52 PM / 11 years ago

Words give brain handle on feelings: U.S. researcher

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Brain scientists are starting to understand something poets, songwriters and diarists have long known: putting feelings into words helps ease the mind.

A Chinese girl explores a huge model of the brain displayed at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum August 27, 2003. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV CC/TW

“It is a pretty well-established finding that this occurs, but we don’t know why,” Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles, said on Saturday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

“When you put feelings into words, you are turning on the same regions in the brain that are involved in emotional self-control,” Lieberman said.

“It regulates distress,” said Lieberman, who studies the brain using technology known as functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, which highlights brain regions as they become active.

Lieberman’s findings are based on studies in which healthy subjects lie in an MRI machine and view emotionally evocative pictures, such as scared or angry faces. Study participants touch a button corresponding to a word that expresses that emotion.

When study subjects put feelings into words in this way, the researchers noted increased brain activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region known for dampening negative emotions.

At the same time, they saw decreases in activity in the amygdala, the brain machinery responsible for processing feelings about relationships and emotions like fear, rage and aggression.

Lieberman said this may explain why many teenagers and others take up pen and paper when they are filled with angst.

“I think it certainly could play a role in why people of any age write diaries or bad lyrics to songs,” he said.

“That is certainly a possibility.”

Lieberman said he is now doing studies to see how putting words into feelings might help people who fear spiders or have anxiety disorders.

Editing by Eric Walsh

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