Episode 006 — The Power of Language
Welcome to the only Podcast on the web featuring a physician, Dr. Bill Thomas (@drbillthomas), and musician, Nate Silas Richardson, who team up for the #AskDrBill Show. (Click here for download and subscription links)
Dr. Bill and Nate are the stars of the non-fiction theater performance Aging: Life’s Most Dangerous Game as part of Dr. Thomas’ Age of Disruption Tour.
Each episode features intimate conversations, music, updates from the Age of Disruption Tour.
This week on the #AskDrBill show Nate and Bill discuss the power of language in our culture. How do words alter our pre-conceived notions of ourselves and the people around us? Nate also shares some exciting news and details about an upcoming trip to Uganda with fellow Age of Disruption Tour member, Samite.
Complete Episode Transcript
Bill: Welcome back, everybody. This is the Ask Dr. Bill podcast, and I’m Dr. Bill Thomas.
Nate: And I am Nate Silas Richardson.
Bill: And we’re here today, we’re gonna be really talking about two things. First is the power of words, and the second is we’re going to tell you about a trip that Nate and Samite are going to be making to Uganda, coming up very quickly. So first, words.
Nate: A friend of mine once said, “Say a word and it shall be. So choose your words carefully.”
Bill: That’s a very good point. So say a word… repeat that quote.
[Song]: Say a word and it shall be.
Choose your words so carefully.
Bill: Now, that’s beautiful poetry. And I’m gonna put a little scientific spin on it. There’s actually a concept in psychology called priming. And there’s a lot of complex neuroscience there. But it boils down to this idea that your brain believes what you tell it. It doesn’t have any other way of knowing. So if you tell your brain something, your brain is likely to believe it. And this idea of priming has a lot to do with what words we use to describe certain situations or certain people or certain opportunities. And whether they’re positive or negative changes our attitude toward it. I’ll give you an example, Nate. How are you with math when you were in elementary school?
Nate: I was good at it until they just made it be hours and hours of problem solving, you know, algebra.
Bill: You didn’t like the algebra.
Nate: No, once I got to algebra, I started to struggle.
Bill: That’s all right. Here’s the thing. There’s a bit of priming in American culture that says boys are good at math. Girls are not good at math.
Nate: And then they start to believe it, and then they start to not be good at math or be good at it. How about that?
Bill: What an amazing coincidence!
Nate: The power of suggestion.
Bill: Yeah, say a word and it shall be. So when society puts out a message like that, girls are not good at Math, we have to ask a question about the reality. And the reality is science tells us girls are just as good at math as boys. There’s no difference. Priming, people are primed with messages. I’ll tell you one more, getting closer to the topic of aging, which is big for us. Here’s an amazing study, which is so brilliant, I wish I had done it. Do you ever have that feeling like whenever you hear a song where you’re like “Oh, I wish I wrote that?”
Nate: I was 10 years old, and I said I’m gonna copyright 21st Century Fox. I never did it.
Bill: So that’s it. You missed your chance.
Nate: Yeah, quite a few of those, actually.
Bill: Quite a few. Well, then it goes by. Well, anyway, this is a brilliant study. I wish I had done it. I didn’t do it. Somebody else did it first. But they brought student volunteers into a little lab and showed them pictures. And one group got shown pictures of young people, and the other group got shown pictures of old people. The participants would just sit there and look at pictures, and then 10, 15 minutes later, the researcher said, “Okay, you’re all done. Thank you.” They’re like “What?” “Okay, goodbye.”
Nate: Does this have anything to do with pupils dilating?
Bill: It sort of does.
Nate: Or sitting on the edge of your seat?
Bill: It kind of does.
Nate: Okay, tell more.
Bill: It’s sort of the opposite, in a way. So what happened is the researcher positioned a spy in the hallway. And when the subject of the research came out and started walking to the elevator, they clicked a stopwatch and timed how long the person took to walk down the hallway to the elevator, push the button. Here’s what they found out. People who looked at pictures of young people walked faster to the elevator. People who looked at pictures of older people walked slower to the elevator. So there’s priming, visual priming, in college students in 15 minutes. Amazing. Now, think about what that does, the language of aging, how that primes people like 24/7?
Nate: It’s immeasurable.
Bill: If you look at the words that surround aging in American society, they’re not the happy words.
Nate: I wish we could bring Kyrié in here, because she would have some good ones, I’m sure.
Bill: Yeah. You know one of our friends, Ashton Applewhite, she did a book called “This Chair Rocks.” It’s about ageism.
Nate: Best book title of the century, if you ask me.
Bill: I know. You should have copyrighted it before. So “This Chair Rocks,” that’s a great example, you know. She took this old idea of on a rocking chair instead.
Nate: Brilliant, Ashton. You’re brilliant.
Bill: You’re brilliant, Ashton. If you haven’t read her book, you really should, because it gets into a lot of this about why the stories we tell about aging is so gosh darn important. When I think about our time together on tour or on the road, which all we’re doing, Nate, is getting people to tell a new story, use different words. What’s the last half of that quote?
Nate: Use your words carefully. Choose your words carefully.
Bill: Yeah, right. So I think help people choose your words carefully rather than just accepting the language the way it pops out.
Nate: And also just mindfulness, noticing, whether or not you make strides in changing or make progress in changing, just being aware of what you’re being loaded with or what you’re loading the world with.
Bill: Yeah, like Ashton Applewhite would say, “Yo, that’s ageist,” just being aware of that.
Nate: We should point out that you can actually send Ashton stories or links or whatever, “Yo, is this ageist?” And she’ll give you a little reflection. I’m assuming that’s how that works. She kind of does that as a public service.
Bill: That’s right, standing by.
Nate: Yeah, so send it over to Ashton. Look her up on Twitter.
Bill: Yeah, she’s awesome. So that’s kind of the thing. Words matter. Words define reality. The second thing we wanted to talk to you about in this podcast is a great, big trip.
Nate: Yes, so just the other day, Samite called me with some great news, which is that he has raised funds to bring me with him and Musicians for World Harmony over to Uganda next month. And I think, actually, a month from tomorrow. The day after we tape this, a month after that, we’re going to be getting on a plane and flying over to Uganda to continue some of the amazing work that Samite has been doing for years. I will say that I was involved for about a year maybe in a virtual version of I believe pretty much the same thing we’re gonna be doing.
Bill: Yeah, what was that all about?
Nate: Well, what we did last year was that we got together with Karen Wacks, who’s actually coming on this trip, who is a professor of music therapy at Berkeley College of Music, which is my alma mater. And she had a classroom full of students, and Samite and I would set up at the studio, and we would videoconference with her. And then also there is a… I actually don’t know what you would call it, but it’s kind of like a… it’s not a residence. I don’t actually know what it is. It’s a building that they had built for the purpose of gathering and, hopefully, I think processing a lot of the traumas that have been visited upon many of the villages all over the world but in particular in Uganda. I should have studied up a little more. It’s been a year since we did it, and I don’t remember which village it’s in. And actually, if you go to musiciansforworldharmony.org, there is a brilliant video that will explain a lot of what I’m poorly explaining right now.
Bill: So this is gonna be your first time in Africa?
Nate: This will be my first time in Africa. I have been very passionate about African music since about 20 plus years ago when I discovered the Kora music from West Africa. I’ve done a lot of private study with different Malian musicians and Senegalese musicians. I’ve made an album of Kora music, traditional Kora music, blended, kind of reimagined, if you will. So I’ve been pretty deeply involved in African music. And most of the time, people that kind of know me assume that I’ve been. I’ve never been. So I’m just really excited to finally make the trip.
Bill: Congratulations. And not only are you going to Africa, but I think you’re gonna do a lot of good for a lot of people, singing and performing with Samite and hopefully learning a lot and bringing a lot of what you learn back to what we’re doing with the tour and trying to inject that spirit into what we’re after.
Nate: Yeah, I believe that it will certainly inform…well, it’ll inform everything I do, no doubt. But it’ll hopefully be very applicable to the Disrupt Dementia afternoon show that we do every day on tour. And Samite and I have a very tight connection, and it’s gonna I think reach another level.
Bill: Another level, totally agree, man.
Nate: Subconscious, or we can sometimes just look at each other and make a change.
Bill: Right. There’s more to come. So I’ll just say we’re gonna schedule another podcast when you and Samite are back, and we’re gonna hear some stories.
Nate: And a debrief.
Bill: A little debrief because I think people would like to catch up with what’s happening with that, how it all unfolded.
Nate: One of the interesting things is I actually have a very low level of detail in terms of what it’s going to be. I’m assuming a lot. I may be completely wrong. And I am going into this with a very open mind and a very open heart. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what it’s all about.
Bill: Excellent. So until we see you again after Africa, I’ll just remind everybody that this is the Ask Dr. Bill podcast, and it’s brought to you by the Center for Growing and Becoming and the Dr. Bill Thomas Age of Disruption Tour, sponsored by lifereimagined.org. Hey, that’s where you find what’s next, and produced at the venerable REP Studios in Ithaca, New York. See you down the road.