We have long prized the power of language as a tool in rhetoric, argument, and persuasion. But new developments in cognitive science have shown that our brains may not be as openly receptive to information as we’ve always thought. The neuroscientist George Lakoff explained what we know about cognitive structures and their effect on our thoughts through the lens of political messaging in his noted book “Don’t Think of an Elephant.”

Lakoff explains that the human brain develops over time to create embedded neural structures, containing neurons that trigger our thoughts as responses to stimuli. These “frames” as he calls them are essentially a person’s worldview. When a person hears words spoken, those words activate the neural frames in the brain and are then processed and filtered through the perception of reality that is created by the frames.  The implications of this are that ideas are of primary importance, and that humans respond to language that lines up with their preconceived principles.  Lakoff uses the example of the “tax relief” phrase conservative politicians used to sell their tax cut plan, explaining that “relief” activates the conservative perception of taxes as an affliction and helps convince people to support something that is in fact against their interests.

The importance of this, Lakoff argues, is that communication is not necessarily about trying to sway someone over to “your side” of an issue or convince them of your message. The key to communication is to identify the framed worldview of whomever you’re attempting to reach, and what kinds of values that frame leads those people to use when contextualizing information. A frame can then be “activated” by presenting an argument within the terms or language that falls into place within that worldview. In this new context, the key to reaching others is knowing the language that speaks to their frame, and using those words to activate their frame and let them see the issue from your perspective.

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