“The way that woman dresses! The makeup she wears! Doesn’t she see herself? Doesn’t she know that that look went out of fashion 100 years ago?”
“Imagine my mother-in-law, going to a gym at her age! How long does she plan to live anyway?”
And so on and so on. It’s what the Japanese call warukuchi – bad-mouthing. Endemic at the best of times, it’s worse now, with COVID-19 stressing us all beyond the most elementary civility.
Josei Seven (Nov 19) uncovers a new twist to this age-old social problem. Warukuchi is bad for your health. It can shorten your life – by as much as five years. Really, you’d be better off sweetening your bitter thoughts, if at all possible.
The trouble is, it feels so good. You can analyze the satisfaction it brings psychologically, socially or chemically. The chemical in question is dopamine, otherwise known as the pleasure hormone, secreted by the brain to encourage us in certain pursuits – reproduction, among others – that we might neglect otherwise. It’s a kind of natural high, and cutting other people down to size stimulates its flow.
The psychology of it is not terribly mysterious. Calling someone ugly makes you feel beautiful; if you neighbor, boss, spouse and political representatives are idiots, you, by implication, are intelligent; if this or that person has the morals of the sewer, you are virtue personified.
Any social activity, however friendly, activates a competitive streak in us. “We’re always comparing ourselves to others,” says neurologist Risa Sugiura. “To fall short is to feel inferior, which brings on stress., which calls for redress.” Redress stimulates dopamine secretion. Being natural, dopamine should be harmless and even beneficial – as, in moderate doses, it is. If we were all content to feel moderately good, there’d be no such thing as addiction. But warukuchi, like other satisfactions, stimulates an appetite for more satisfaction, and still more. Suddenly you find yourself bad-mouthing everyone and everything – often for nothing.
Granted that warukuchi is a bad social habit, why should it be unhealthy? Because, says psychiatrist Shion Kabasawa, the brain is so configured that the taunts and insults you fling at others boomerang on you, wounding you no less than your targets.
Picture this, he says: you’re walking down the street and hear someone bellow, “You damn fool!” Your instinctive response, quicker than thought, is a fearful alertness. It’s triggered by the amygdala, the brain’s most primitive region. We have it in common with the lowest animals. The thinking part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is slower. By the time it kicks in, assuring you that the shout has nothing to do with you, the damage has been done – negligible enough in this case, but stress accumulates, and every little bit counts.
Kabasawa’s startling insight is that the amygdala makes no distinction between what you hear and what you say. Whether someone bad-mouths you, or you bad-mouth someone, the amygdala braces equally for danger. Your own bad-mouthing of others is, from its point of view, as much a threat as someone else’s of you. In bad-mouthing others you’re stressing yourself. The more you do it the more stressed you become. Stress leads to overeating and poor-quality sleep, with their attendant health dangers.
And the more you activate your amygdala, the more your prefrontal cortex must, so to speak, speak reason to it to calm it down. Overworking the prefrontal cortex in this manner, says Kabasawa, can exhaust it prematurely, generating memory loss and other symptoms reminiscent of dementia.
These are weighty reasons for reining in your tongue – or your fingers, if social networking is your medium. It’s an imperfect world and these are tense times, Kabasawa admits. There’s a lot to carp about. Some bad-mouthing is natural and even healthy. Josei Seven’s implied message is: Keep it within bounds.© Japan Today