Dr Helena Boschi on Communication

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Dr Helena Boschi spoke to dentists about events happening “north of the mouth” in our brains, Dental Review reports

During the Simplyhealth Professionals Dental Conference at Syon Park in September, we witnessed many eye opening events. Maori warriors performed a Hakka, an Olympian shared her childhood ambitions to become a juggler and two Lady Liberties busted some grooves on the dance floor.

Helena Boschi topped that with a moonwalking bear. Dr Boschi is a world renowned psychologist who specialises in applied neuroscience at work. She is a keenly sought international speaker – after Syon Park her next stop was Buenos Aires – and her talk was both entertaining and informative.

Entitled “The Neuropsychology of Communication and Behaviour” Dr Boschi’s presentation posed complex questions and provided interesting answers that often produced a wave of laughter from her audience. What is actually happening when we communicate with each other? We know what we mean, but what do people hear when we speak?

How do dentists’ minds work? What goes on north of our mouths? Why is it we cannot multi-task? What makes us susceptible to cognitive distortions and biases?

Before looking at communication we first needed to understand how our brains work; and we hope Dr Boschi will forgive any slips we made during rapid note taking:

Frontal Lobe: This is the part of the brain that directs judgement and decision taking. Teenagers largely lack this ability. The frontal lobe is not fully developed until around the age of 25.

Temporal Lobe: This is about our emotions and is where the endocrine system starts. It contains the hippocampus, which supports memory. It is the part of the brain most dominant in teenagers because it drives experimentation and risk taking, especially when egged on by their peers.

Parietal Lobe: Here we do maths and keep our spacial awareness.

Occipital Lobe: Much as it sounds this is the ‘seeing’ part of the brain, and yet it is at the back. Everything we see, our visual impulses, must travel through the rest of the brain and gets interpreted and distorted in the process.


Nowadays we live in a complex digital and sensory world and our brains are not designed for modern life. They were evolved for a much simpler environment. Our environment affects the way we react to things. For too many people this means their minds are never ‘off’. For example, most people spend between one and four hours a day on their mobile phones. A brand new neurosis has developed, nomophobia, fear of being without one’s mobile phone.

Our minds and bodies are constantly under attack by our environment. 95% of us use a device that creates light before we go to bed, which affects our sleep patterns. And we need to sleep; sleep squeezes out the toxins that build-up during the day. People are literally addicted to the internet. Using the internet creates dopamine in our systems, which is an addictive chemical.
Despite social media people are becoming more isolated and loneliness is on the increase. And the average Westerners’ attention span is now just eight seconds. A goldfish – not noted for its attentiveness – manages nine seconds.

In our judgemental, hyper-body conscious world, body dysmorphia starts at the age of three, and yet obesity is an increasing problem. Misery and depression follows. We need to exercise more; our brains are not designed to sit in an immobile body. Exercise produces endorphins, natural painkillers, which are addictive in a healthy way.

Gender specific and circuits of empathy

At a time when the lines between male and female are becoming increasingly blurred our brains remain firmly rooted in the past. Our brains are organs of two halves: right is more creative, emotional and artistic, while left is more logical, it likes lists and languages. Men are more left-brained, women more holistic, they use all of their brains with better connectivity between the two hemispheres. Anatomically and chemically the sexes are different, though where in the brain we discover why a little girl loves the colour pink is as yet unknown.

We have circuits of empathy, another’s smile will make us smile; yawns induce a sympathetic yawn. We mirror and mimic each other. A dentist will share the pain and anxiety of their patient, while a patient will respond to smiling warmth and confidence from the dentist. Remember, attitudes are contagious, what sort of contagion are you?

We fear losing more than we love winning, and when we lose, we resort to defensive reasoning: “We did our best, these things happen.” “The patient was going to die anyway.” This latter is less likely in a dental surgery, but you get the gist. Our words matter; how we speak and what we say has a direct impact on those around us.

Avoid corporate speak

For example, our brain can’t hear the word “don’t”. We hear and react to whatever comes next: “Don’t turn around.” We turn to see what’s there. “Don’t touch that.” We touch it to see what happens. “Don’t look at that.” You’d have to look, wouldn’t you? “Don’t forget to brush your teeth for two minutes, twice a day.” Why, what’s the worst that could happen?

Try to avoid saying “don’t”. Make a positive statement to get the same desired effect, “Look over there.” “Careful, that’s sharp. It will cut you.” “That’s pretty gross, not your sort of thing.” “Brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes each time and they will stay healthier, which will save time and money at the surgery.”

When dealing with patients and colleagues avoid corporate speak, it kills the message. Keep your statement simple and clear – the brain loves simple. Here are six words the brain also loves to hear:
• Our name: we love hearing someone using our name, but not to the point of insanity. Use a person’s name and you’ve got their attention.
• Now: when is it going to happen? Now, fast, immediate.
• Free: it’s yours free and gratis. It’s free, take it away, now. (We get two for the price of one).
• Because: Especially bad news: “The bridge collapsed because 400 dentists were performing a Michael Jackson Thriller tribute on it.”
• New: This technique is new and more effective. This is new, it’s the latest thing.
• Together: We’re in this together. We’ll get this done together.

Statements have one of two effects on the listener:
Placebo: I will please
Nocebo: I will harm

Dentists use nocebos all the time. They are meant to comfort the patient but have an opposite effect. “This won’t hurt.” “You’ll just feel a little sting.” Neither of these statements are reassuring, they resound in the patient’s brain like a warning. What they hear is, “this is going to hurt you, get ready”. Their brain activates and stimulates pain.

And finally, the moonwalking bear. Dr Boschi showed a film of two teams playing ball and asked her audience to count how many times the team in the black shirts passed the ball to each other. At the end most people confidently said “13”. “Okay,” said Dr Boschi, “did anyone spot the moonwalking bear weaving between the players?”
She played the clip again. There he was. And that shot down the theory that people can multi-task effectively. Do one thing well, or several things badly, there is no multi-tasking.

Dr Boschi’s book, Why we do what we do, was published in July 2017