The Mind, Body, Communication Connection

It is a common chant heard throughout childhood: “stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” As they mature, many an adult learns that this playground adage is anything but true. Words have a unique power to wound us; some sneered proclamation can pierce the heart with as much precision as a laser-guided missile. Yet beyond the emotional pain, an emerging field of research is demonstrating the physical effects that a kind (or not-so-kind) word can have on a subject. The intersection between health and interpersonal communication is at the core of Assistant Professor John Crowley’s work at the UW Department of Communication.

While a graduate student at San Diego State University, Dr. Crowley became interested in the research of Kory Floyd, a University of Washington alumnus who currently teaches at the University of Arizona. Floyd’s work focuses on the methodology of using biological markers, like changes in subjects’ hormone levels, to measure their physical responses to social interactions. Through the analysis of this empirical data, Dr. Floyd’s research provides more objective results than researchers can obtain by relying solely on narrative self-reporting.

Inspired by Dr. Floyd and others in this emerging field, Dr. Crowley and his team study the physiological responses individuals demonstrate when coping with difficult life experiences, like discrimination or deep emotional betrayal. If negative communication has an adverse effect, Dr. Crowley posits, then positive communication, such as expressing forgiveness, can be a method for reducing stress. For example, Dr. Crowley conducted a study with members of the LGBQ community who had suffered one or more instances of hate speech. After a ten-minute discussion recounting these experiences, researchers encouraged the subjects to write a letter to their offenders as a way to “disclose forgiveness.” According to Dr. Crowley, the exercise explored how a narrative framework and disclosure could help individuals “escape living in an unforgiving place.” At the study’s conclusion, those subjects that expressed forgiveness towards their offenders displayed a significant reduction in cortisol levels, which is a primary biomarker used to measure stress.

Prior to returning to Washington to take up his new position within the department, Dr. Crowley conducted another study while in Colorado that examined how writing can influence testosterone, which in turn can influence the type of forgiveness communication that occurs in relationships. The research took place longitudinally over the course of one month. The data revealed that high levels of testosterone, as found within a sample of the subject’s blood, could help reduce the fear of confrontation, ultimately making those who had suffered a betrayal within the relationship more likely to disclose to their betrayer. This increased testosterone also correlated with a stronger motivation within subjects to forgive those who had hurt them, rather than expressing a more indirect form of “forgiveness with conditions.”  Dr. Crowley hopes that sustained research in this area will encourage more people to view communications from a systems perspective.  “I want this research, and its documentation and subsequent publication, to create a greater awareness of mentally taxing relationships, how they affect the body, and what actions people can take to ensure that they do not damage their health.”

Dr. Crowley is happy that his professorship at the Department has presented him with more chances to expand his research. “Coming back to the University of Washington was a unicorn opportunity for me,” he says. Due to the emerging nature of his work, there are many questions still unanswered. “I’m a social scientist, but my understanding of biology is not inexhaustible, so where do I go when I don’t know something? The people at UW have the answers; it is incredible to work alongside these brilliant researchers, like Eleanor Brindle of the Center of Studies in Demography and Ecology. You get to ask those questions and be on a campus that really encourages collaboration.”

Dr. Crowley also says he admires the Communication Department’s commitment to doing things that matter. He embraces the faculty’s dedication to promoting cultural diversity and working with people in underserved communities. “At the University of Washington, we address social issues in a truly comprehensive and tangible way,” he explains. “The Department faculty are all asking similar questions, but differently. What is great is that the Department is finding a way to connect everything by breaking out of these traditional silos and making our shared efforts more visible through storytelling. We are taking these separate threads and weaving them into one beautiful tapestry of research.”

At present, Dr. Crowley has three studies in development. The first focuses on micro-aggressions in the United States, post the 2016 election and the appointment of President Donald Trump. “There is a lot that we do not yet understand about the relationship between immune response and racism,” Dr. Crowley states, “particularly racism that is expressed more subtly through acts of micro-aggression.” Dr. Crowley plans to investigate if there any variables that moderate the experience of populations affected by this type of negative communication. The chief purpose of this study would be to collect and document foundational research on the topic.

The second, smaller study that Dr. Crowley is interested in conducting would focus on trying to understand how people use social media to cope with the uncertainties of the Trump administration. In particular, those people and communities directly affected by new policies. For example, do individuals choose to follow social media influencers who bolster them emotionally, like a favorite comedian, during times of political turmoil? The project is slated for late spring, after Dr. Crowley finishes building his research team.

The third study currently in development is a research collaboration between Dr. Crowley and his colleague, Assistant Professor Carmen Gonzalez, which focuses on the health and wellness workshops facilitated by the Latino Educational Training Institute (LETI). The professors will conduct a study to determine what effect the health and wellness workshops offered by the institute are having upon its community members. For instance, are these shared experiences affecting the participants’ cortisol and cholesterol levels, heart rate, etc.? The study will likely take place in the second half of 2017.

However, in order to carry out research that will yield high-quality datasets, Dr. Crowley believes that the Department needs a dedicated research lab within the Communication building. “We just cannot keep piecing it together anymore,” he explains. He also actively seeks out new community partners with whom he can collaborate to explore new research questions. “Recruiting participants from outside the student population is crucial,” he insists, “and I have found that you need to know more than two people to get a sample of two hundred.” He also hopes that these partnerships will result in new promotional avenues that will move research “out of the ivory tower of academia” and into the hands of those who would benefit the most from the findings. “The things that excite me are the things that people are not yet doing,” he muses. “I like to tackle challenges that most think impossible and work with my colleagues to move the needle more towards the possible. To ‘make it so’ and keep exploring the physical substrates of forgiveness and positive communication. After all, according to many religions and philosophers, forgiveness is what holds the universe together. I definitely think that’s worth exploring.”