Questions Work Magic: How They Change the Brain

Quick - What does a lemon taste like?

I know what a lemon tastes like. Tell me something else instead:

What just happened inside your mouth?

David Hoffeld asks another one: Want to know what your brain does when it hears a question?

His article from the website explores the neurological consequences of hearing a question. Questions temporarily hijack the brain. Did you immediately think about lemons? First, serotonin is released, causing the brain to relax. Next you get a hit of dopamine. The question takes over your thought processes while you think about the answer. The technical term is instinctive elaboration.

The hijacking doesn't last forever. The person who was asked the question can choose to ignore it, can argue against it, can go off on a tangent - though for people with ADHD or bipolar disorder, a question that interrupts our train of thought may cause us to derail.

But Hoffeld cites a number of research studies that document when you ask somebody whether they are going to do something, you increase the probability that they will do it - buy a car, vote in an upcoming election, even donate blood.

Questions not only alter your perception. They can even alter your chemistry. Chances are, when you read the lemon question, you started to salivate.

Hoffeld is a business guy. He has a book, The Science of Selling. It uses neuroscience, social psychology, and behavioral economics to teach a more scientific approach to sales. That's his interest in instinctive elaboration, getting people to buy things or ideas.

Me, my interest in instinctive elaboration is more about mental health:

  • What are the questions I might ask that tell you I care and seek to understand?
  • What are the questions that shut you down?
  • What are the questions that help you sort through your thoughts and feelings?
  • What are the questions that could interrupt an anxious spiral?
  • Would the game of Trivial Pursuits help my family dance around the emotional landmines of somebody's upcoming surgery?

Questions work their magic by engaging the brain. A recent Twitter thread asks, Therapists, what's your favorite question to ask clients?

That's my favorite part of therapy, my therapist's opening gambit. It brings me into the room and puts me to work. It takes the muddle of my brain and begins the sorting process.

I am thinking of other applications, too. What questions could help with emotional regulation? Building trust? Priority setting and problem solving?

So, what's your favorite question?

photo of lemon by Ivar Leidus, used under creative commons license

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