Questions are great brain boosters. They can energize us to start a new behavior, or to break free and let go of an old one. That’s because questions can stimulate powerful emotions, such as curiosity or wonder, which put our brains in first gear, raring to go and learn. Some questions, that is.

A ground-breaking study by Swiss researchers published in Nature revealed that, though the neurons of the amygdala play a key part in processing fear, other areas, more specifically, the higher cortex can also play a key role in regulating the fear response and modulating new emotional learning. Thus fear does not have to debilitate our capacity to make better choices.

And, when it comes to dealing with fears, a good question can empower us to muster the courage to face challenges and fears, and perhaps discover new possibilities in the process!

Not all questions, however, energize optimal processes and our brain’s amazing capacity to learn and create new understanding in the process. Some questions achieve the opposite, and some of these aren’t ‘real’ questions.

‘Real’ versus rhetorical-why-loop questions?

Whereas most questions likely fall in low to high average range in terms of their potential for positive or negative impact on our brain’s otherwise amazing ability to change, heal and grow, arguably, all brains may be better off without the type of questions in the category of rhetorical-why loops.

The rhetorical-why-loop is not a question at all, and more like an indictment.

Whereas ‘real’ questions open space for some level of conversational exchange or possibility thinking, rhetorical-why-loops can hold a person’s mind (and body) hostage to rigid perceptions that cause them to treat losses, mistakes or failures as if they have power to permanently taint the value of a person or situation.

This position casually casts aside the possibility of restoring balance (via some level of acceptance that necessitates engaging higher cortex functions, such as reflective thinking), and automatically (subconsciously) demands harsh treatment instead, perhaps even infinite punishment – and the expectation that all concerned agree.

Examples of rhetorical-why loops include:

“Why me?”

“Why did this happen?”

“Why did this happen to me?”

“Why did you do this to me?”

Often these questions involve the use of absolute adverbs, such as always and never, for example:

“Why does this always happen?”

“Why does this only happen to me?”

“Why do you/they never listen to me?”

“Why do you/they always ignore me?”

In some cases, the questions may indict a relationship or target an idea or institution, in many cases God or Life itself. The body operating with fear in charge can act in desperate and irrational ways.

“Why, God?”

“Why would God let this happen?”

An important clarification: The above questions in and of themselves are not the problem per se.

It is quite natural to ask some or all of the above in some phases of dealing with information that pains or shocks us. And of course it is also possible to verbalize the questions in a light-hearted probing or joking way, and so on.

So what makes rhetorical-why-loops distinct? Their driving intent.

As a survival response, the intent of rhetorical-why loops seems to be to banish or attack the value, adequacy or worth of one or more human beings or life — and not to learn anything of value, discover new resources, choices or useful insights on one’s life journey.

Arguably, whether conscious or subconscious, it is the intent that either:

  • Produces emotional-physiological states in the direction of love- or fear-based emotions.
  • Decides whether the autonomic nervous system will remain in parasympathetic or activate sympathetic state.
  • Overall enriches or blocks optimal brain processes (depending on the intensity).

To be fair, there is a more “benevolent” underlying intent to keep in mind. Absent the skill or know-how to more effectively deal with or lower the intensity of painful emotions (which the body regards as a most pressing need), as protective or defensive strategies, this helps us avoid and redirect them. It also explains why we may use extreme measures (that defy logic) to distance and not feel or deal with painful emotions directly (which is not helpful in the long term!).

Regardless how benevolent, the overall effect of rhetorical-why-loops can result in a coup d’état of a person’s mind and body to where they may come to totally believe that if only they could get an answer to the ‘why’ question they ask, things would change or go back to a pervious time when the pain was not present. 

In sum, whereas rhetorical-why-loop questions can block the brain’s natural ‘learning’ mode and keep us stuck in ‘protection’ mode, real questions empower us to break this hold and find the way out of toxic loops.

The intent of a question seems to be a driving factor.

A good question can energize us to more effectively deal with fears, sustain optimal states of mind and body, courageously face challenges and fears, inquire in new directions, probe more deeply for understanding – and even create new possibilities, seemingly out of thin air!

In Part 2, how rhetorical-why-loop questions can trip us up, and in Part 3, what mind-clearing questions to ask instead.