4 December 2012

Thinking With Your Mind or With Your Body

The general idea embedded in popular knowledge is that a human has a body, a mind and a soul. Those who have learned a bit more about human life have acknowledged that the soul (aka emotions) has its place in the brain (mind). I guess that you know this already so I will not insist on it.

The general view in both popular culture and in some areas of science is that the body and the brain are somehow “separated” (not physically) in the sense that they have clear distinct roles. In this view, the brain receives information from the senses through the body and in turn the brain commands the body.

This assumption is not entirely correct, however. This is because it ignores the fact that the body’s activity (or the lack of it) influences the brain activity. I have presented the topic of visceral influences in an earlier post, but there is a bit more to how the body influences the brain. Visceral influences represent depravations of basic needs such as food, drink, sex, rest or substances that one is addicted to. At the same time, the human body experiences much more than these visceral influences. For example the body posture or facial expression can influence the brain’s activity. Let me give some examples.

We know that emotions (in the brain) lead to physical expressions such as facial expression or body movement. These are completely unconscious and involuntary actions. At the same time if you try to manage (regulate) your reactions the actual level of emotion experienced is modified. For example if you experience anger and try to not show it (manage your reactions), you will end up feeling less angry than you have if you didn’t control yourself. 

Similarly if you feel happy and don’t physically express yourself through facial expressions and or gestures such as jumping with joy, you will feel less happy than if you would have exteriorized. Controlling the physical reaction does not change what you are feeling; it changes the magnitude of your feeling.   In other words, if you are happy and control yourself, you will still be happy but less happy than if you wouldn’t have controlled yourself.

Another very nice example related with facial expressions is the following. In an experiment by Niedenthal, Brauer, Halberstadt, and Innes-Ker, people had to detect a facial expression. Half of the participants were “blocked” from mimicking the expression and half were free to mimic. The ones who mimicked were better than the ones who did not at recognizing the facial expressions. Moreover, the higher the degree of mimicking the better their performance in recognition was.

Remaining in the area of facial expressions, in another study by Laird, Wagener, Halal, and Szegda people who were smiling were better at remembering happy things than people who were frowning. Similarly the ones that were frowning were better than the smiling ones at remembering unpleasant things. A similar study by Riskind has shown that standing up and smiling made people better at remembering autobiographic happy memories than negative ones. Another study done by Research by Stepper and Strack has shown that standing up while being informed of a good performance made people feel more proud than they felt if they were sitting down.

The key idea of the examples presented above is that there is a two-way connection between what we feel and what are the physical posture and expression.

Now a critic might say that these results are all about feelings and have little to do with decisions and “really important” behaviors. As you remember there is one example aforementioned where the physical posture facial expression influenced the ease of retrieval from memory. This, in my view, is very important since ease of retrieval from memory influences decisions and behaviors.

The bodily state does not influence only emotions, it also influences attitudes. For example in a study by Wells and Petty people were asked to move their head while evaluating a piece of music. Half were asked to nod (move their head up and down), while the other half were asked to shake their head (move it left-right). In most cultures (not including the Bulgarian one for sure), nodding is a sign of agreement, while shaking one’s head is a sign of disagreement. Guess what? The people who nodded liked more the music than the ones who shook their heads. Moreover, when compared to a control group (doing nothing with their heads) there were differences in the attitudes. In other words the ones who nodded liked more than the control group, while the ones who shook their heads liked the music less than the control group.

Similar findings exist with attitudes towards an object when people were pushing away an object compared with when people were pulling in (towards them) the object. In other words, when puling towards you an object, you will have a more favorable attitude towards that object as compared to when pushing it away from you.

Another very interesting study by Chen and Bargh’s showed that when exposed to a word with a negative meaning it is easier for people to push something away than to pull the same thing towards themselves. Similarly for words with positive meanings, it is easier to pull an object towards yourself than to push it away.

Facial expressions too have an influence on attitudes. For example in a study by Strack, Martin, and Stepper people who were forced to smile rated some pictures as funnier than people who were forced to frown.

These last examples show that the activity of the body and or the facial expression exhibited influence not only the way we feel (emotions) but also what we like and how much we like or dislike something.

There is more about how the body influences the activity of the brain. According to Daniel Kahneman (in his last book Thinking fast and slow), smiling induces cognitive ease, while frowning induces cognitive strain. Put in more simple words, smiling makes us think somehow superficial, whereas frowning makes us think more critically and be more skeptical.

To sum up, the view that the body and the brain are clearly separated in who influences who has many shortcomings. Visceral states are one influence of the body on the way the brain works, but they are not the only ones. Physical posture, movement and facial expressions influence the activity of the brain four-folded: (1) it influences emotions; (2) it influences attitudes, (3) it influences memory retrieval and (4) it influences how we think – more or less critical.    

Stop thinking that you think with only your mind; you think with your body as well!

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Note: This post is documented from P. M. Niedenthal, L. W. Barsalou, P. Winkielman, S. Krauth-Gruber, F. Ric (2005) Embodiment in Attitudes, Social Perception, and Emotion Personality and Social Psychology Review 2005, Vol. 9, No. 3, 184–211

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