Embodied cognition – posture

This may not come as a surprise but our brains are part of our bodies – no ‘brain in a vat’. It may seem redundant to have the phrase ’embodied cognition’ as if there was likely to be any other kind. But it seems there are people who are still coming to terms with the idea. In this posting I will talk about some of the experimental evidence for embodiment involving posture.

Vertebrates and probably many other animals are very sensitive to the size, height, width of a potential rival or threatening animal – for good reason I would think. And most use little tricks to make themselves look slightly more looming then they are. On the other hand there is a fairly widespread signal in the animal world for submission which is to make yourself smaller and bowed down. So it is not a great wonder that humans stand tall and wide to show (or fake) superiority and shrink down and inward to show submission. We were probably doing that before we were humans or even primates. Embodiment is shown in the fact that our posture can affect our mood as well as the other way around. Stand akimbo and begin to feel powerful; stoop and begin to feel weakened. It seems to be a two way street. In a power stance there is an increase in testosterone.

Here is the abstract of Carney, Cuddy and Yap, Power Posing, Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance, (2010):

Humans and other animals express power through open, expansive postures, and they express powerlessness through closed, contractive postures. But can these postures actually cause power? The results of this study confirmed our prediction that posing in high-power nonverbal displays (as opposed to low-power nonverbal displays) would cause neuroendocrine and behavioral changes for both male and female participants: High-power posers experienced elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk; low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern. In short, posing in displays of power caused advantaged and adaptive psychological, physiological, and behavioral changes, and these findings suggest that embodiment extends beyond mere thinking and feeling, to physiology and subsequent behavioral choices. That a person can, by assuming two simple 1-min poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful has real-world, actionable implications.

There isn’t a division at the neck, just one person. Here are some other examples that I have taking from (PsyBlog):

Hung, Labroo 2011

Across five studies, we show that firming one’s muscles can help firm willpower and that firmed willpower mediates one’s ability to withstand immediate pain, overcoming food temptation, consume unpleasant medicines, and attend to immediately disturbing but essential information, provided that doing so is seen as providing long-term benefits. We draw on theories of embodied cognition to explain our results, and we add to that literature by showing for the first time that one’s body can help firm willpower and facilitate the self-regulation essential for the attainment of long-term goals.

Friedman, Elliot 2008 –

Two experiments investigated the hypothesis that arm crossing serves as a proprioceptive cue for perseverance within achievement settings. Experiment 1 found that inducing participants to cross their arms led to greater persistence on an unsolvable anagram. Experiment 2 revealed that arm crossing led to better performance on solvable anagrams, and that this effect was mediated by greater persistence. No differences in comfort, instruction adherence, or mood were observed between the arms crossed and control conditions, and participants appeared to be unaware of the effect of arm crossing on their behavior. Implications of the findings are discussed in terms of the interplay between proprioceptive cues and contextual meaning.

Lipnicki, Byrne 2005 –

There is potentially less locus coeruleus-noradrenergic system activity when lying down than when standing, an effect expected to develop via a difference in baroreceptor load. Furthermore, there is evidence implying that locus coeruleus-noradrenergic system activity impairs attempts to solve anagrams. Consistent with these ideas, we found that subjects solved anagrams significantly faster when supine than when standing. With anagrams characterized as insight problems, our finding suggests that insight may be influenced by body posture.

Cook, Mitchell, Goldin-Meadow 2007 –

The gestures children spontaneously produce when explaining a task predict whether they will subsequently learn that task. Why? Gesture might simply reflect a child’s readiness to learn a particular task. Alternatively, gesture might itself play a role in learning the task. To investigate these alternatives, we experimentally manipulated children’s gesture during instruction in a new mathematical concept. We found that requiring children to gesture while learning the new concept helped them retain the knowledge they had gained during instruction. In contrast, requiring children to speak, but not gesture, while learning the concept had no effect on solidifying learning. Gesturing can thus play a causal role in learning, perhaps by giving learners an alternative, embodied way of representing new ideas. We may be able to improve children’s learning just by encouraging them to move their hands.

It is likely that the three aspects of taking a posture – the motor programs that bring about changes in posture, the feelings/emotions/chemicals that trigger those changes and the proprioceptional sense of how the body is moving or positioned – are closely associated in neural communication. Neural communication is more likely to fed back on itself than not. Because we are not consciously aware of these connections does not mean that they are not part of our cognition. Even thinking that seems to us all done consciously, will have large inputs that we are not aware of. Our cognition does not start as a blank slate or a general computer. It must build on the foundation of some very simple basic connections.

This is the first post in a series that I intend to do – next time the face.

One thought on “Embodied cognition – posture

  1. Thanks for the post. It would be interesting to do a study relating these findings to practices such as tai chi or tae kwon do forms. Does anyone know if anything of the sort’s been done?

    JK: What a good idea! I don’t know of any study. If any readers do then speak up. Yoga might be another area that has been studied.

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