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Thinking With Your Body

The future is behind you.

The future is behind you.

When I’m happy, I smile. A few years ago, I discovered that the reverse is also true: when I smile, I get happy. I’ve also found that standing up straight — as opposed to slouching — can improve my mood and perhaps even my productivity.

It turns out that I was on to something much bigger than I realized at the time. There’s increasing evidence that we think with our bodies as well as our minds. Some of the evidence is simply the way we express our thoughts through physical metaphors. For instance, “I’m in over my head”, “I’m up to my neck in trouble”, “He’s my right hand man”, and so on. Because we use bodily metaphors to express our mental condition, the field of “body  thinking” is often referred to a metaphor theory. Perhaps more generally, it’s called embodied cognition.

In experiments reported in New Scientist and in Scientific American, we can see some interesting effects. For instance, with people from western cultures, “up” and “right” mean bigger or better while “down” or “left” mean smaller or worse. So, for instance, when volunteers were asked to call out random numbers to the beat of a metronome, their eyes moved upward when the next number was larger and moved downward when the next number was smaller. Similarly, volunteers were asked to gauge the number of objects in a container. When they were asked to lean to the left while formulating their estimate, they guessed smaller numbers on average. When leaning to the right, they guessed larger numbers.

In another experiment, volunteers were asked to move boxes either: 1) from a lower shelf to a higher shelf; or 2) from a higher shelf to a lower shelf. While moving the boxes, they were asked a simple, open-ended question, like: What were you doing yesterday? Those who were moving the boxes upward were more likely to report positive experiences. Those who were moving the boxes downward were more likely to report negative experiences.

When I speak of the future, I  often gesture forward — the future is ahead of us. When I speak of the past, I often do the opposite, gesturing back over my shoulder. Interestingly, the Aymara Indians of highlands Bolivia are reported to do the opposite — pointing backward to the future and forward to the past. That seems counter-intuitive to me but the Aymara explain that the future is invisible. You can’t see it. It’s as if it’s behind you where it can quite literally sneak up on you. The past, on the other hand, is entirely visible — it’s spread out in front of you. That makes a lot of sense but my cultural training is so deeply embedded that I find it very hard to point backward to the future. It’s an interesting example of cultural differences influencing embodied cognition.

Where does this leave us? Well, it’s certainly a step away from Descartes’ formulation of the mind-body duality. The body is not simply a sensing instrument that feeds data to the mind. It also feed thoughts and influences our moods in subtle ways. Yet another reason to take good care of your body.

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