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metaphor theory

The Dreaded iHunch

Now look at your phone.

Now look at your phone.

We know that smart phones are bad for your posture. And we know that posture has a strong influence on mood, attitude, and performance. So, could smart phones be undermining your mood and deflating your performance? Of course they could.

Let’s review what we know about two key ideas:

Smart phones and posture – we know that people tilt their heads forward to read their smart phones. The trendy term for this is iHunch. Anatomists more frequently refer to it as forward head posture in which the ear is “…forward of the shoulder rather than sitting directly over it.” As the authors at What’s Your Posture note, it’s like hanging a bowling ball around your neck and reduces lung capacity by as much as 30%. It’s also associated with “headaches, abnormal functions of the eyes and ears, and psychological and mental disorders.” Yikes!

Posture and performance – the concept of embodied cognition suggests that we think with our bodies as much as our minds. If we smile, our mood will improve. If we stand up straight, our confidence will improve. If we support an idea, we’ll stand up for it. If we want to help someone, we’ll bend over backwards for them. In very literal ways, our posture affects our mood and performance.

As Amy Cuddy pointed out in her popular TED talk, if we adopt a high-power pose for two minutes, our levels of testosterone increase and levels of cortisol decrease. The effect is to increase dominance and reduce stress. We’re more confident and our performance improves.

On the other hand, if we hold a low-power pose for two minutes, testosterone falls and cortisol rises. We’re more stressed and less confident. Our performance suffers.

What does a low-power pose look like? Well, … it looks a lot like the posture we adopt when we look at our smart phones. In a low-power pose, we make ourselves smaller. We draw ourselves in. We take up less space rather than more. In a smart phone posture we’re essentially doing all of those things at once.

As Cuddy pointed out in yesterday’s New York Times, “When we’re sad, we slouch. We also slouch when we feel scared or powerless. Studies have shown that people with clinical depression adopt a posture that eerily resembles the iHunch.” By slouching over our phones, we’re making ourselves sad, fearful, and depressed.

When we look at our smart phones, we absorb new information. That information could be positive or negative. The posture we use, however, increases our stress and reduces our confidence. That tends to undermine the positive news and accentuate the negative news. We stress ourselves through our postures as much as our news sources.

What to do? As my father (a good military man) frequently reminded me, “Stand up straight. Look sharp, be sharp”. As it turns out, Dad was right. Oh… and breathe deeply, hold your head up, and take up more space rather than less. You feel better already, don’t you?

Mind and Body

Happy Girl

Happy Girl

How much does your body affect your brain? A lot more than we might have guessed even just a few years ago. The general concept — known as embodied cognition – holds that the body and the brain are one system, not two. (Sorry, Descartes). What the body is doing affects what the brain is thinking.

I’ve written about embodied cognition before (here and here). Recently, I’ve seen a spate of new stories that extend our understanding. Here’s a summary:

The power pose – want to perform better in an upcoming job interview? Just before the interview, strike a power pose for two minutes. Your testosterone will go up and your cortisol will go down. You’ll be more confident and assertive and knock ’em dead in the interview. Amy Cuddy explains it all in the second most-watched TED video ever.

Willpower, dissension, and glucose – If you run ten miles, you’ll deplete your energy reserves. You may need to relax and refuel before taking up a new physical challenge. Does the same thing happen with willpower? Apparently so. If you resist the temptation to smoke a cigarette, you’ll have less willpower left to resist eating a donut. You can use up willpower just like you use up physical power. Perhaps that’s why you’re more likely to argue with your spouse when your glucose levels are low. If you sip a glass of lemonade, you might just avoid the argument altogether.

Musicians have better memories – experiments at the University of Texas suggest that professional musicians have better short- and long-term memories than the rest of us. For short-term memory (working memory), the musicians are better at both verbal and pictorial recall. For long-term memory, they’re better at pictorial recall. Maybe we should invest more in musical education.

How you walk affects your mood – as the Scientific American points out, “A good mood may put a spring in your step. But the opposite can work too: purposefully putting a spring in your step can improve your mood.” As Science Daily points out, the opposite is also true. If you walk with slumped shoulders and head down, you’ll eventually get grumpy. Your Mom was right: standing up straight actually does affect your mood and performance.

Intuition may just be your body talking to you – when you get nervous, your palms may start to sweat. Your mood is affecting your body, right? Well, maybe it’s the other way round. Your intuition (also known as System 1) senses that something is amiss. It needs to get your (System 2) attention somehow. What’s the best way? How about sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat? They’re simple, effective signaling techniques that are hard to ignore.

The power of a pencil – want to get happy? Hold a pencil in your mouth like the woman in the picture. Your facial muscles act as if they’re smiling. You may consciously realize that you’re not smiling but it doesn’t really matter – your body is doing the thinking for you.

Should You Talk To Yourself?

Speak to me, wise one.

Speak to me, wise one.

The way we think about the world comes from our body, not from our mind. If I like somebody, I might say, “I have warm feelings for her.” Why would my feelings be warm? Why wouldn’t I say, “I have orange feelings for her”? It’s probably because, when my mother held me as an infant, I was nice and toasty warm. I didn’t feel orange. I express my thoughts through metaphors that come from my body.

We all know that our minds affect our bodies. If I’m in a good mood mentally, my body may feel better as well. As I’ve noted before, the reverse is also true. It’s hard to stay mad if I force myself to smile.

The general field is referred to as metaphor theory or, more generally, as embodied cognition. Simply put, our bodies affect our thinking. Our brains are not digital computers, after all. They’re analog computers, using bodily metaphors to express our thoughts.

As it happens, I’ve used embodied cognition for years without realizing it. Before giving a big speech, I stand up straighter, flex my muscles, stretch out and up, and force myself to smile for 30 seconds. Then I’m ready. I didn’t realize it but I was practicing my bodily metaphors. I can speak more clearly (stand up straight), more powerfully (muscle flexing), and more cheerfully (smile), because of my warm-up routine.

My warm-up routine actually changes my hormones. As Amy Cuddy points out in her popular TED talk, practicing “power poses” for two minutes increases testosterone and reduces cortisol. The result is more dominance (testosterone) and less stress (cortisol). My body is priming me to give an exceptionally good speech. As Cuddy notes, it could also make me much more successful in a job interview.

I’m growing accustomed to the thought that the way I hold or move my body directly affects my thinking and mood. But what about my internal monologue? I talk to myself all the time. Is that a good thing? Do the words that I use in my monologue affect my thinking and behavior?

The answer is yes – for better and for worse. My “self-talk” affects how I perceive myself and that, in turn, affects how I behave. It’s also important how I address myself. Do I speak to myself in the first person – “I can do better than that.” Or do I speak to myself as someone else would speak to me – “Travis, you can do better than that.”

According to a recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the way I address myself makes a world of difference. If I speak as another person would address me, I gain more self-distance and perspective. I also reduce stress and make a better first impression. I can also give a better speech and will engage in “less maladaptive postevent processing”. (Whew!) In other words, I can perform better and feel better simply by choosing the right words in my internal monologue.

So, what’s it all mean? Take better care of your body to take better care of your mind. As my father used to say: “Look sharp, be sharp”. Oh… and watch your language.

(For an excellent article on how the field of embodied cognition has evolved, click here).

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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