Interesting research shows that certain facial expressions, posture and even the color of your clothing can influence how you think and feel. In short, what you do, say and hear can actually change the way your brain responds. This interplay is called “embodied cognition.”
Think of it as the mind-body connection in reverse. Just as mind-body techniques (such as meditation and visualization) that start in the brain can cause physical changes in your blood pressure, hormone levels and immune system, how you manipulate your body and external world can regulate your mood, improve your concentration and boost your confidence and creativity.
How It Works
While scientists have known that there’s a connection between the body and the mind since at least the 17th century, the closest explanation as to why can be summed up by the theory that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Take the case of happiness and smiling. “When the brain learns, it does so by associating two or more features of the experience,” says social psychologist Dana R. Carney, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley. “When you smile, you tend to feel good. Neurons associated with the ‘smile muscle’ fire, and that is happening at the exact same time that the neurons allowing you to feel happy feelings are firing. Thus, smiling and happiness become cognitively associated.”
What’s fascinating is that the association goes both ways. According to Dr. Carney, “Neurons are ‘dumb’ in a sense. They only know that they tend to fire together so when you are happy, you tend to smile. But the neurons don’t necessarily know which came first. So when you smile, you also feel happier.”
Researchers have discovered that embodied cognition affects not only people’s emotions but also their ability to judge certain situations. For example, in one study, people unconsciously considered another person as having a “warm” or “cold” personality depending on whether they had just held a cup of hot or iced coffee.
Another study found that people who held heavy clipboards gave more “weight” or importance to judgments they were asked to make than those holding light clipboards.
Ways to “Trick” Your Brain
Given how embodied cognition works, you can incorporate it in your life with a “fake it ‘til you make it” approach. Carney offers these strategies:
To improve your mood: Smile, laugh, nod “yes” and keep your body posture erect and open. Wear, do, watch and listen to things that have positive mental associations for you, such as sporting your favorite bright orange top or playing with your dog. Or focus on things that activate positive memories of people or places you like, such as sniffing a certain perfume, listening to a song that reminds you of your favorite vacation or looking at your honeymoon photos.
To sharpen your concentration: Give yourself some room to move and don’t restrict your limbs in tight, uncomfortable clothing. “Research shows that people need to move, wiggle, fidget and gesture, and restricting these motions can impede concentration,” notes Carney.
To boost your self-confidence: Carney’s advice is based on her own research: “Keep your body posture both open and expansive,” she suggests. “This will increase the dominance hormone testosterone and will decrease the stress hormone cortisol—it will also improve conscious feelings of powerfulness.”
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