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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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March 01, 2010

Dear Mark: Embodied Cognition

By Mark Sisson
53 Comments

The following reader email brought to mind a NY Times article I read a few weeks ago. The article discusses a fairly new field of research that is uncovering the surprisingly fundamental and intricate ways our bodies influence our thinking and vice-versa. We’ve discussed the mind-body connection in the past, but embodied cognition puts the relationship in a new cast. Think motion-emotion, action-thought. It’s all integrated in ways you wouldn’t expect….

Hey Mark,

I’ve been a PBer for a couple years now and feel better than I ever have. I’m at this point interested in digging deeper into new areas of the PB. I’m intrigued by the mental-physical connection some of your posts and book refer to. Other than the relaxation and stress influence, what kind of sway does the mind-body thing really hold? How do you suggest harnessing it? Thanks and Grok on!

Thanks to Ben for the question this week. As he mentions, most of us are aware that our thoughts have the power to set off a chain of positive (or negative) physiological responses. But the picture is much more nuanced than meditation=good, chronic stress=bad. The field of embodied cognition is probing the connection right down to the evolutionary roots, measuring not just how one can influence the other but how the mental and physical realms largely operate as a unified, integrated recipient/responder to the outer world. Our bodies not only physically sense and move in response to external stimuli; they steer our emotional and intellectual reactions, and they subtly mirror – embody – even abstract social, cultural and intellectual concepts. Hmmm…I see some health and wellness implications coming, but first a quick rundown of the research.

  • Subjects in a Yale University study (PDF) were more likely to rate the target person as interpersonally warm if they held a hot drink in their hand and, conversely, more likely to rate the person as cold if they held an iced drink.
  • A University of Wisconsin study showed that subjects took longer to process negative statements when frowning muscles were deactivated by Botox injections.
  • A University of California, Santa Barbara study showed participants an instructional video about exercising and followed up on their efforts in the week following the video. Although all subjects were told to imagine performing the exercises during viewing, those that were instructed to walk in place while watching exercised nearly 27% longer than those who were sedentary during the video. In a follow-up scenario, women participants who were allowed to hold dental floss during flossing instruction reported flossing more times in a week than those women participants who didn’t hold dental floss during the instruction.
  • Subjects in a University of Illinois study were more successful at solving a given physics related problem when researchers instructed them to swing their arms for a short time.
  • Other research showed that students judged a book as heavier when told it was key to their studies. In subsequent scenarios, participants further confirmed the weight-importance association, in one situation by assessing foreign currency as more valuable if they held heavier clipboards while recording their responses.
  • A study recently published in Psychological Science demonstrated that participants shifted their bodies to reflect spatial metaphorical concepts by consistently leaning forward when talking about the future and reclining when recalling the past.

This is just a sampling of the research of course. Nonetheless, it’s enough I think to illustrate the breadth and depth of the power physical cues have on our thinking. (And, again, vice versa – the power of even unconscious thought over physiology.) Kinesthetic engagement has sway over everything from emotion to learning, memory to intention. In terms of intention, the research shows that passive instruction for fitness (or much else) isn’t as effective as incorporating physical experience. In other words, to bolster people’s intention to get their bodies moving, you have to – well – get them moving to begin with. It’s important to use the connection of physical action with motivation and intention to our benefit. Next time you log onto MDA, pick up some kettlebells or do some lunges as you read.

In this regard, maybe embodied cognition speaks to a larger lifestyle issue as well. There’s an inclination in our culture toward passive observation. Our entertainment pastimes, our communication modes as well as work setups for those of us with desk jobs leave us stuck in the “virtual” or one-dimensional experience. Like the researchers warnings about Botoxed-bounded expression, perhaps relating to the world so often through constrained means shuts off whole realms of experience and feeling. Real wellness, I believe, obliges the actualization of our physical selves. When we compartmentalize the corporeal or diminish the role of our bodies in our perception and experience, we neglect whole dimensions of fulfillment. As embodied cognition teaches us, we deny something fundamental in our nature when we diminish the inextricable connection between our physical and intellectual/emotional lives.

Grok lived an earthy and sensual existence. He was seamlessly of the world in ways that elude us now. As the research shows us, however, the hardwiring is still there. Give the moment – whether it be a workout, a walk, a dinner with the family – not just your full attention but your full physical engagement. Apply all the senses. Be wholly physically present. Imagine what that would mean in the day to day. What would that look like? Feel like? What would you gather or gain exercising – and living – that way?

Send me your thoughts. As always, thanks for the great questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!

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53 Comments on "Dear Mark: Embodied Cognition"

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Jo
Jo
6 years 6 months ago

Writing this into my philosophy dissertation!

And, FIRST! (I hope)

mike
6 years 6 months ago

can we add Yelling FIRST to list of bad comment etiquette above?

Todd
6 years 6 months ago

I agree… it’s getting old!

adam
adam
6 years 6 months ago

lifes a race, and hes in it to win it lol

Adam Kayce
6 years 6 months ago

I’m betting that we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding how the mind and body influence and complement each other.

There has been such amazing work done “in the field” (I’m thinking about physical therapy done with kids with learning disabilities, and how movement has improved their mental capabilities) that so-called “research” will take years to catch up to…

But that doesn’t mean we need to wait for a guy in a lab coat to validate what we already know – move your bod, people! It’s good for you!

mark rottman
mark rottman
6 years 6 months ago

Excellent comment I am a pediatric physical therapist. I am constantly amazed at the effectiveness of movement activities like obstacle courses and simple games like “balloon volleyball” are in integrating and organizing movement in kids with a variety of disabilities.

Casey
Casey
6 years 6 months ago
Great point regarding operating on observation, and not just what people tell you. Think of how much ancient civilizations figured out and used without actually knowing the underlying mechanisms of their technology. Now to defend the guys and girls in lab coats, regardless of their field of work. Assuming it’s good research, the reason it takes years to “catch up,” as you put it, is that the work is attempting to understand why something happens, not just to show that it happens. Furthermore, there should be no ambiguities in the answer. Humans are complex, and we don’t understand ourselves, so… Read more »
Sterling
6 years 6 months ago

I think the another thing to consider is the importance of belief. Believe you’re getting stronger. Believe you are getting fitter, losing body fat, gonna get that extra rep or pull-up. Self-talk has an amazing effect on our success or failure. Awesome stuff Mark.

Todd
6 years 6 months ago

I am so with you!

Your belief system is huuuge. If you do not believe in whatever it is you are trying to accomplish, then your chances of reaching that goal are slim to none. But, if you believe you are well on your way, then your chances of achieving that goal increase significantly. I see it in my life every day!

Another great post Mark.

kcurtain
kcurtain
6 years 6 months ago

This is fascinating stuff. Reminds me of cognitive-behavioral therapy – learning to implement certain actions in order to effect changes in our thoughts and mood.

It also makes me wonder, is part of the reason why depression abounds in modern society is our neglect of our sense of touch? We stuff ourselves into clothes and shoes, desperately try to maintain a “bubble” around ourselves to avoid others, and rarely touch other people unless they are lovers or family. Primates are so touchy-feely, maybe we’re losing an important emotional connection to our fellow humans. Anyone up for some mutual grooming? 😉

Athena
6 years 6 months ago

Wow what a great way to start the week. I guess my goal this week is to be more mentally present, since I tend to let my mind drift and zone out while on the computer for 8 hours a day. Also to climb some trees this week! (people in the park still think im crazy) haha

Aaron Fraser
6 years 6 months ago

That was my immediate goal for the week after reading this, as well.

I’ve read about intention for most of my life, and have tried to incorporate it into my life. Usually, I’ve been successful for a little while, have seen great benefits, and then sabotaged myself by not reinforcing the habit.

I also plan on climbing some trees and perturbing people in public parkland, though I’ll wait till temps rise above freezing 😐

underwaterer
underwaterer
6 years 6 months ago

Isn’t it crappy that we even have to worry about people thinking we’re weird for wanting to climb a tree? I love climbing trees. All I have is big tall pines in the backyard… I could climb them if I didn’t mind sap all over my clothes, lol.

Athena
6 years 6 months ago

Yeah I know! Its like when we grow up we arent allowed to do any fun stuff! I just usually ignore the stares and laugh. At least we are having fun!

Todd
6 years 6 months ago

I love it when people stare at me. As long as you are having fun then do whatever the hell you want! The ones who stare are the ones who are weird 🙂

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[…] Original post by Mark Sisson […]

Shantel
6 years 6 months ago

I agree with Athena. Being more mentally present is sometimes a struggle for me as well. Not sure if it’s the Pisces in me or what but I’m a day dreamer…=)

Mark I wanted to say that I’ve been doing Primal now for 5 weeks and I’ve lost 13 pounds as of this morning! Feeling better than ever! I originally started the program to ease some stomach issues I was having. After going without all dairy and grains now (guess i’m more paleo??) I’ve never felt better!! Thank you!

Kishore
Kishore
6 years 6 months ago

I’m constantly amazed at the amount of gadgets that an average person carries for something as simple as a walk or run in the park. Sunglasses, blaring music from their ipod, the ever present cell phone, water bottles, a pack with random stuff etc. Can’t people just enjoy full spectrum sunlight and maybe stop and listen to the birds chirping or smell a flower for a change? America has been bought off by gizzmos and gadgets apparently.

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jpickett1968
6 years 6 months ago
I would love to see more articles on this, Mark. Obviously we talk about diet, nutrition and exercise ad nauseum – because it’s great stuff! But the power of the mind is indeed an amazing machine and perhaps the most amazing “muscle” in our body. Many years ago I was part of an online community called Leanness Lifestyle. For two years I followed the plan, ate right, worked out and learned a ton. But the most memorable experience from those two years was an ACTUAL, PHYSICAL experience – a workout/demonstration I did with the founder and author of the program.… Read more »
Dale
Dale
6 years 6 months ago

Our bodies are just sensory interfaces for our consciousness…we learn through being, through experiencing.. Having a healthy fully functioning organic interface is vital in our conscious evolution.

Angie
Angie
6 years 6 months ago

This was a great article. I put up positive notes for my loved one and myself to remind us how lucky we are. also to keep up w/ our goals. 🙂

on a side note about the trees, my sister calls me a nut for climbing them and that i belong there. i love doing makes me feel like a kid again.

Michael
Michael
6 years 6 months ago
Go Athena, climbing trees and all!!! I am inspired… I am a PB’er since 12/15/09 (sold my kegerator to pay for crossfit) and it has absolutely changed my life. My crossfit coach told me to read and follow it, and with amazing results. I am a school psychologist working in elementary and middle schools, and have been building behavior support plans where I am having staff take kids out of their classroom several times a day as a preventative measure, and showed them the crossfit kids site where they can pull ideas about a variety of movement exercises. It is… Read more »
animal
animal
6 years 6 months ago

“sold my kegerator to pay for crossfit”… AWESOME!!!

Jasia
Jasia
6 years 6 months ago

I am an energy worker, and I must say – while I was thrilled to see this article, it barely scratched the surface. Would love to see more (deeper) postings like this one in the future.

Paul
Paul
5 years 11 months ago

Sounds like you could add something to this from your own knowledge base. Have you thought of writing an article?

Matt Forrester
Matt Forrester
6 years 6 months ago
Great article. A good study of this would be soldiers in combat situations. From my experiences in Iraq it is absolutley amazing at how in tune your body becomes not only to the environment and your surroundings but your team as well. We trained for a long time together and could sense what each other would do in certain situations. We went by silent communication and feel. The overall feeling of control and reaction is an amzing thing. Your mind goes into what a lot of athletes call the Zone. Your hearing improves to the point where you not only… Read more »
dthalman
dthalman
6 years 6 months ago

i guess maybe i get a little bit of something similar when i am flying down a trail through the forest on my mtn bike trying to avoid hitting a tree. and rock climbing. maybe that’s why i love those things so much–the total focus, the awareness of one’s surroundings

michael
michael
6 years 6 months ago

Mark,

Ever heard of ‘Last Child in the Woods – Saving our children from Nature Deficit Disorder’? It is by Richard Luov where he postulates that ‘our children are the first generation to be raised without meaningful contact with the natural world’ leading to obesity, ADD/ADHD etc. The book was a big hit a few years ago. Basically the theory espoused validates ‘horticultural therapy’.

I used far too many quotes in this comment.

Michael

Rita
Rita
6 years 6 months ago

Don’t forget to take into consideration food as a mind-altering substance. Think about how chocolate or comfort foods affect how we feel. Can our diets literally create thoughts and feelings?

Christine
Christine
6 years 6 months ago
Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself comes to mind as I read this. It is a fascinating book about how people have healed themselves of brain injury without medicine or surgery. Most specifically, he speaks of how new neural pathways are formed and solidified to compensate for injured areas of the brain. Positive praise or other reward secretes a brain chemical necessary to solidify new circuits. While I agree, that we need to be moving and not passive to fully experience life, Doidge notes in his book that visualization does play a role in restoring function or learning a… Read more »
Dave C.
6 years 6 months ago

I’ve always thought it was amazing how much my thought processes and general attitude could affect my workouts. If I let a little bit of negativity into my head, it seems to snow ball and drag my down during the course of the training sessions.

I wonder if that is feedback of the same sort you mentioned in your post.

Art
Art
6 years 6 months ago
“When we compartmentalize the corporeal or diminish the role of our bodies in our perception and experience, we neglect whole dimensions of fulfillment.” I’ve been looking at the work of the quantum physicist, David Bohm recently. He expressed the same concerns: “If man thinks of the totality as constituted of independent fragments, then that is how his mind will tend to operate, but if he can include everything coherently and harmoniously in an overall whole…then his mind will tend to move in a similar way, and from this will flow an orderly action within the whole.” I am encouraged that… Read more »
lucasp
lucasp
6 years 6 months ago
For all of you diggin this, and want practicle life changing information check out Bruce Lipton. Bruce is one of the leading researchers of mind-body and how we can utilize the mind-body for greater wellness, he’s a pioneer in the epigenetics field. He wrote some great books one of which is “The Biology of Belief” also “The New Biology, Where Mind and Matter Meet” and “The Biology of Perception”. http://www.brucelipton.com/ This is a link to Bruces website were you can buy his books and find out all sorts of cool stuff on the subject. Check out youtube too… I just… Read more »
Ed
Ed
6 years 6 months ago

Hi Lucas,
I’ve used NLP techniques successfully in my own life. I recommend a recent book by Richard Bandler, co-creator of NLP, called “Get the Life You Want.” It’s a collection of some of his favorite techniques.

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[…] seeing energy as flowing all through the body and creating this interconnection, Mark over at Mark’s Daily Apple has an interesting post that comes from a completely different scientific […]

Bonnie
6 years 6 months ago

Fascinating. I tend to think of the mind body connection in completely different terms and I love the way this article opened up the door to a whole new way of approaching it.

In that same sort of approach though, one of my teachers in a class that required a lot of rote memorization recommended that we study while walking or running as that would help anchor the information better.

Mark Tyrrell
6 years 6 months ago
The words we use and are exposed to are also vital. Mark cited John Bargh’s famous study in which he found we’re more likley to feel someone is warm if we are (or have recently been) holding a warm drink. In another study he also found that young students would actually walk away more slowly if they had been exposed to “old people words” like “frail, grey, decrepid, unsteady and (wait for it) “Florida”. Even though they didn’t consiously see the pattern of the words they were being exposed to. The words had an immediete imact on their vitality and… Read more »
lucasp
lucasp
6 years 6 months ago
Great examples Mark. I find a simple change in words goes a long way. One I use daily is replacing try with do. Yoda would be proud… it makes a huge difference. Basically try doesn’t mean anything, it’s not even an attempt, it’s not an action word as people use it. Try in essence means that your not actually doing the thing it is your intending to because as soon as you take action then you are doing it not trying. It just depends on the level of success you achieve while doing. Either you try (take no action/only talk… Read more »
Julianne
Julianne
6 years 6 months ago

Take that Descartes.

Todd
Todd
6 years 6 months ago

Cool article. This is just one more thing that’s been around Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies for ages that we are only now coming around to. For example, a school of poetry, waka poetry, says one needs to sit correctly before the words can flow.

“In composing waka, one should prepare oneself to assume the correct posture. If one becomes accustomed to composing in an unrestrained posture such as standing or lying down, one cannot compose at all.” from Yuasa’s “The Body”

Todd Hargrove
6 years 6 months ago

Great post Mark. I’ve been a lurker for years by the way.

In case anyone is interested, I recently wrote a blog post on similar mind body issues a while back. Its mostly about improving coordination by visualizing movement. http://toddhargrove.wordpress.com/2010/01/29/moving-better-by-just-thinking-about-it/

Lee Edwards
Lee Edwards
6 years 6 months ago

The closing line of the NY Times article: “Yesterday is regrettable, tomorrow still hypothetical. But you can always listen to your body, and seize today with both hands.”

What perfect kettlebell thinking!

Theresa
6 years 6 months ago

This is fascinating stuff…I still think you can somehow “think” yourself thin while eating healthy and incorporating an exercise routine. I always find that the better my attitude is, the better I look to myself…and to others.

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[…] Body. Soul…Really? Check out the article on Embodied Cognition from Marks Daily Apple. Post thoughts to […]

Neil
Neil
6 years 6 months ago

I see a lot of peole mentioning buhddism, and Taoism also emphasizises the LACK of distinction between the mind and body. Really great stuff on this by Michael Winn and Mantak Chia that jives well with this article and the primal lifestyl

Maxine Humpherys
Maxine Humpherys
6 years 6 months ago

I just read “Biology of Belief” and was amazed at the explanation of how the cell wall interacts with the environment and determines what gets into or out of the cell. to me, this is an extension of Mark’s discussion about switching on or off a gene’s expression by what we eat, etc. On another note, many spiritual and motivational writings have emphasized acting “as if” (as if you have already achievied your goal). Regarding NLP, Tony Robbins has presented it in at least one of his books – can’t remember which.

JB
JB
6 years 6 months ago

Zen anyone? That’s what we’re talking about here. Full engagement. The eternal now.

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[…] and other imaginative practices to the body’s functioning and balance? Perhaps cultivating the mind-body connection over time can offer the most dramatic, albeit hard to measure, advantages. If we favor the path of […]

Gary
Gary
5 years 11 months ago

The mind affecting the body? Robert Heinlein’s book Stranger in a Strange Land covered this pretty well! Plus it’s also where the word Grok comes from.

Jeff
5 years 10 months ago

“Yesterday is regrettable, tomorrow still hypothetical. But you can always listen to your body, and seize today with both hands.”

That quote was just amazing

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[…] we live and connect Primally, we actively access our inner potential. We harness the power of the mind-body connection, the effects of flow and euphoria, the energy of sensory experience. When we approach it primally, […]

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