Dear Mark: Embodied Cognition

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!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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