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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46 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Embodied Cognition”

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  1. 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!

    1. 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.

    2. 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 to be sure something is correct (given our current knowledge), it takes years to write off alternative theories.

      Conveniently, for aspects of your life that you can control, you have the perfect test subject: yourself! And now the internet can bring together enough people following similar experiments to carry statistical significance. Ah, technology.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

  3. 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? 😉

  4. 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

    1. 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 😐

    2. 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.

      1. 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!

        1. 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 🙂

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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. I still think about it. The preparation and training I participated in because I knew I’d be in front of a bunch of people was motivation. Working out and not wanting to disappoint my Coach was another. But the physical act of putting it all together and squatting 10 X 10 with him is a visual I’ll always have. And when I squat today, I see that in my mind. Those good vibes help me through the rough times if needed. I was fully present that day, for sure.
    Consider me a work in progress, but the philosophies of Zen are consistent with what you write about as well – being present. Certainly Grok had to be present. On a hunt, if he weren’t present, he could either lose his prey or become the prey himself.
    Visualization is one of my favorite techniques for being present. Imagining feeling, seeing, etc. – and cueing the mind to get ready. Powerful stuff.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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 not only working for these kids as a preventative measure, but staff are really getting into this new, ‘weird stuff’! Last week I showed the physical therapist the crossfit stuff and she went nuts- she said that is exactly what our kids need to be doing- not surprised at all that a few minutes of wall ball shots or box jumps gets kids back in the mood to learn AND it prevents the blowouts… Mark, you are a force in this world for the greater good and I thank you!

  11. 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.

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

  12. 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 hear things but you feel them. You can see things by the looks on peoples faces, the way they walk or glance about.

    1. 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

  13. 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.


  14. 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?

  15. 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 new physical skill. This is crucial for patients who have lost movement. Just wanted to put that out there, so that anyone who is (like me) pretty much still stuck visualizing and not realizing (yet) a 100 overhead squat, don’t dispair. Not to give Descartes too much philosophical credence, but you do have to think it, then will it, and then do it.

  16. 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.

  17. “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 adopting a more primal lifestyle not only will improve our physical health, but also has the potential to transform human society as well. How cool is that!

  18. 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”.
    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 noticed recently that some of his talks are on there.
    Also for those of you that want practicle “tools” for creating positive change in your life whether it be mentally, physically or emotionally look into NLP, and Time Empowerment Techniques. I am a trainer of both and the benifits of which have changed my life deeply. NLP stands for Neuro- Linguistic Programing and was born partially out of cognitive-behaviral psychology with a mix of hypnosis and mind-body influences. Basicaly it’s the use of language (Linguistic) to positivly influence changes in mental and emotional patterns (Neurology)through shifting your internal programing. You can use these “tools” and processes on yourself and others. Within a few minutes you can make drastic, meaningfull and lasting changes in negative patterns and behaviors you may have been struggling with for many years or even your entire life. It puts you in the drivers seat of your thoughts, emotions and physical wellbeing.
    Time Empowerment Techniques (TET), utilizies a concept that Mark mentioned in his research listed in todays blog. One of the studies he cited said that people tend to lean in one direction or another depending on whether they are talking about the past or the future. TET is based on the fact that people organize their thoughts, memories, plans and goals in a spacial sense. Some peoples past, in relation to their body lies to their left and some to their right. Each person is unique in the direction they generally associate with their past or future but most tend to be in a few similar patterns. I for example associate my past to my left and my future to my right. This implies a line of sorts…. a “time line” if you will. TET uses this principle to go “back” mentally on you time line and “release” or change negative emotions and decisions that limit you in your life. For example if you were made fun of as a kid for being fat and you had unconsciously and silently agreed that you where fat an no one liked you then that decision and those emotions are a sort of program that gets unconsciously played out through out your life, limiting you in being truely happy and healthy. TET would go back to the point on your timeline that you experienced that and you would release the negative emotions and any limiting decisions you made at the time. This often because of the mind body connection can have a profound effect on your physical body beacause you are no longer running unconscience programing telling your body to be fat and unliked. Pretty powerfull stuff!
    There is so much more to all of this and the potential for change, growth and wellbeing is amazing. If you are interested in learning more please feel free to email me (Lucas) just address it TELL ME MORE so it doesnt end up as junk mail. [email protected]
    Hope this helps you all on your journey of health, happiness and wellbeing!
    Be well, Lucas P.

    1. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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 walking speed. Being exposed to a “type” of word can have a profound impact

    If I sit with someone who sprinkles their language with “pain, depressed, slow, useless, mysery, tired…” I don’t feel that energetic but often times we’re not even aware it’s happening.

    People who sit up straight when describing their plans for the future report feeling more psotive about those plans becomong actualized We use “physical words” to describe emotional states-“feeling down”, “looking up”, “feeling torn” etc.

    Fascinating blog thanks Mark

    1. 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 about) or you do (take action) and then take your successes and build on them. Heres one more to chew on… instead of being a great “problem solver” be a great “solution finder”. Simple change but this brings your focus from inside the box of the “problem” to all the other things outside of that box called “solutions”. What you focus on expands… so do you wanna focus on the problem or a solution. This one thing when applied to your life will open up all sorts of new doors. Lucas P.

  21. 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”

  22. 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!

  23. 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.

  24. 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

  25. 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.

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

  27. 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.

  28. “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