How Changing Your Body Can Change Your Mind

Posted: May 16, 2013 in Interesting Facts

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 till 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.”08-23[1]

  1. melissawhitley says:

    This is a great post, it’s really interesting to see how you can make yourself feel happier just by smiling, even if its a fake smile! How neat! I never knew that wearing loose clothing can help you concentrate better, I will definitely keep that in mind when I pick my clothing for school! Thank you for sharing this with us!

  2. ggmihajlov says:

    I like this Dr. Carney and feel she should be a Disney spokesperson. It reminds me of training you learn in orientation. You are reminded to smile, remember you work at “the happiest place on Earth”. Some people might find this silly and to have no real proof, but I must say it can get you through your day even if it ain’t going all that well.

    It’s funny how I never would’ve thought about tight clothes affecting my concentration but it makes sense as a discomfort can cause focus on that discomfort and not on anything else. I am glad I knew and practiced this for other reasons being its not comfortable. I will try and remember to keep my posture more open and of course keep smiling.

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