Changing feelings and thoughts can be difficult (oh there’s an understatement for you!) but here’s some exciting news … there’s a back door, and it starts with your physical experience – the way you move, your surroundings, even what you’re wearing just to name a few. The research on this is growing – and the findings are fascinating …
Before it was even a concept, we were talking the talk of embodied cognition, using metaphors of physical experience to explain thoughts, feelings, emotional responses.
We talk about feeling ‘weighed down’ by guilt – connecting a physical heaviness to the emotion of guilt. We ‘warm up’ to people, others ‘leave us cold’, tying physical temperature to our emotional reactions to people. We ‘weigh up’ different options, giving heavier weighting to more important considerations. Similarly, when we talk about difficult concepts ‘going over our heads’, we align the idea of something being physically out of reach, to our understanding of a concept being similarly beyond grasp. .
The idea that our thoughts are initiated by our physical experience has been demonstrated by an impressive body of research.
Embracing the metaphor ‘something smells fishy’ – a metaphorical expression of suspicion – a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored the embodied cognition in fishy smells.
Researchers found that participants who were incidentally exposed to fishy smells showed increased suspicion about the intentions of others. Those participants also showed less co-operation in a task that required them to trust others to share resources or responsibilities.
Furthermore, when researchers induced suspicion in participants, those participants showed a heightened sensitivity to fishy smells, and greater accuracy in labelling fishy smells, but not other smells such as apple fragrance oil, minced onion, caramel, and orange nectar.
Another study demonstrated how the physical experience of weight influenced the perception of importance. Basing their study on the observation that heavy objects require more effort and have greater impact the body than light objects, researchers found that when people held a heavier weight, they perceived issues as more important.
Clearly not everything that is important is physically weighty – but – when we speak about people dealing with important things – addiction, break-ups, job loss, depression, we speak about how they have ‘fallen hard’, are ‘dealing with some heavy stuff’ or we ask the question, ‘how much harder do they need to fall?’.
Other research has found that participants judged a stranger more favourably when they were seated in a softer, more comfortable chair, than when they were seated in a harder chair. (All participants reported the chairs as feeling ‘normal’.)
Our thoughts, feelings, physical experience and behavior are inextricably linked. They influence each other. Change one, and the others will eventually catch up.
Thoughts and feelings are generally the most difficult to change but the promise of a recent study is that we can change our cognitions – the processes happening in our mind that might be getting in our way – by attending to our bodily experiences.
In the study, researchers found that people with a greater body awareness showed a greater propensity for mind to be influenced by their body.
What does this mean in everyday life?
Bodily experiences can influence cognition without us realising. So much of our behaviour happens before we are even aware that a decision needs to be made – or has been made.
However, by paying attention to our bodily experiences, we can lift the curtain on our seemingly automatic responses, catch them, influence them (by adjusting our physical experience), and modify behaviour.
To feel more powerful, for example, stand tall. It’s no accident that we talk about ‘shrinking away’ from, or ‘standing up to’, people or challenge.
To feel more confident, more powerful and less anxious, adopt a power pose and hold it for two minutes. Think superhero style with your body expanded, chest out, and hands on hips.
There is a greater chance of being viewed favourably, or receiving a favourable response when the other person is physically comfortable. Perhaps this is why pillow talk is such an important part of relationships. When we feel relaxed, close, comfortable, conversation is more likely to be patient, relaxed, tender.
The metaphors we use everyday are a clue to embodied cognitions.
Thoughts and feelings can sometimes feel like they are impervious to change, as though while we were sleeping they were set in stone, locked in a vault, and guarded by black suited, unsmiling security guards. The rub is that behaviour, whether healthy or otherwise, shoots out from whatever is happening upstairs.
The good news is that there is a back door, accessible by paying attention to and modifying our bodily experiences. A behaviour, attitude, thought or feeling that isn’t working so well can be shifted by changing something in the physical environment – temperature (warm up to/ freeze out), comfort (soften up/ harden up), posture (open up to or stand up to (the positive)/ shut down to or shrink away from (the negative)), music (calm/powerful/energetic/sleepy), lighting (light up/dim down). Difficult conversation? Offer the comfy chair. Want someone to warm to your point of view? Check the temperature of the room.
The marketers and savvy store owners are already onto this, luring us with colour, images, lighting, music, smells – all without us realising. (Campbell’s Soup have increased sales by removing a spoon and adding steam (which embodies warmth) to their in-store displays.)
Armed with the knowledge that our cognitions are influenced by our bodily experiences, you have a sweet spot for effecting more positive behaviours and responding to the world more effectively.