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How your body language influences your thinking

Your body and mind are connected to each other: we know that a troubled mind will affect your body’s comfort too. Who hasn’t had a sleepless night because of worried overthinking? But in addition to this commonly known body-mind relation, recent studies reveal that your body and mind are far more intertwined than previously assumed. 

Have you ever seen a self-confident person walking down the street? Strutting their stuff, filled with certainty about their undeniable strength. How will this person look different from someone shy and insecure? The most obvious difference at first sight: their posture. A confident person will show off broad shoulders and a straight back, whereas a shy person will likely walk with a crouching posture and hanging shoulders. Psychologists have taken this observation as a basis for their research about the connection between mind and body. The scientific term used to best describe this characteristic is called Embodiment. 

Say cheese!

The researcher Fritz Strack came up with a clever experiment to examine the relationship between our facial expressions and our emotions. He seperated participants of his study into two groups. The first group was told to hold a pen between their teeth, whereas he wanted the second group to put a pen between their lips. Participants of the first group all looked like they were smiling – with a pen stuck between their teeth.

However, the second group presented quite grim faces having a pen pressed between their lips. In this rather weird position, he gave all participants a comic to read and asked them how funny they thought it was. Astonishingly, the participants with a pen between their teeth found the comic much funnier than the ones with a pen stuck between their lips [1]. The results indicate that putting a – fake – smile on your face is often enough to cheer you up and turn a bad day into a pretty good one.

Botox against depression

The fact that facial expressions can influence our mood is also interesting to researchers for another reason: a research team at the Hannover Medical School in Germany pursued this further and examined whether facial expressions could also affect the mood of people suffering from depression. They believed it was possible to improve the condition of patients with depression if their faces displayed less frown lines. So they used Botox injections to smoothen those frown lines. Botox is a nerve toxin, which paralyzes the muscles it is injected into. And indeed, 60% of the treated patients experienced a significant improvement in their mood [2].

Let your walk open your mind

And another experiment looked at the way our walking impacts the state of our mind. In this experiment, one group of participants was trained to walk happily and lighthearted (e.g. with a straight back and elastic, light steps). The other group was trained to walk unhappily (e.g. with hanging shoulders and heavy steps). However, both groups weren’t told what these different ways of walking meant. A camera and a computer consistently measured how ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’ their walk was, which was displayed through a needle on a display that went from left to right. Left meant a happy walk, right symbolized an unhappy walk.

All the groups were told was to keep the needle on either the left or the right side of the display while walking but didn’t know what either side meant. Afterwards, they were presented with both positive (e.g. ‘beautiful’) and negative (e.g. ‘ugly’) words and were asked to write down the words they were able to remember most. The results showed clearly that the participants who had trained a happy walk were able to recall positive words more, whereas the participants with an unhappy walk mostly recalled negative words [3]. Conclusion: our posture not only influences how we feel but also determines what information we pay attention to and remember most.

Our body’s hubs 

One possible explanation for the connection between our body’s behaviour and our mental state is the structure of our brain. We experience things on an emotional, mental, and physical level and all these levels are connected to each other via so-called central hubs in our body. Therefore, let’s say we experience something on a mental level, our physical and emotional levels are automatically triggered too, meaning that we not only feel the experience mentally, but also emotionally and physically – thanks to the big connection that ties our body and mind together. 

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1: Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and Facilitating Conditions of the Human Smile: A Nonobstrusive Test of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54 (5), 768-777.

2:Wollmer, M. A., de Boer, C., Kalak, N., Beck, J., Götz, T., Schmidt, T., Hodzic, M., Bayer, U., Kollmann, T., Kollewe, K., Sönmez, D., Duntsch, K., Haug, M. D., Schedlowski M., Hatzinger, M., Dressler, D., Brand, S., Holsboer-Trachsler, E., & Kruger, T. H. C. (2012). Facing depression with botulinum toxin: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 46 (5), 574-581.

3: Michalak, J., Rohde, K., & Troje, N. F. (2014). How we walk affects what we remember: Gait modifications through biofeedback change negative affective memory bias. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 46 , 121-125.

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