The Body–Mind Connection

By Andrea Klausner

Most people are aware of the "mind-body" connection—how your mental processes can affect your physical state. If you feel frightened, your heart races. Being embarrassed can cause you to blush. When you think of something happy, you are likely to smile. Meditating may even lower your blood pressure.

But what about the reverse—a body-mind connection? Can altering your physical state in some way affect your mind?

What Research Shows

Accumulating research is revealing that body position, postures, gestures and facial expressions can indeed influence how you think, feel and even behave. For example, if you wrinkle your nose, an odor may smell more unpleasant. Raise your eyebrows and you may be more surprised by something you read. How you physically lean may, oddly enough, affect your perception of size: Lean left and you’re likely to think the Eiffel Tower is shorter than when you lean right. And though it may not have worked for Lady Macbeth, recent studies have found that hand-washing can have a psychologically cleansing effect, lessening feelings of guilt and remorse.

Much of the research on the body-mind connection (called embodied cognition by researchers) has focused on various expansive (or "power") poses, which involve open positions, with arms and elbows away from the body and chin raised—as opposed to closed postures, where the legs or arms are crossed, the head is down and the body slouched or slumped over.

For example, in a small study in the journal Psychological Science in 2010, people who sat or stood in expansive poses for just one minute not only felt more powerful and "in charge," they also had an increase in testosterone and a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol.

Just sitting up straight, a simple power pose, may increase self-confidence, according to another study. Participants wrote down their strengths and weaknesses and described themselves in a variety of ways, including whether they were good candidates for a job. Those who did the task while sitting up straight, chest out ("confident" posture) rated themselves higher and had more confidence in their self attitudes than those who sat "slumped," with face pointed down toward knees ("doubtful" posture).

Power poses may also help lessen pain, suggests a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. People who assumed expansive yoga poses (standing with knees apart and arms raised) had higher tolerance to discomfort and pain than those in submissive (kneeling) or neutral (standing with hands at sides) poses. The researchers concluded that even if you don't have control over your circumstances, you can behave as if you do by assuming a dominant pose, which, in turn, may decrease sensitivity to pain.

4 Power Poses

  1. To increase perseverance, cross your arms. A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that when people crossed their arms while trying to solve an unsolvable puzzle, they persisted longer at the task than those in a neutral posture, who had their arms over their thighs. Though crossing your arms may give the impression of defensiveness or disinterest in interpersonal settings, it can be good for achievement, the researchers said.
  2. To increase willpower, tense your muscles. In a series of experiments published in the Journal of Consumer Research, subjects who clenched their fists and contracted their leg muscles, for example, had better self-control in various situations, such as having to drink a nasty "health" tonic, withstand the pain of icy water, part with money or resist tempting foods. The study shows that the body, not just the mind, can influence self-control—or, put simply, steely muscles can lead to steely resolve. The key may be to firm your muscles before your willpower runs out.
  3. To improve your mood, smile. The old adage "grin and bear it" has some proven value, as indicated in a 2012 study in Psychological Science. University students who simulated different types of smiles while performing stressful tasks had lower heart rates than students who donned neutral expressions. And a classic study from 1988 found that activating smile muscles made people rate cartoons as funnier. In contrast, just lowering eyebrows (in effect, frowning) had an immediate negative effect on mood in a 2012 study in the journal Emotion.
  4. To be more levelheaded when shopping, assume a balanced position. Can the simple act of wearing high heels, stepping off an escalator or engaging in other "balance-activating" activities moderate your spending habits? Possibly, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of Marketing Research, in which people made various buying decisions while in different states of balance—standing on one foot, leaning back in a chair, playing a Wii Fit game. When focused on their physical balance, they were more likely to buy a mid-range television, rather than a large expensive one or a small cheap one. They were also more likely to make compromise choices for a printer or car.

From our sister publication REMEDY's Healthy Living Summer 2014; reprinted with permission from the University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter, done in partnership with the UC Berkeley School of Public Health

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 16 Jun 2014

Last Modified: 16 Jun 2014