Thursday, February 16, 2012

The connection between physical sensations and higher cognitive powers

In Body of Thought, a fascinating article by Siri Carpenter in Scientific American Mind we learn about the connection between physical sensations and higher cognitive powers. In particular, we learn how seemingly trivial sensations and actions like smiling or frowning or holding a smooth or rough object can influence high-level psychological processes such as social judgment, language comprehension, visual perception and even reasoning.

Psychologist Lawrence Barsalou at Emory University talks about how a few brave scientists in the 80s began to challenge the view that the body is just an input-out device for the brain. They suggested instead that higher cognitive processes are grounded in bodily experience and the brains low level sensory and motor circuits don't just feed into cognition; they are cognition.

Though ridiculed at the time, by the late 90s, evidence started trickling in, then later pouring in to support their thesis. Barsalou notes studies that show that:
  • holding a hot cup of coffee or being in a comfortably heated room warms a person's feelings toward strangers
  • striking an open expansive "power pose" prompts people to make bolder decisions
  • wearing a heavy backpack makes hills look steeper
  • a water bottle looks closer when you are thirsty
  • moving objects upward versus downward speeds recall for positive memories
  • sitting on a hard chair turns mild-mannered undergraduates into hard-headed negotiators.

Results of a now classic study by Fritz Strack at the University of Wurzburg in German, shows that smiling (even fake smiling) can affect how we feel and interpret information. Strack and colleagues found that people rated Far Side cartoons as funnier when they were holding a pen between their teeth, without allowing it to touch their lips ( a pose that activates muscles used for smiling). Those findings indicate that the face sends important feedback to the brain, which it then uses to interpret information about the world.

A 2009 study by neurologist Bernard Haslinger at the Munich University found that Botox injections to the forehead not only paralyzed frown muscles, but also jammed the neural circuits needed to fully process negative emotion. It seems if you can't physically make a frown, you're less likely to be sad.

It seems we also project immoral behavior onto body parts. Psychologist Norbert Schwarz at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor found that people rated hand sanitizer more highly after lying via e-mail and mouthwash more highly after lying via voicemail.

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