How you’re sitting or standing right now has effects on what you’re thinking. I don’t mean that if you’re perched on an uncomfortable chair, you’re likely to think about moving or finding a pillow. I mean that adopting positive or negative postures – sitting back with your fingers interlocked behind your head as opposed to sitting tightly cross-legged – can send your thoughts in different directions.
Changes to attitudes can be prompted, bizarrely, by putting a pen in your mouth in various ways. Bite down on it with your teeth and you simulate the muscular contractions associated with smiling; use your lips to hold it, and you mimic a frown. In one experiment, people holding pens in these ways came to different conclusions about how funny cartoons were. Those simulating smiles “reported more intense humor responses” than those mimicking frowns.
But it’s not just attitudes and emotions. Simply shaking one’s head yes or no has effects on our rational faculties. In one strangely worrying study, students were told that they were evaluating the sound quality of new headphones, particularly when they were jostled around. Half were told to shake their heads up and down and the other half from side to side, all the while listening to a carefully prepared radio program with an editorial making a case for the introduction of student ID cards. Those shaking their heads yes were more likely to agree with the arguments they heard than those shaking their heads no.
We are not pure enquirers, following arguments wherever they lead – sometimes we assent because we’re shaking our heads yes. The old image of us as thinking things quite different from the bodies we happen to inhabit has been given a good battering in the last 60 years or so, from many quarters. The view of us as embodied thinkers and feelers is now on the rise. This issue’s forum is devoted to embodied cognition, what it means to see ourselves in this new way. It’s fascinating, illuminating, and sometimes slightly wonderful.
But if our mental malleability gets you down a little, if you worry that maybe you’re not the careful, Cartesian thinking thing you thought you were, bite down on a pen, sit back and interlock your fingers, and maybe you’ll feel better about it.