Daily Archives: March 25, 2010

Staring at the Answer


A fascinating article in the New Scientist (Issue no. 2753) by Anil Ananthaswamy discussed the findings of several scientists. They have discovered that how we move directly impacts on our approach to abstract thought and the conclusions we reach. Traditionally, our ability to reason – one of the defining traits of our humanity – is considered to be completely closed off from our physical responses. However, these recent findings are increasingly linking our physical states and movements with higher order thinking skills.

A series of experiments in 2008 by Chen-bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli showed that people obviously excluded in a social setting felt physically colder than everyone else in the room.

Tobias Loestscher and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne conducted an experiment where they asked a dozen right-handed men to think of a string of 40 numbers, between 1 and 30, in a random sequence. As the men listed their sequence aloud to a metronome beat, researchers recorded their eye movements. A pattern quickly emerged.

If they looked left and downwards, the number was typically smaller than the previous one, while if they looked up and right the number was larger. And this correlation was so precise, the researchers could predict the differences in the numbers just by studying the exact direction where volunteers’ eyes focused.
What this experiment didn’t clarify, was whether the eye movements were influencing the number selection, or if the size of the numbers were affecting the eye movements.

However, this is what Daniel Casasanto of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguists has been exploring in his experiments with 24 students. He asked them to move marbles between two shelves, while talking about either positive or negative events in their lives. The students were measurably faster at telling anecdotes reflecting their movements – moving the marbles upwards onto the higher shelf while recounting a positive story, and vice versa.

The next step was to ask the students neutral questions, such as, ‘tell me what happened yesterday,’ when they were engaged in moving the marbles. They were more likely to discuss a positive occurrence while moving the marbles up to the next shelf and recount something negative when moving the marbles downwards.

So… how you move can affect your mood and what you are thinking. On one level, we always knew this, didn’t we? Think of metaphors for moods and mental states that we’ve used all our lives – ‘on a high’… ‘given the cold shoulder’… ‘down in the dumps’… ‘the answer staring you in the face’… George Lakoff, linguist and philosopher, claims that this close relationship with metaphors is no accident, in his metaphor theory. As children, we absorb the physical world in relation to our bodies – and when we have to try and make sense of more abstract ideas and problems, we naturally relate them back to what we actually know and are intimate with – our own physical states.

When suffering with depression some years ago, I was instructed to move briskly, keep my eye level up to meet the gaze of oncoming pedestrians and make sure I smiled at someone every fifteen minutes – whether I wanted to or not. Apparently, when we are miserable, we instinctively look down at the ground, reinforcing our depressed state by isolating us and keeping our mood blue. And using my ‘smile’ muscles, even when I wasn’t feeling like it, would automatically lighten my mood. I was assured that if I went for a walk every day for at least 45 minutes, following these rules, when I got back I would feel happier. I did. It helped that most people I smiled at, responded by smiling back. And within a few days, I was able to start climbing out of my black hole.

I hasten to add – I am not one of those poor souls who suffers from recurring depressive illness, I just happened to be going through a particularly awful patch in my life, which overwhelmed me… I don’t know whether such basic advice could assist someone with major clinical depression – or even if it is generally handed out. But it certainly helped me.

Maybe, these results might lessen the divide between artists, principally concerned with emotional, physical responses; and scientists, more concerned with abstract, higher order problems. I surely hope so. In common with many others, I can’t rid myself of the niggling, nasty feeling that in so thoroughly dividing these two major branches of human endeavour, we are halving our innate abilities and subsequent capacity to respond to the major challenges facing our species.