How the Body Knows Its Mind

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In the 17th century, the French philosopher Rene Descartes famously wrote that, “The mind… of man is entirely different from the body.” In the proceeding centuries, the idea that mind and body are separate flourished—dualism became the go-to theory—but now we know that Descartes was wrong. Human physiology is composed of dozens of tightly connected components. The mind and body represent two parts of a greater whole.

One of the most exciting developments in cognitive science takes this idea one step further. Researchers are beginning to show that our physical experiences actually constitute thought—that is, thinking is embodied. In this view, if we want to study how we think, we must study how the body interacts with the world. This idea is not the innocuous claim that the mind needs a body. It is the revelatory hypothesis that conscious thought is dictated by the details of physical experience.

For example, when we say that something is “over our heads”, we’re combining the physical experience of not being able to see something over our heads with the feeling of uncertainty. The idea that we’re “warming up” to someone comes from the sensation of warmth—not just the subjective judgment of affection.

Given the tight connection between mind and body, it’s no surprise that psychologists are beginning to study how we can use the body to become sharper mentally. It’s an emerging area of research that brings me to How the Body Knows Its Mind, a fascinating new book that explores how the physical environment influences how we think and feel, by University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock.

I asked Beilock over email how physical changes could stimulate our cognitive abilities. She explained a few simple hacks, such as the importance of posture. “When we stand tall as if we are bringing our A game to the table, we actually function more confidently – this can be really important in times of stress when worries have the power to co-opt the cognitive horsepower we need to perform at our best.”

Creativity is also sensitive to the environment. Beilock cites one study in which participants had to think of a word that links measure, worm, and video. It’s a difficult task, and most people struggle to come up with the right answer (tape). The researchers found that participants who tackled the word problems inside a box constructed from PVC pipe scored worse than participants who tackled the problems outside the box, suggesting that “thinking outside the box” is more than a mere metaphor.

A change in setting can also improve productivity and health. “Viewing green space and nature can actually affect our thinking and concentration skills for the better,” Beilock explained. “It also has been shown to help in recovery from illness (e.g., breast cancer). One aspect that I think is particularly interesting here is that we know that when people are sick, they worry and ruminate, which can zap the brain power they need to think and function at their best.”

The most interesting part of How the Body Knows Its Mind explores the connection between metaphor and action. When participants had to pull a lever toward them in one study, they more quickly determined that sentences about receiving information made sense. Conversely, when participants read a sentence about giving information away, they were faster to move their hands away from their bodies. “Part of the way we understand ‘giving an idea’ is to think about physically giving someone something. That’s why how we hold our body has such an impact on our thought.”

Despite these findings, we’re still living in an era that thinks about thinking almost exclusively in terms of neural activity. Many cognitive scientists continue to use computational metaphors to describe the brain. Yet even something as cerebral as spoken language draws heavily from the visual cortex and the motor system, brain regions heavily influenced by how the body interacts with its surroundings. We’ve correctly discarded dualism but we’re clinging to an intuitive version of Descartes’ outdated model. For many, a body is just something that gets the brain to meetings.

The people who have the most to lose by clinging to this model are not people but businesses. Companies like Apple succeed because they treat products and retail as physical experiences. The smooth edges of an iPhone elicit the metaphor that what’s smooth works seamlessly. By replacing the traditional checkout counter with one-on-one checkouts, Apple physically and metaphorically leveled the relationship between shopper and seller, thereby creating a less intimidating buying experience.

Google appreciates the relationship between the body and creativity, which is why it encourages its employees to move around and provides opportunities for exercise. The greenery and open spaces of Google’s main campus supply both mental stimulation and relaxation.

How the Body Knows Its Mind is ultimately about what individuals can do to become mentally sharper. For kids, Beilock encourages more recess time and physically complex activities, such as practicing a musical instrument. Adults should exercise, meditate, and become familiar with persuasive gestures and postures. The book is filled with practical advice grounded in psychological science. Yet its strength is not self-help hacks but perspective. Beilock reminds readers that the body is not a container for the mind but its essential collaborator.