“EMBODIED COGNITION,” in its most common and practical meaning, occurs when the state of your body — sensory information about your physical state or “embodied self” – modifies the state of your mind. Standing in a power pose – like that of Wonder Woman (hands on hips, feet apart) – can increase your feelings of power to prepare for a speech or meeting. Holding a warm cup when you meet someone unfamiliar can help you trust that person more quickly.
Metaphors help explain embodied cognition. We say “I’m warming up to her” because early experiences of affection when we were babies were often accompanied by sensations of warmth; later we both physically and literally warm up to people. Or we say something is “over our heads” about an idea that we don’t understand, referring to our physical inability to see something that is literally over/in back of our heads.
“Posture has a HUGE effect on how you feel, think and behave,” according to Nicholas Steadman writing on Quora.com. “’Keep your head up!’ ‘Stand tall!’ Have some backbone!’” (In the most radical meaning of embodied cognition, our cognitive resources for solving problems include not just the brain but also the body, as best demonstrated by the “outfielder problem.” With a fly ball heading for the outfield, the brain can try to predict where the ball will land by creating a model of the projectile motion of the ball along with information as it came off the bat about speed and direction. Alternatively, the embodied solution begins with the outfielder running toward the ball, in which case his act of running, by itself, along with the comparable forward movement of the ball, provides him with information about where the ball will land.
Embodied cognition came into popular usage with a 2012 TED talk by Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy. In research with Dana Carney and Andy Yap at Columbia University Business School, Cuddy showed how high-power postures not only change the way people feel but actually “produce power” by altering the hormones testosterone and cortisol. Assuming two high-power poses — both with chin lifted and forward, and either sitting with arms and legs stretched out or standing with the body leaning forward against a podium or table — for one minute each increased testosterone (dominance) by 20 percent and lowered cortisol (stress) by 25 percent.
By contrast, low-power poses — sitting slumped with hands together in the lap, and standing with arms wrapped around the body and legs intertwined –- caused a drop in testosterone levels along with a rise in cortisol. “That a person can, by assuming two simple on-minute poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful has real-world, actionable implications,” according to the researchers. “These findings suggest that that the effects of embodiment extend beyond emotion and cognition, to physiology and subsequent behavioral choice.”
Power posing, however, should be restricted to preparation before the interaction or event. “You want to feel powerful going in,” Cuddy told Huffington Post. On the other hand, what’s important during the experience can be the more difficult challenge: projecting warmth. “Trust is the conduit for influence,” Cuddy said. “If they don’t trust you, your ideas are just dead in the water.” People judge trustworthiness before anything else because “it answers the question, is this person friend or foe?”
Women have a difficult time being seen as both competent and warm, Cuddy added, because of what she calls a “treacherous double bind…Women are much more likely than men to be seen as high on one dimension and low on the other. Women in the public eye are really penalized for deviations from what society has prescribed…to be a warm, soft caretaker.”
Slouching is the “ultimate low-power pose,” Jacqueline Howard writes in her HuffPost science column, with its ability to sap your energy and even bring on depression. Crossed arms, in addition to reducing your power, might also make you appear less approachable. But research conclusions are not always consistent: crossed arms – as opposed to hands resting in the lap — have also been shown to boost persistence while working on a task, according to a study at the University of Rochester.
Gesturing while you talk can help you retain what you learn, according to Howard. And clenching your fists can help you endure unpleasant experiences, such as skipping desert. Different research found that women sitting in an expansive position were less able to restrict their eating.
And then there’s the old pencil trick. Holding a pencil or chopstick sideways in your mouth can produce a smile, which in turn brings on happier feelings. These, in turn, can lower the heart rate and increase the endorphins that contribute to more good feelings. Holding a pencil sideways made a cartoon appear to be more amusing in one study, according to Steadman. In contrast, holding a pencil lengthwise between the lips created a pout, and that made the cartoon seem less funny.
A forehead smoothed by Botox can help someone resist negative feelings. But an unfurrowed brow has also been shown to impair reading comprehension when negative emotions are described, because botox interferes with the ability to empathize, according to Steadman. That study demonstrated a “causal role of involuntary facial expression in the processing of emotional language.” Finally, inducing physical nausea can increase the intensity of moral judgments, especially disgust.
Amid these conflicting conclusions, taking a power pose in a bathroom or elevator prior to a demanding encounter should be successful. And warming your hands before meeting new people can help boost their trust in you, but watch out: everyone’s sense of warmth is different, and too warm might be creepy.