Making the Right Moves?

March 18, 2010

I’ve been reading a lot of new research about how our posture, expressions, and physical movements can affect our mood, our memory, and even our ability to learn.

Photo of dramatic chipmunk

Probably not the best body position

Over at PsychCentral, some new data about movement and memory suggest that we can change our mood or our tendency to recall specific memories by changing our body movements. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“When people talk about positive and negative emotions they often use spatial metaphors. A happy person is on top of the world, but a sad person is down in the dumps.

Some researchers believe these metaphors are a clue to the way people understand emotions: not only do we use spatial words to talk about emotional states, we also use spatial concepts to think about them.

To test this link between vertical space and emotion, in a first experiment Casasanto and Dijkstra asked students to move glass marbles upward or downward into one of two cardboard boxes, with both hands simultaneously, timed by a metronome. Meanwhile, they had to recount autobiographical memories with either positive or negative emotional valence, like “Tell me about a time when you felt proud of yourself,’ or ‘a time when you felt ashamed of yourself.’”

When prompted to tell positive memories, participants began recounting their experiences faster during upward movements, but when prompted to tell negative memories they responded faster during downward movements. Memory retrieval was most efficient when participants’ motions matched the spatial directions that metaphors in language associate with positive and negative emotions.

The second experiment tested whether these seemingly meaningless motor actions could influence the content of people’s memories. Participants were given neutral-valence prompts, like “Tell me about something that happened during high school,” so they could choose to retell something happy or sad.

Their choices were determined, in part, by the direction in which they were assigned to move marbles. Moving marbles upward encouraged students to recount positive high school experiences like “winning an award,” but moving them downward to recall negative experiences like “failing a test.”

The study was published in the April issue of the journal Cognition.” (from PsychCentral)

Photo of happy cat

I’ve read other studies where sitting up straight, smiling, or moving in “positive” ways had a positive effect on memory, mood, and cognition. There is clearly a limit to the effect that posture and movement might have on a serious disorder like major depression or generalized anxiety, but since good posture and a smile are free, let’s try them and see!

Wouldn’t it be funny if our moms and grandmas were right all along? Sit up straight and let a smile be your umbrella? Heehee!

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