New York Magazine, of all things, offers a fascinating report on the latest from neuroscience, the notion of “embodied cognition.” It’s a complicated and difficult topic, one that I discussed at length in The Last Psychoanalyst.
According to New York:
A burgeoning research area in psychology is the idea of embodied cognition — that is, not only does your brain tell your body what to do, but it works the other way around, too. In other words, the position of your body can influence your thoughts. Your yoga teacher might call it the mind-body connection; a pair of U.K. researchers, on the other hand, recently described it in the journal Frontiers as "the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems."
[The study from Frontiers is the most interesting and complete. It is too complicated to summarize on a blog, but, for those who are interested, it is well worth a read.]
We have been taught that the mind directs the body, that physical expressions, to say nothing of symptoms, are being commanded and controlled by a mind… one that Gilbert Ryle called the ghost in the machine.
If this is true, then the only way to change behavior or mood or attitude is to modify the mind that is controlling it. Many therapies take their cue from Freud and assert that the insight and awareness will cause sufficient mind-change to produce lasting symptom relief.
Others want you to get in touch with your deepest feelings, because once you learn about them you will no longer be expressing them through your behaviors.
In both cases, changing something about the mind is the royal road to changing behavior and attitude and mood. Note well that psychoanalysis, in particular, rejects the idea of changing behavior.
Unfortunately, the approach has never worked, so more savvy philosophers have suggested that we have gotten in backwards. The mind does not direct the body; behaviors do not express mental conflict. It’s the other way around.
By the alternate theory, symptomatic behaviors are bad habits and bad habits are impervious to understanding. To eliminate them you need to replace them with good habits. So said Aristotle, and his approach still works.
It may well be that this notion is new to neuroscience, but it has been alive and well in philosophy for decades now. As I mentioned in my book, the great modern thinkers in this field are Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, J. L. Austin and Saul Kripke.
When it comes to examples, New York offers yoga as an excellent example of changing your mind by adopting different bodily poses and by controlling your breathing.
Funnily enough, the message seems to have gotten garbled. Today’s paper reports that a lot more people are buying yoga apparel than are doing yoga. One suspects that wearing the clothing does have an effect on the mind, but it probably does not have the same effect as doing the exercises.
Now that I have mentioned it… how you dress, how you groom yourself, how you comport yourself… all of these have an effect on your mind. Isn’t it one of the principles that define military training?
Also in today’s news, it turns out, as many have suspected, that when a man retires from his job and spends more time hanging around the house, his mere presence is so disruptive of household routines that his wife is very likely to become depressed.
New York offers some pointers for how you can use this new research to improve yourself.
It reports that if you are having trouble solving a problem, you should try folding your arms. Apparently, this gesture, performed for no particular reason will make you more persistent in your pursuit of a solution.
And then, if you want to learn a new concept, you should move your hands, or, as they say, talk with your hands.