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How Your Body Language Alters Your State of Mind
We've known for a very long time that our body language influences others. What we're only now beginning to understand is how our body language alters the way we ourselves perceive the world.
"Update: A new, larger replication has contradicted the research described in this blog post. Click here for more information."
Many animals are known to adapt their bodies to influence other animals around them. Peacocks flare their feathers, chimpanzees inhale air to make their chests bulge, gazzelles stott - jumping higher than necessary when running away from a predator, cats run sideways when they are threatened to appear larger than they are. We all know humans do similar things for various reasons, but can the way we hold ourselves affect not just others' perceptions of us, but what is going on inside our own heads? In a series of experiments spanning many decades, psychologists exploring a field of research called embodied cognition have experimented by placing individuals in various positions under false pretences before examining how the position of the body might impact the way they think.
In 2010 social psychologist Amy Cuddy's landmark paper showed that getting people to pose in the pair of positions shown below (under the guise of attaching electrodes in different positions relative to the heart) resulted in increased levels of testosterone and reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Her TED talk describing the experiment is now the second most popular TED talk of all time.
Testosterone rises before we engage in competition and following a win and falls following defeat, effectively reflecting and reinforcing an individual's dominance. Cortisol is associated with feelings of powerlessness, anxiety and negative health effects such as lowered immune function and weight gain. The participants who took on the powerful poses also reported feeling more "powerful" and "in charge".
Cuddy also discovered that the pair of weak poses shown below resulted in the reverse effect - increased levels of cortisol and decreased levels of testosterone. These results are supported by previous research that demonstrated that people placed in hunched postures were more likely to give up in a task that required persistence - a phenomenon known as learned helplessness. The people placed in hunched over positions also reported they felt more depressed, a finding that has been replicated repeatedly, including in Cuddy's study.
In Cuddy's 2010 study the participants who were placed in the weak poses with their arms crossed or in their laps were also more risk averse in a gambling game compared to those participants placed in a high power pose who were more willing to try to double their winnings by opting to roll a die.
In a classic study conducted in 1988, researchers got people to watch a cartoon while either holding a pen between their teeth, or between their lips without touching their teeth. Holding the pen between the teeth stimulated the same facial muscles used when we smile while biting with our lips alone makes it impossible to smile naturally. The researchers discovered that people found the cartoons funnier when they had the pen between their teeth. More recently, in a study that really makes you stop and think, researchers found that botox injections which can make it difficult to frown actually make people less depressed. Interestingly, the injections didn't make the people feel more attractive, suggesting the reduced feelings of sadness were not to do with the treatment's normal intended function. Amazingly, the results have recently been replicated in clinically depressed patients in a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial. In the study published earlier this year over half of the depressed patients had at least a 50% reduction in a depression rating scale (compared to a 15% reduction in patients who received a placebo injection). 27% of the patients given botox even achieved clinical remission six weeks after the single treatment (in comparison to 7% of the patients in the placebo condition).
In a recently published study reminiscent of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks sketch, psychologists manipulated people's walking patterns using a motion capture based biofeedback system. If the system detected an upright posture and swinging arms a gauge on a monitor would move in one direction. The participants weren't told what the gauge measured but were told to keep experimenting with different walking styles to move the gauge to the right. This allowed the participants to be manipulated to reflect either the characteristics of a depressed patient or a "particularly happy walking style". The researchers then asked the people to recall words from a list of happy or sad words. The overall results were unremarkable - the people who had been led to walk in a happy style remembered slightly more happy words and vice versa. But the people who had achieved the happiest walking style remembered three times as many of the positive words than the students who achieved the saddest style of walking.
In another study Amy Cuddy gave students a mock "dream job" interview in which they had five minutes to write and five minutes to deliver a speech to two interviewers. While preparing for the interview the students were asked to perform the "expansive" or "contractive" poses. The poses were not maintained during the interview - when the students could stand how they liked. During the interview the researchers who were dressed in white lab coats scribbled notes and withheld all emotions not giving so much as a smile or a nod. This procedure, known as the Trier Social Stress Test has been shown to result in a tsunami of cortisol, it is even believed to be the most ethical way to elicit the greatest amount of cortisol possible under laboratory conditions. The students who had held the expansive poses were rated higher in both the content and delivery of their speeches. Importantly, this was in spite of there being no statistically significant difference in their stances during the interview.
The findings of Cuddy's research aren't all rainbows and happiness however, in a series of experiments published last year Cuddy demonstrated that striking a "power pose" - the name Cuddy has given to particularly dominant stances - can make you more likely to act dishonestly. In the first experiment, people stretched for one minute in an expansive or contractive pose. Participants were told they would be paid $4 for participation but the experimenter then "accidentally" overpaid them, giving them $8 instead. Astoundingly, 78% of the people who were made to do the expansive pose kept the money compared to only 38% of those who were told to adopt the contractive pose.
In the next experiment people could earn money by unscrambling anagrams working only on either a small, or a large desk pad - surreptitiously forcing them to either spread their arms across the table or work in a hunched over fashion. The psychologists then gave the participants the answers and asked them to mark their own work - but unbeknownst to the participants a sheet of carbon paper was hidden under their worksheet. Those who worked on the small pad were more likely to cheat. In another experiment participants had to sit in a large comfortable seat or a small seat where they would feel squashed. They were told to stop for 10 seconds every time they crashed while playing a game of Need for Speed on the Playstation 3. The people who were in the seats that allowed them to take an expansive style of sitting were more likely to cheat. In a final study, that seems more interesting anecdotally than as evidence for the theory, Cuddy observed that drivers of cars with larger seats were more likely to double park in New York City, but this effect is clearly likely to be entangled with the fact that drivers who choose larger vehicles are likely to be very different types of people to those who would choose something more modest - but an interesting anecdote all the same, given that the experimenters were blinded, providing hard evidence for the belief that drivers of large cars tend to be less conscientious.
In another study Cuddy manipulated posture by providing participants with a task on either an iPod Touch, an iPad, a Macbook Pro or an iMac. The participants were told the experimenter would return after five minutes but the experimenter never returned. The researchers timed how long it would take for the participants to come looking for the absent experimenter. Amazingly the people who used the larger devices waited far less time before going looking for the experimenter - represented by the grey bars in the graph below. In fact only half of those who used the iPod Touch ever mustered up the courage to seek out the experimenter compared to nearly all of those who used the iMac - the percentages of participants who took the decision to look for the experimenter are represented by the dark grey bars in the graph below.
Exasperatingly - given their straight forward nature, Cuddy's findings have been widely misconstrued in the media. Cuddy's argument is that "power poses" should be used to help people prepare psychologically for a challenging social interaction, but crucially - not actually used in the social interaction itself. Maintaining a position that could be perceived as aggressive is not a pleasant way to engage with other human beings in most contexts. This is particularly important if you already have the dominant role in the relationship - for example if you are a manager or a doctor. It's been demonstrated for instance that doctors are more likely to be sued by their patients if they speak in tones rated as being more dominant. This was predicted from only forty seconds of speech that was scrambled to remove all meaning. That is not to say taking on a powerful stance is not useful for social interactions - just not every social interaction. Indeed, as Cuddy suggests, more often than not it may be best to push the table aside. Pitches, presentations, job interviews are all potential places Cuddy's techniques could be useful, but depending on the situation they may be best reserved for the bathroom. Obviously (you would think) the idea is not to put your feet on the table when conducting a job interview - as one of Cuddy's Harvard Business School students had the displeasure of actually witnessing - at Harvard Business School of all places.
The explosion of research in the field of embodied cognition over recent years appears to demonstrate that there is a very strong feedback loop between how we express our emotions with our bodies and how we experience our emotions, but the idea is not a new one. In 1872 Charles Darwin proposed that our facial expressions feed information back to our brain, altering our emotions positively or negatively. We all know how frustrating it is to be told to smile when we are having a bad day, but it seems there really is a good argument for reminding ourselves to smile, stand up tall, spread our shoulders wide and express positivity. We've known for a long time the importance of first impressions and the effect our body language can have on other people, but what we often forget - and what we're only recently seeing such strong evidence for, is the effect our body language can have on the inside.
Bos, Maarten W., and Amy J.C. Cuddy. "iPosture: The Size of Electronic Consumer Devices Affects Our Behavior."Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13-097, May 2013.
Cuddy, Amy J.C., Caroline A. Wilmuth, and Dana R. Carney. "Preparatory Power Posing Affects Performance and Outcomes in Social Evaluations." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13-027, September 2012. (Revised November 2012.)
Carney D.R., Cuddy A.J.C. & Yap A.J. (2010). Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance, Psychological Science, 21 (10) 1363-1368. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797610383437
Finzi E. (2014). Treatment of depression with onabotulinumtoxinA: A randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial, Journal of Psychiatric Research, 52 1-6. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2013.11.006
Michalak J. & Nikolaus F. Troje (2015). How we walk affects what we remember: Gait modifications through biofeedback change negative affective memory bias, Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 46 121-125. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2014.09.004
Riskind J.H. (1982). Physical posture: Could it have regulatory or feedback effects on motivation and emotion?, Motivation and Emotion, 6 (3) 273-298. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/bf00992249
Strack F. & Sabine Stepper (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54 (5) 768-777. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.118
Yap A.J., B. J. Lucas, A. J. C. Cuddy & D. R. Carney (2013). The Ergonomics of Dishonesty: The Effect of Incidental Posture on Stealing, Cheating, and Traffic Violations, Psychological Science, 24 (11) 2281-2289. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797613492425
Image Credits: Shutterstock, Tinypic, Cuddy et al. 2014, Cuddy et al. 2013
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
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Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.