Mind and Body, Body and Mind

I had never even seen the term “embodied cognition” before this past week. It is a topic that is generally part of psychology and philosophy and is one of the new sexy topics in cognitive science. Unfortunately, that makes the topic sound academic, i.e. “boring.” But I don’t think it has to be.

Embodied cognition ties into our social interactions and decision-making. In somewhat fancier terms, embodied cognition argues that the motor system influences our cognition. People pretty much accept the opposite, which in simpler terms would be: the mind influences the body.

A simple example of embodied cognition that has been studied: when you hold a pencil in your teeth, you engage the muscles of a smile. In experiments, participants doing that comprehend pleasant sentences faster than unpleasant ones. A smile effect. But if they are holding a pencil between their nose and upper lip (which engages the muscles of a frown) it has the reverse effect. Body influences mind.

This has psychologists and philosophers paying more attention to the physical aspects of scientific
models and the idea that cognition (the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses) is more distributed than we once believed.

Any parent or teacher who has worked with children or adults knows that a physical model helps learning (cognition). Writing down your ideas and taking notes on a lecture is more effective that just “thinking about it.” Building a model with plastic bricks or drawing it on paper changes how we think about something. Seeing physical models of a building or a landscape or even looking at plans and maps changes how we visualize what they represent.

These ideas are not new, but the formal study of what is being called embodied cognition is new.

NYY Matsui catching fly ball

I read a paper about this (if you want to go deeper it’s online). One simple example of this is known as “the outfielder problem.’

This is a study looking at how a baseball outfielder catches a fly ball. It’s not that easy, so how does someone put themselves in the right place at the right time? Too easy to explain it as lots of practice, talent, or muscle memory.

This is an overly simplified look at this topic, but my interest in this topic is simple: the body and the physical world influences the mind.

Take a look at why you are not your brain:

  “… our cognition isn’t confined to our cortices. That is, our cognition is influenced, perhaps determined by, our experiences in the physical world. This is why we say that something is “over our heads” to express the idea that we do not understand; we are drawing upon the physical inability to not see something over our heads and the mental feeling of uncertainty. Or why we understand warmth with affection; as infants and children the subjective judgment of affection almost always corresponded with the sensation of warmth, thus giving way to metaphors such as “I’m warming up to her.”

Daniel Eizans asks I”f you try to recall your earliest memory, what comes to mind?” he has his own answer (a pleasant one that is connected to sitting on a washing machine in his first home as his parents painted the walls listening to Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill. Hearing that album gets him right back to that time and place.

He says that “No matter what your earliest recollection is, chances are it’s not a memory that’s tied to language. We’re wired to recognize movement and sound before we ever start to process language: anyone who watches an infant’s interactions with the world can see they are guided largely by embedded behaviors and sensory inputs, which in turn become part of an individual’s embodied cognition.”



Mirror Scratching


Mirror scratching is not about making scratches on a mirror (and not DIY on how to remove them). It is about one of those odd mind-body phenomenon.

You have an itch, so you scratch it. Except sometimes scratching is not a good thing to do (poison ivy, scabs,  eczema) because it makes things worse.

There was a study done to test “whether central mechanisms of scratching-induced itch attenuation can be activated by scratching the limb contralateral to the itching limb when the participant is made to visually perceive the non-itching limb as the itching limb by means of mirror images.”  In simpler English, try scratching your left elbow if the right elbow itches.

Crazy, right? But it worked!  By scratching the non-itching place it seems to have activated a “mirror condition” so that the non-itching place was visually perceived as the itching place.

We have in our brains what are referred to as mirror neurons but this isn’t about that. This particular experiment used a real  mirror placed between the participant’s forearms “to create the visual illusion that the participant’s itching (right) forearm was being scratched while in fact the non-itching forearm was scratched”

The mind not only plays trick on us, but we can trick the mind.


Mindful Eating

Eating lunch at your computer could make you fat: Snacking at your keyboard boosts your appetite later on

That was the headline I saw on a UK site while I was eating my yogurt at my desk today. I am certainly not alone in mastering the art of eating and tapping on the computer keyboard at work.

Now, it is being studied. And the studies seem to indicate that eating at your desk makes you far more likely to snack later in the day. The researchers, from the University of Bristol, were studying the ways in which memory and attention influence our appetite.

Eating at your desk leads to distraction and irritability and actually leaves you hungrier than if you eat mindfully.

They used for the study the distraction of  playing solitaire on a computer while participants ate. The control group ate without distraction. The study found that solitaire-players ended up more hungry after eating twice as much food as the control.

Not only do we tend to eat more when we’re distracted, but even if we decide in advance how much we’re going to eat – just a yogurt and coffee – we’re likely to be hungrier if we eat it at our desk.


That mind/body connection is so strong that when we aren’t mindful of our eating, our bodies are less likely to notice that we’re full.

What would mindful eating look like?  Paying close attention to WHAT we are eating, WHERE we are eating it, WHAT we are doing while we eat and actually remembering what we have eaten.

I’m sitting down to dinner after I post this. I won’t sit in front of the TV and watch the news. I will try to focus on each food. I will eat slowly. I will speak only about pleasant things with my wife.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Mindful awareness practices include yoga, tai chi, qigong, centering prayer, chanting, and mindfulness meditation derived from Buddhist tradition.

The scientific study of mindfulness has looked at the Buddhist-inspired program of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in order to see what impact of mindful awareness is on brain and immune function.

Jon Kabat-Zinn started in the late 1970s to apply the basic principles of mindfulness meditation to patients in a medical setting. Since then, Kabat-Zinn has continued his writings and teachings and  says that he is “not really interested in ‘spreading’  mindfulness, so much as I am interested in igniting passion in people for what is deepest and best within all of us, but which is usually hidden and rarely accessible.”

Although MBSR has Buddhist roots (the inspiration for this post came from rereading an article in the March 2010 issue of the Buddhist publication Shambhala Sun), it is totally a secular application of the practice of carefully focusing attention.

From yoga to meditation, cultivating an awareness of awareness and paying attention to intention are the focuses.

The repetition of these practices can show long-term changes in brain function and structure. This is known as neuroplasticity or how the brain changes in response to experience.

The practices certainly have the effect of stress reduction, but what is still unknown is identifying the “active ingredient” that causes the effects.

The Placebo Effect


You have heard of placebos, right?  Dummy pills.  Sugar pills. Something that looks like medicine but isn’t medicine.  But the odd part is that sometimes the placebo seems to work.

But how is that possible?

A story in Wired magazine got me thinking about this and it tells the story of how the effect seems to have taken hold in our modern medicine. It goes back to World War II in Italy where an Army nurse is assisting an anesthetist named Henry Beecher. They run low on morphine, so the nurse gives a shot of salt water to a wounded soldier but tells him it is a powerful painkiller. The injection seemed to relieve his pain and prevented the onset of shock.

Beecher, the anesthetist, returns stateside and starts to lead some reform in the way new medicines are tested. At the time, pharmaceutical companies would give volunteers increasing dosages of experimental drugs until the side effects were greater than the benefits. Beecher proposed comparing a group that had received the drug with a group that received a placebo.  It would give companies an impartial way to determine whether the medicine actually was what was responsible for any improvement.

A paper Beecher published in 1955 described several types of “placebo effect.” It actually led to some drugs not coming through the testing because the placebo group also had improvements that would otherwise have been attributed to the drug. Even the subjects who got real medication showed placebo effects. It seemed that just the act of taking a pill was therapeutic. Without his placebo group, you couldn’t really tell what value might be attributed to the drug itself.

This double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial (RCT) became the standard for the rapidly growing pharmaceutical industry. Even now, to get approval, new medications must have to be better than the placebo.

But all that pharma testing isn’t the most interesting part of this for most of us.  For me, the thing to consider is just how powerful the brain is in healing us. Call it the mind-body connection.

That same effect seems to occur even when there is no sugar pill. It happens when the patient believes in the treatment or in a compassionate therapist or has a reasonable expectation of getting better. (There’s also a nocebo, or opposite effect when a patient does not believe in the treatment and so may experience a worsening of symptoms – but let’s not be negative here.)

The brain is pretty powerful and still quite a mystery to us.  I was listening this past week to the NPR program Science Friday and there was a segment about research into a non-invasive, drug-free technique to erase a bad memory in the human brain. The guest was Elizabeth Phelps (Department of Psychology New York University) who is researching a behavioral modification technique to remove a simple fear memory in people. This is very new research and the problem seems to be that the “reconsolidation window” (the time period during which the memory can be changed) is pretty small.

eternal sunshine

It’s not quite what appealed to me in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

In that strange and wonderful film, a man decides to have the memories of his ex-girlfriend erased because she has had him erased from her memory. But then he changes his mind – unfortunately halfway into the procedure. Then he fights to hang on to their shared experiences. The film is funny and sad, simple and complex, and ultimately a love story.

You can trick the brain.

The fact that placebo tests do trick some patients is where the testing gets a bit sticky on the ethics side of things. You’re giving someone who needs help and medication a sugar pill?

But researchers and pharmaceutical companies have discovered that even the color of a pill, whether it’s a placebo or the real thing, can change its effectiveness.


Yellow pills work best for antidepressants, while red pills are more stimulating, and green reduce anxiety. Want to reduce that burning ulcer? White tablets are the way to go.

Placebos taken four times a day deliver greater relief than those taken twice daily. Placebos labeled with well-recognized trademarks are more effective than “generic” placebos.

Can we use any of this for self-healing? Nope. When you know it is a placebo, the effect won’t be there. The deception must be complete.

But you can investigate the mind-body connection to see how things that happen in your life can change your emotional health and also your physical health. Traditional medicine was slow to embrace this path, but it seems to be more mainstream today than ever before.

It turns out that good events and bad events can be stressful and cause physical ailments.

Getting a new job and getting fired from one.  A baby’s birth and the death of a loved one.  Winning the lottery and losing a fortune in an investment.  They could all lead to back or chest pain, exhaustion, depression, headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, or other complaints.

There are lots of ways to make the connection work to your advantage. Relaxation methods, like meditation or yoga, or even guided thought, exercising, stretching, walking, or breathing deeply can help.

Unfortunately, a lot of people turn their bodies against themselves by not getting enough sleep or too much sleep, by overeating or not eating, and by using drugs or alcohol to erase symptoms or memories which ends up causing other problems.

You have to be careful if you start searching online for these mind-body topics. There are lots of charlatans trying to sell pills and programs.  I would be fearful of people telling me that some herbal concoction will cure cancer. There is only so much the brain can do with real physical ailments.

I recall a bit on Saturday Night Live years ago when Steve Martin was hosting. He twisted his ankle in rehearsals and couldn’t do the dance routine that was planned. He told the audience that he didn’t want to encourage the use of drugs, but a doctor gave him a very powerful painkiller, and there he was dancing away. The drug was called Placebo.

Yeah, you gotta believe.