What does your body relate to?

A fascinating bit of research is currently going around: How You Remember Dance Steps Depends on Culture: I Think Step to the Left, You Think Step to the East: ScienceDaily (Jan. 4, 2010) Here's the short version:

"Even the way people remember dance moves depends on the culture they come from, according to a report in the December 14th issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication. Whereas a German or other Westerner might think in terms of "step to the right, step to the left," a nomadic hunter-gatherer from Namibia might think something more like "step to the east, step to the west."

Being immersed in a decontextualized,  Cartesian, habitat-free culture, we Westerners are free to simply follow the raw spatial directions that are served up to us: left-right, up down–completely independent of the "outside" world.

But primal peoples are somatically and spiritually connected to habitat. Compared to us, they have a heightened awareness of surrounding terrain and orient their mind-bodies to environmental cues. Their culture undoubtedly supports this orientation, encouraging the body-land linkage. In this kind of culture, every move you make has some kind of relationship to the land.

This finding tweaks our assumptions about "normal" physical experience and cognition. As the researchers put it: "It's becoming more and more clear that we cannot simply extrapolate from investigations within our own population to others," Haun said. "To understand the human mind, we need to widen our perspective and assume diversity rather than universality of cognition until proven otherwise."

I exercise, therefore I look great!

In the annals of strange mind-body connections, this one has got to rank as one of the most interesting. According to a study published study in the September issue of the Journal of Health Psychology, the simple act of exercise and not fitness itself can convince you that you look better. The authors reported that "People who don't achieve workout milestones such as losing fat, gaining strength or boosting cardiovascular fitness feel just as good about their bodies as their more athletic counterparts." This comes at a time when negative body image has grown to epidemic proportions, with as many as 60 percent of adults in national studies saying they don't like the way their bodies look.

Kathleen Martin Ginis, a kinesiology professor at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada praised the research. "This is an important study because it shows that doing virtually any type of exercise, on a regular basis, can help people feel better about their bodies.

See Exercise Improves Body Image For Fit And Unfit Alike

Behavioral flexibility, ruts and phys ed

If you're looking to live a life of health and vitality, you'll want to be flexible and learn from experience. The world is changing constantly and we want our bodies to adapt. If we get stuck in a narrow range of behaviors, movements or ideas, we stop growing. Unfortunately, stress defeats this objective by causing distinct neurological changes to the brain. The more stressed we get, the more we're prone to falling back on repetitive, stereotyped ways of living that are unproductive or even destructive. Today's New York Times has a great piece on the details of this process: see Brain is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop. This research has enormous relevance for anyone who works with bodies and health.

Embodied cognition: it's real

Physical enthusiasts are not going to be surprised by this one: A new study reports that "Body Movements Can Influence Problem Solving." Researchers set up a problem that required a creative solution. Subjects were guided through movement sessions: one group was led through movements that subtly resembled the ultimate solution, the other group was led through generalized, unrelated movements. Those who moved in the related way were far more likely to arrive at the solution. This sounds obvious enough, but the findings are powerful evidence that the mind and body are intimately connected and interdependent. They  also suggest that our Cartesian approach to education is deeply flawed. Instead of isolating the brain and trying to stuff it full of information, we ought to be bringing the body into the process. Physical movement isn't just about health; it's also about intelligence. As the researchers put it:

"People tend to think that their mind lives in their brain, dealing in conceptual abstractions, very much disconnected from the body," he said. "This emerging research is fascinating because it is demonstrating how your body is a part of your mind in a powerful way. The way you think is affected by your body and, in fact, we can use our bodies to help us think."

Swimming in a sea of placebos

If a small white pill can have a placebo or nocebo effect on the human mind-body, why should the process stop there?Couldn’t we be swimming in a sea of placebo effects? Couldn’t we derive medical meaning from virtually anything in our world? After all, we are intensely interested in survival; it makes sense that we would be vigilant for health meanings everywhere.

It is safe to assume that placebo effects are at work in all medical and health care processes: surgery, chemotherapy, weight lifting, acupuncture, yoga, vitamin supplementation, psychotherapy, chiropractic and massage. But even beyond that, why should the effect stop with processes that take place in the clinic, the gym or in the hospital? Might there be placebos and nocebos in every corner of our social, cultural and media universe?

This possibility is brought to light in a recent report in Science Daily: "Think Memory Worsens With Age? Then Yours Probably Will." Researchers discovered that older adults' ability to remember suffers when negative stereotypes are "activated" in a given situation. In other words, belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Studies like these suggest that we are barely even beginning to understand the extent of the placebo effect; we simply don’t know how far this might go. For all we know, every single event, process, idea and substance in a person’s life will have a life-enhancing or life-destroying power to it.

Amazing mind-body links

Body scholars like to say that everything is connected: mind-body-spirit and so on. Here's an astonishing example, reported in ScienceDaily (April 27, 2009) "Wimps Hear Dangerous Noises Differently." Research scientists set up a simple experiment in which subjects were asked to identify the position of a "looming," possibly dangerous sound. The team discovered that individuals with greater upper body strength and/or cardiovascular fitness allowed the noise to come closer. In contrast, people in poor condition gave themselves a greater margin of safety.

This behavior was surely unconscious; one more example of the body being smart enough to protect itself without rational intervention.