How the Body Knows its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel

Can Botox be used to treat depression? Can adopting a “power pose” make you feel more confident? Does carrying a grocery basket versus pushing a cart alter purchasing behavior? In How the Body Knows its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel, Dr. Sian Beilock (also the author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To) offers the reader a glimpse into the exploding research field known as embodied cognition, which in essence delves into the linkages between the body and the mind. People take it as self-evident that the mind influences the body. The more subtle point is that the relationship between the body and the mind goes in the other direction: The body, in the form of physical sensations, movements, etc. can influence the way we think and feel. The implications of this are astounding, and the reader should be prepared for some surprises. For example, answering the Botox question above requires an understanding of the body-mind connection. When people are depressed they look distressed, and one way the distress can manifest itself is in a furrowed brow. But since the mind uses bodily sensations as a cue to how it feels, a Botox injection to the parts of the face that would normally register distress not only smoothens those facial areas, but also signals to the mind that the distress is gone! And that is only chapter 1…            

Beilock explores the mind-body connection in this and a number of other domains, and there is something of interest for most everyone. Parents should take heed in how motor and cognitive development in babies go hand in hand, and why overdoing it on the pacifier may be detrimental from the standpoint of emotional development. Educators should take note of findings regarding how kids learn by doing, which has enormous implications for school budgets and how school days should be structured (answer: more music, art, and play – less sitting in desks). People in business will benefit from simple body-based strategies that could make public speaking easier, sales pitches more persuasive, and ideas more creative. Anyone who wants to get a better handle on stress will appreciate how control over the body in terms of breathing and posture leads to control over maladaptive, counterproductive mental states. While those who are already experts in the field of embodied cognition will likely not be surprised by many of the findings Beilock covers, non-experts will certainly be captivated by many of the ideas herein. I myself have followed this field as what may be called a casual fan for several years, and I was astounded by Beilock’s answer to the question, “Why do people find foot massages to be erotic?” I’m not going to ruin it, but the answer was not what I expected!

Throughout, Beilock is able to present theory and research in a clear and organized style, and readers will find this book easy to read and digest. This book is intended for a lay audience and she does a good job explaining complex ideas, like the operation of mirror neurons, in clear prose. At several points in the book she describes disorder as a way of understanding how the body-mind connection works, and I think her use of case studies in illuminating the various disorders she describes in the book will really help laypeople understand how symptoms manifest themselves in everyday life.  Finally, her explanations of the biological underpinnings of the psychological phenomena she describes is top-notch, both technically accurate and easy to understand for non-scientists.

I will admit I came to this book with a bit of trepidation. Its publication (January 2015) comes at a time when the embodied cognition field is under a bit of controversy after some well publicized scandals involving fraudulent data (think: Lawrence Sanna’s research on the effects of physical elevation on pro-social behavior). Beilock is careful for the most part in limiting herself to areas where a number of studies in top-tier journals converge on whatever conclusion she is trying to make. Also, the interested reader can refer to the excellent notes for each chapter, which provide the original source for studies she cites. While readers in academia may very well find the book to be a little simplistic (and repetitive: lots of “because the body and the mind are connected…”), and some issues presented in a much too one-sided fashion (for example, she presents the link from mirror neurons to the experience of empathy as established fact, although this is still a point of considerable debate in the scientific field), laypeople who don’t read a lot of popular psychology/neuroscience books will enjoy this book for the excellent writing, fascinating research, and useful applications to everyday life that it contains.

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