Embodied Cognition

15.03.2019 |

Episode #8 of the course Learning how to think clearly by David Urbansky


People often differentiate between the body and mind, but your body and mind are more closely connected than you may think. Today, I’m going to show you how thinking affects your body and vice versa. The science behind this connection is called embodied cognition, which is “the idea […] that all our cognitive processes, even those that have been thought of as very abstract, are actually rooted in basic bodily processes of perception, action and emotion.” [1]

Here are real-world examples of how our thinking is reflected in our bodies.


The Florida Effect

In one study [2], two groups of people were each given a set of words that they were asked to arrange into a sentence. One group received random words; the other group received words associated with elderly people, such as “forgetful,” “bald,” “wrinkle,” and “Florida.” After completing the task, participants were asked to walk down the hall to a different office to fill out a form. Researchers were not so much interested in that form but secretly measured how long it took participants on average to walk down the hall. The surprising result was that people with words related to old age walked slower than the baseline group.

This study was one of the first to demonstrate how input (e.g., words, images, sounds) from the world around you can affect your cognitive state without you noticing it. Science calls this effect “priming.” Other studies have shown that just looking at money makes you less likely to help others [3], while looking at a picture of watchful eyes above a tip jar makes you more generous [4]. Priming happens all the time, whether it is intentional like in these studies or unintentional. Since this is an unconscious influence, you can’t do all that much about it other than be aware it exists.


Nod or Shake

Another study that discovered a mind-body connection gave two groups of participants headphones and asked them to test how well the headphones sat on their heads [5]. One group was asked to nod to simulate jogging and another to shake their heads to simulate dancing. Both groups listened to an editorial. After the experiment, participants were asked for their opinions on the editorial. Researchers found that participants who nodded felt stronger about their opinions than the head shakers. That is, if they agreed with the editorial, they agreed more strongly than the head shakers, and if they disagreed, they disagreed more strongly. This goes to show that nodding and shaking your head not only communicates to others how you feel but also amplifies your own thoughts.


Read Someone’s Mind

It has long been understood that eyes are the window not just to our souls, but also to our thought processes [6]. In fact, experiments show that the dilation of your pupil directly corresponds to the difficulty of a mental task [7]. The more difficult the task, the bigger the pupil. This mental task can also simply be paying close attention when you are engaged in a subject. So, the next time you are talking to someone, you can see how interested they are just by looking into their eyes. Large pupil, keep talking; small pupil, change the subject to something more interesting.

Your thinking affects your pupil size, but can you consciously affect your own thinking with your eyes? Yes! Research has shown that letting your eyes roam improves your memory recall [8]. Next time you have trouble remembering something, let your eyes wander and see if the information comes to you.


Frown or Smile

You can change your thought patterns just by turning that frown upside down. One study found that participants who had pencils in their mouths (which causes the mouth to smile) found cartoons funnier than those who were made to frown. Or to quote Daniel Kahneman, “Being amused tends to make you smile and smiling tends to make you feel amused” [9a].

However, if you don’t want to think happy thoughts, but rather want to switch your thinking to analytical tasks that require critical thinking, put on that frown, as it will improve your thinking skills in this capacity [9b].

In short, your body affects your mind more than you realize. In tomorrow’s lesson, we will explore how to treat your body so that your mind, too, will be in the right shape to think properly and make good decisions.


Recommended video

Why There Is No Mind/Body Problem


Recommended book

The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience by Francisco J. Varela



[1] Can Blocking a Frown Keep Bad Feelings at Bay?

[2] Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action by Bargh J.A. et al.

[3] The Psychological Consequences of Money by Vohs K.D. et al.

[4] Cues of Being Watched Enhance Cooperation in a Real-World Setting by Bateson M. et al

[5] Nodding or Shaking Your Head May Even Influence Your Own Thoughts, Study Finds by Ohio State University

[6] Pupil Size in Relation to Mental Activity during Simple Problem-Solving by Hess E.H and Polt J.M.

[7] Pupil Dilation as an Index of Effort in Cognitive Control Tasks: A Review by van der Wel P. and van Steenbergen H.

[8] Look Here, Eye Movements Play a Functional Role in Memory Retrieval by Johansson R. and Johansson M.

[9a] Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 54) by Daniel Kahneman

[9b] Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 152) by Daniel Kahneman


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