Bodily motions influence memory and emotions

WHEN talking about our feelings, we often use expressions that link emotions with movements or positions in space. If, for example, one receives good news, they might say that their “spirit soared”, or that they are feeling “on top of the world”. Conversely, negative emotions are associated with downward movements and positions – somebody who is sad is often said to be “down in the dumps”, or feeling “low”.

According to a new study published in this month’s issue of the journal Cognition, expressions such as these are not merely metaphorical. The research provides evidence of a causal link between motion and emotion, by showing that bodily movements influence the recollection of emotional memories, as well as the speed with which they are recalled.

Daniel Casasanto of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen and Katinka Dijkstra of Erasmus University in Rotterdam investigate embodied cognition – how the body shapes mental activity – and they have already found ways in which our thoughts are influenced by the shape and form of the body. Last year, Casasanto reported that right-handed people implicitly associate positive ideas with rightward space and negative ideas with leftward space, whereas the opposite is seen in left-handed people. And in 2007, Dijkstra showed that assuming the body posture associated with a particular experience can aid recall of the memories of that experience. These studies hint at the embodiment of abstract concepts, and suggest that people who use their bodies in different ways also think differently.

For their latest study, Casasanto and Dijkstra recruited 24 undergraduates and asked them to sit at a desk in front of a laptop computer. On each side of the laptop were a red and a blue cardboard box stacked on top of each other, each with a tray containing hundreds of marbles. At the beginning of the experiment, all of the marbles were either in the top or the bottom trays. During 24 trials, the participants were asked to move the marbles using both hands at the same time, into either the red or the blue box. While they did this, they were prompted by messages displayed on the computer screen to recollect a memory with either a positive or a negative emotion (e.g. “Tell me about a time when you felt proud of yourself”, or “Tell me about a time you felt ashamed of yourself”).

The task thus involved moving marbles either upwards or downwards, but because the participants focused on the colour of the destination boxes, their attention was drawn away from both the arrangement of the boxes and the direction of their movements. The experiment was designed this way to prevent the participants from guessing what the researchers were testing for; when asked afterwards about the aim of the experiment, most of them believed that it was about emotion or divided attention, and not about the possible link between emotions and direction of motion. The researchers used a video camera to record the participants’ marble movements and memory recall. When they analysed the results, they found that the direction of motion affected the speed with which the participants recollected the emotional memories. Memories with positive emotions were recalled significantly more quickly during upward than during downward marble movements, and vice versa for negative memories.  

In a second experiment, Casasanto and Dijkstra tested for the possible influence of the direction of movement on the type of memory recalled. The set-up was the same as that of the first experiment, with the participants moving the marbles either upwards or downwards as indicated by the colour of the boxes. This time, though, the experiment was divided into “retrieval” and “recall” phases. During the retrieval phase, the participants prompted to recall either a positive or a negative memory. During the subsequent recall phase, they were shown the prompts again, and asked to recall the memories out loud. The researchers found an interaction between the direction of movement and the type of autobiographical memory recalled. When presented with neutral prompts such as “Recount something that happened in high school”, the participants were more likely to recollect a positive experience such as winning an award when they were making upward movements, and a negative experience such as failing a test when making downward movements.

These results show that bodily movements can influence the rate at which autobiographical memories are recalled as well as the emotional content of the memories. The results of the first experiment demostrate that what we do with our bodies can affect how we think – memory recollection was more efficient when the direction of movement was congruent with the valency of the emotional content of the memory. The second experiment further demonstrates, for the first time, that meaningless bodily movements can also influence what we choose to think about, with upwards movements being associated with positive memories and downward movements with negative ones.

It is well known that memory recollection is facilitated when the context in which recollection occurs matches that in which encoding took place. Classical studies of context-dependent retrieval focused on aspects of the environment in which memory encoding and retrieval take place, and Dijkstra extended this to show that context also includes body posture. The new findings show that movements which are completely unrelated to the encoding of emotional memories can also influence their retrieval. They add to a growing body of evidence that supports the embodied cognition hypothesis; specifically, they provide evidence that thinking involves creating mental simulations of bodily experiences, and that knowledge is represented by partial re-enactments in the brain which activate the same systems associated with real experiences.

Related:


Casasanto, D. & Dijkstra, K. (2010). Motor action and emotional memory. Cognition 115: 179-185. [PDF]

Casasanto, D. (2009). Embodiment of Abstract Concepts: Good and Bad in Right- and Left-Handers. J. Exp. Psych. 138: 351-367. [PDF]

Dijkstra, K., et al. (2007). Body posture facilitates retrieval of autobiographical memories. Cognition 102: 139-149. [PDF]

Barsalou, L. (1999). Perceptual symbol systems. Behav. Br. Sci. 22: 577-660. [PDF]

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14 thoughts on “Bodily motions influence memory and emotions

  1. Somewhat tangentially related to this, at one point in my high school we (the class) ran an experiment with our extremely dynamic (some would say, perhaps, “hyper”) drama teacher. The running joke was that if anyone tied her hands together she wouldn’t be able to speak. So in order to prove us wrong, she allowed us to tie her hands behind her back.
    She was reduced to bouncing up and down spitting out word fragments. Without being able to wave her hands around, she genuinely wasn’t able to form a coherent sentence easily.

  2. I am so happy that these studies are substantiating Moshe’s work of 60 years ago!
    Creating freedom of movement creates freedom of thought and increases creativity!
    “I believe that the unity of mind and body is an objective reality. They are not just parts somehow related to each other, but an inseparable whole while functioning. A brain without a body could not think..” — Moshe Feldenkrais
    “To every emotional state corresponds a personal conditioned pattern of muscular contraction without which it has no existence.” –Moshe Feldenkrais

  3. Um. With all due respect, Mary, I think that might be carrying it a bit far.
    Even people who are entirely restricted in their movements, by accident or injury or neurodegenerative disease, are capable of a full range of emotion and thought unless there is additional accompanying brain damage.

  4. I agree with JG. Lakoff’s conceptual metaphor theory can explain these results. UP is GOOD/HAPPY and DOWN is BAD/SAD. How does one tease apart the embodies cognition and conceptual metaphor contributions apart?

  5. To what degree are these motion-emotion links culture-specific? A more complete theory of embodied cognition needs to take into account the effect of being part of a culture, and what our culture affords us in terms of acting on the world.

  6. It’s not about acting on the world, its how the abstract world in the human mind (metaphors, symbolism, emotions… what people in all cultures have) is related to specific spatial realities. I would think that the motion-emotion tendency wouldn’t be culture specific, but the content of which emotions-motions are associated would change.
    Embodied cognition, as I understand it, dumps on the idea that abstract concepts are separate (or permanent, or untouchable) from the physical condition all animals are bound to. That’s pretty cool.
    Thanks for posting Mo, and I hope you keep an eye out for more of these studies in the future. They are interesting!

  7. Hi Mo.
    I had a slight inclination about this but it is cool to find out that there is such a link between physical actions and our emotional memories of them. I have found that some certain maneuvers or movements will make me remember some certain time where I was excited, or where I created something, or so on. The database of our minds holds so much information.

  8. Thanks a lot for posting this exciting informations!!
    I totally agree with “JG” and Sandeep Gautam, that the mentioned researches could fit very well with George Lakoff´s and Mark Johnson´s “Methapors we live by”!
    And I think that a cultural and probably also a historical level needs to be considered. Of course the common motion-emotion-tendency does not depend on culture or history, but maybe we need a cultural and historical knowledge / background to understand the particular human expressions of such cognitive mechanisms…?
    Besides, I was in some way reminded of the German historian August Nitschke (born 1926), who had a leading role in establishing the `historical anthropology` (former: `historical ethology`). Nitschke was (and still is) interested in the historical change of bodily and spatial behaviour, which he sees to be in connection to social and political changes. – A bridging to cognitive researches is not too far, I think.

  9. I was wondering what the role of mirror neurons was in sex?
    Jonah Lehrer (over at The Frontal Cortex) has written on mirror neurons and porn
    http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2009/08/porn_and_mirror_neurons.php
    “From the perspective of the brain, the act of arousal is not preceded by a separate idea, which we absorb via the television or computer screen. The act itself is the idea. In other words, porn works by convincing us that we are not watching porn. We think we are inside the screen, doing the deed.”
    “Looking at still pictures of naked people triggered our mirror neurons into action, as the brain began pretending that it was actually having sex, and not just looking at smutty pictures in a science lab.”
    What about real sex? Is it just as “objectifying” as watching porn? Is there space for love in mirror neurons?

  10. @Joey: There’s still no evidence that mirror neurons actually exist in the human brain, and the evidence of their existence in other primates is questionable.
    Why don’t you ask Jonah what he thinks?

  11. When you move, in addition to autonomic systems being activated, you can’t help but think of any goals ordinarily associated with the direction of the movement, and tend to assess the chances of using the movement for more than one purpose – the assessments of which involve the emotional brain. So that seems to be part of the reason for increased mental activity although certainly not the whole of the reason.

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