Mo Costandi

Bodily motions influence memory and emotions

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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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