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More on embodied cognition – Power Rangers.

May 9, 2010

Lineage: from Deric Bownds’ MindBlog, via Neuroanthropology, this interesting piece of research by Dana R. Carney, Amy J. C. Cuddy, and Andy J. Yap which concludes:

That a person can, via a simple two-minute pose, embody power and instantly become more powerful has real-world, actionable implications.

Yoga teachers and practitioners may be chuffed and/or unsurprised to read that research is beginning to provide hard scientific evidence for what yoga devotees have known for many years – not only does your ‘posture’ communicate your state-of-mind to others, it also contributes to creating your state-of-mind.

The research compared two ‘expansive’ poses (limbs and torso generally extended) with two ‘constrictive’ poses (limbs and torso generally flexed or folded in), and found hormonal (testosterone and cortisol) and behavioural changes occuring after holding the poses. ‘Expansive’ correlated to ‘high power’, ‘constrictive’ to ‘low power’, and perhaps the most interesting (from a Feldenkrais point of view) is the following paragraph found on page 10 of Carney, Cuddy, and Yap’s paper:

By simply changing one’s physical posture, an individual prepares his or her mental and physiological systems to endure difficult and stressful situations, and perhaps to actually improve confidence and performance in such situations – such as interviewing for jobs, public speaking, disagreeing with a boss, or taking potentially profitable risks. These findings suggest that, in some situations requiring power, people have the ability to ‘fake it ‘til they make it.’ Over time and in aggregate, these minimal postural changes and their outcomes potentially could improve a person’s general health and wellbeing, which is particularly important when considering people who are or feel chronically powerless due to lack of resources, hierarchical rank in an organization, or membership in a low-power social group.

The bold type is my emphasis, as for me, it takes the research beyond the arena of posture (in general conception, something we ‘hold’ for a short time, ie artificial) into acture (the way we really use our bodies continuously in everyday life). Some points of interest, and caution, arise from my reading of the research paper. To begin, the connection between ‘expansive’ body posture comes to ‘high power’ via aggression, which in all likelihood does not hold true for all people in all cultures. When you engage extensor muscles (those which open joints) along the spine, you expose your front, rendering the viscera (guts) and throat vulnerable. It follows you only do this when you are supremely confident of fending off any potential attack, but for some the postural attitude may simply serve to enhance a feeling of vulnerablity. Curiously, the two ‘high power’ poses pictured in the research may be culturally potent, but from a biomechanical point of view, render the poser physically vulnerable. Let me elaborate (download the paper here, to see the poses):

Pose One has the participant sitting, leaning back in a chair, hands interlaced behind his head and elbows wide, feet up on a desk in front, with his legs long and crossed at the ankles. While the torso and arms are extended the hips are flexed, and most importantly to physically enact any power requires considerable reorganisation. Any power inherent in this pose arises from recognising that no movement, attack or defense, is necessary – the poser having a past in which his dominance has already been established. This pose is ‘high power’ only in a social and cultural context.

Pose Two has the participant standing with legs wide, head and torso leaning forward over a table, arms outstretched down, fingers extended with the tips on the table. The head is furthest forward and, from a biomechanical point of view, the pose has limited potency. The participant’s head and torso is off balance, requiring the arms as counterbalance, and he is already organised to move in one direction only (forward, over the table) which would require significant reorganisation to enact. A context in which others are seated around the table facing the poser would give the pose some power (the threat of over-the-table attack) but again for the same reasons that Pose One carries power. I leave you to consider what inherent power in the pose might exist if one imagines a context where other individuals are standing behind the poser.

The research does mention other ‘high power’ poses which I would love to see – but actually what interests me most is that while the paper seems to focus on the empowering effects of ‘high power’ poses, the ‘low power’ poses also appeared to have a disempowering effect. I would love to have seen more about this part of the experiments, as the two ‘low power’ poses rendered the poser both biomechanically and socially/culturally vulnerable. They were also poses one sees frequently in everyday life: standing with legs and arms crossed, and sitting slumped forward with wrists crossed over the lap.

Because of the specific poses shown in the paper, I am not entirely convinced regarding the researchers’ theory that ‘high power’ acture could improve health and wellbeing. However the concomitant side of the theory, that ‘low power’ acture could impair health and wellbeing, is well worth considering. It would be great to see further research on both ‘high’ and ‘low’ power acture – perhaps with a little more attention to biomechanics and including a neutral control group.

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