It Ain't Heavy — It's My Brain Enhancer

Weighty new research suggests holding a heavy object engages the mind.
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Weighty new research suggests holding a heavy object engages the mind.

Thanks to modern technology, most of us are literally carrying a lighter load these days. Instead of heavy books and papers, we can now tote all the information we need in an easily portable laptop or Kindle.

But all this physical convenience may be something of a mental hindrance.

That's the implication of newly published research, which reports people holding a heavier object tend to think more seriously, and express more considered opinions, than those carrying a lightweight item.

"Our findings indicate that the impact of basic bodily experiences, such as weight, is more fundamental than previously suggested," the researchers write in the journal Psychological Science. "Gravitational pull not only shapes people's bodies and behavior, but even influences their very thoughts."

The research team, led by psychologist Nils Jostmann of the University of Amsterdam, came to that conclusion after conducting four studies. In each, the participants (who were either students enrolled at a Dutch university or visitors to the campus) held one of two clipboards while filling out a questionnaire. Half of them used a clipboard weighing 1.45 pounds, while the other half used a clipboard weighing 2.29 pounds.

In one test, participants were asked to evaluate the mayor of Amsterdam by rating him on a series of characteristics, including competence, charisma and likability. Those carrying the heavier clipboard were more consistent in their rankings, suggesting they thought about the questions more thoroughly and were careful not to contradict themselves.

In another test, participants were asked to rate a series of arguments in favor of building a controversial subway system. Once again, those carrying the heavier clipboard seem to have thought through the issue more thoroughly: They were less likely to agree with the weaker arguments and more likely to have a clear opinion on the project.

So why would holding something heavy result in "greater investment of effort" (to use the researchers' description) in an intellectual exercise? Jostmann and his colleagues point to theories of embodied cognition. "We assume that experiencing weight influences judgments of importance because the concept of importance is linked to experiences of weight," they write.

"Through repeated experiences with heavy objects since early childhood, people learn that dealing with heavy objects generally requires more effort, in terms of physical strength or cognitive planning, than dealing with light objects. People may thus associate the experience of weight with the increased expenditure of bodily or mental effort."

In evolutionary terms, heaviness is associated with a need for major physical and/or mental effort. If our hunter-gatherer ancestors wanted to get a boulder up a hill, they had to either exert a lot of energy or come up with a clever alternative. If the Dutch researchers' findings are confirmed, it would appear that somewhere deep in our brains, we still link heaviness with effort, and faced with carrying a load, our minds sharpen and focus.

So, if you find yourself reading James Joyce's Ulysses as an e-book and can't make heads or tails out of it, you might switch over to a heavy hardback edition and see what happens. Weightiness, it seems, is in the arms of the beholder.

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