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To Feel Good, Reach for the Sky

New research finds upward physical movements inspire positive memories.
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Recent studies have raised the alarming possibility that Botox may inhibit our emotional lives. Essentially, they warn that without the means to physically express certain feelings (as when cosmetic surgery makes it difficult to smile or raise an eyebrow), we may have trouble processing them. As Carl Zimmer wrote last year in Discover magazine, “by altering our faces we’re tampering with the ancient lines of communication between face and brain that may change our minds in ways we don’t yet understand.”

But the link between motion and emotion goes beyond such straightforward signals of delight or disgust. That’s the conclusion of a new study that finds an ostensibly meaningless physical activity — moving marbles upward — can cause people to think more positive thoughts.

Two researchers from the Netherlands — Daniel Casasanto of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Katinka Dijkstra of Erasmus University — conducted experiments to determine the power of a common mental metaphor: up is positive, down is negative. They note that “when people talk about emotions, they often use expressions that link positive valence with upward motion or position in space (her spirits soared) and negative valence with downward motion (she’s feeling low).”

In one experiment, participants (24 undergraduates) were prompted to recount either positive or negative emotional memories. Specifically, they were asked to talk about a time when they felt proud of themselves, or a time when they felt ashamed of themselves. For half the trials, they spoke while moving marbles upward (from one tray to another directly above it); for the other half, they talked while moving the marbles down to the lower tray.

“The direction of marble movements influenced how efficiently participants produced their memories,” the researchers report. Specifically, they began recalling positive memories more quickly when they were moving the marbles upward, and negative memories when they were moving the marbles downward.

In a second experiment, participants were given an emotionally neutral assignment, such as “Tell me something that happened yesterday.” The researchers found they “produced positive memories more often after making upward movements, and negative memories after making downward movements.”

The study provides intriguing (although not definitive) evidence of embodied cognition — the notion that emotional memories are, in some sense, stored in our bodies as well as our minds. (We discuss the theory’s practical implications for health education and exercise here.) Analyzing previous studies as well as their own, the researchers report the relationship between motion and emotion is quite complex, with at least two other components besides the up-down variation they tested.

Still, the effect is clearly real, and its implications are intriguing. For one thing, it helps explain why abstract modern dance can be so emotionally expressive.

Perhaps great choreographers intuitively realize certain movements have specific emotional meanings. They understand that, when push comes to shove, the direction you’re pushing in makes quite a difference.

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