Saturday, July 31, 2010

Can You Change Your Mind by Changing Your Sensations?

Does the body affect the mind, or the mind affect the body? Tony Robbins has been featured on the Living section recently with his "Breakthrough" series, and one of his favorite sayings is if you don't like something in your life, simply "change your mind."

Yet, Dr. John A. Bargh of Yale may disagree, and has shown our mind is constantly being shaped by the things we encounter in the physical world, right down to the hardness of our chair. "The old concepts of mind-body dualism are turning out not to be true at all," Bargh said. "Our minds are deeply and organically linked to our bodies."

Bargh is a professor of psychology and cognitive science, and coauthor of several studies exploring the powerful influences of our senses in a decision making process. In 2008 he conducted a study with Yale Ph.D. student Lawrence Williams, now of the University of Colorado, which found that people judge other people to be more generous and caring after they had briefly held a warm cup of coffee, rather than a cold drink.

People were asked to hold a cup of either hot or cold coffee for a moment before answering questions, and had no idea it was part of the experiment. They were then asked a few questions and offered cash for themselves, or a gift certificate for a friend as a thank you gift. Those who held hot coffee were more generous, and chose a gift certificate for a friend, and those who held the cold cup chose to keep the cash. Remarkable such a quick and simple change of sensation affects an impulse like generosity at a primal level.

Imagine the power of such knowledge. Want to get a really nice gift from your spouse? Give them a hot java right before going into the store -- so calculating. Need to be a tough negotiator for a critical meeting? Hold on to an iced tea and then get in there ready to rumble. Is it that simple?

Bargh has just released a new study that expands this concept of our physical sensations affecting our decisions with a new series of experiments. They discovered if interviewers held a heavy clipboard, compared to a light one, they thought job applicants took their work more seriously, and subjects who read a passage about an interaction between two people were more likely to characterize it as adversarial if they had first handled rough jigsaw puzzle pieces, compared to smooth ones. Think of the terms "hard-hearted" or an "old softy."

Price negotiations were part of the experiments, and those sitting on hard chairs were not as open to negotiation as those on comfy chairs. "We have a basic idea of hardness being resistant to change -- that is what hardness means. We also have an idea that softness has a greater ability to give," said Bargh.

Maybe the hot summer is making me a bit cheeky, but perhaps we can take this information to Congress. Can you imagine if all senators on the floor be required to sit in soft, cushy chairs to be more amenable to negotiation, handle soft puzzle pieces while reading a particular bill to lessen the venom of debate, and drink only hot coffee before pontificating on the floor to think kind thoughts of their colleagues. Maybe THEN we could actually see some compromise, resolution and movement in getting things done!

And maybe I will arm myself with this knowledge as a parent. When the kids are in trouble, I get the hard chair, and they get the soft couch for extra emphasis. When it is time to discuss why one child made the other cry, they first have to hold a hot drink before we begin our instructive chat to encourage a peace treaty. Get the idea? Manipulating the subtle aspects of our environment impacts our thinking, so why not make it conscious?

According to Bargh in an interview on NPR, the yogis had it right that the only way to experience true thought is to have a level of sensory deprivation like going into a dark cave with no stimulation. Otherwise, we are constantly being affected by the world around us, and the physical environment we interact.

As we grow, toddlers explore their world strictly through their physical experiences which form the basis for more abstract concepts like a "warm smile" or a "hard negotiator"-- abstract terms to describe the connections from body to mind. If you touch something warm, the idea of warmth is activated and translates to people being warm. You behave more warmly, generously and pro-socially than if you had touched something cold.

Making breakthroughs is never easy. Learning to overcome our fearful thoughts, negative emotions and inner judgements is incredibly powerful when training the mind with meditation, therapy or empowerment techniques - but maybe some of the answers are to be found right under the seat of our pants.

What say you, Huff Po readers? Let's explore some of the connections between our bodies and our mind, and all the common phrases that demonstrates the ongoing link between sense and reality. (Just grab a hot cup before you comment please!)

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