Wednesday, July 23, 2008


I’m reading a book called Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, by Gary Marcus, and came upon an idea that is quite relevant to our yoga practice. The premise of the book is that the mind is actually not quite as slick and coherent as we think it is, and he draws upon research and experimentation in the areas of cognitive psychology, as well as familiar anecdotes about personal behaviour that we can all relate to, to illustrate how piece-meal our consciousness actually is, how unreliable our memory and inference, how clumsily designed our cognitive capabilities, and how personally and contextually driven our notions of “objective” actually are. A correlate to his arguments, though, is how much we can influence our own state of mind by affecting our own body in strategic ways, to lead us to greater levels of happiness and productivity.

Chapter Two is on formulating beliefs, and although we might try our very hardest to articulate an objective understanding of a state of affairs or issue a level-headed response to a question, there are certain reflexes of the mind that all but annihilate the possibility of an unbiased belief. There are several modes of what Marcus calls “mental contamination” that arise from our susceptibility to environmental queues and personal interest. There is one in particular that I would like to share, because I see in it a positive application.

According to Marcus, we form beliefs based on stored memories, a capacity to infer new information from old, and perceptions; and none of these work in such a straight-forward way as to form an objective piece of information about how the world works. One set of experiments he names have to do with the effect of the physical position of the body on our opinions. They are quite fun.

In brief: two groups were asked to watch cartoons while holding a pen in their mouth. The first group is told to not let their lips touch the pen, while the second group is told to purse their lips around the pen. When the groups were asked to rate their general level of enjoyment of the cartoons, the ones who did not touch the pen with their lips averaged a higher level of enjoyment than the ones with pursed lips. The conclusion was that the position of the face that must be maintained to keep the lips off a pen, is upturned lips drawn back at the sides—like a smile. When the face smiles, it is because there is something good going on; so people’s actual memory, and thus belief about their cartoon watching experience was influenced by the position of the body. Can we say they misinterpreted their own enjoyment, or that their belief about their own experience was faulty? Or is it that there are many factors that come into play when formulating a belief, some of which have to do with the subject matter at hand, and some have to do with the state of the body?

Marcus sites another experiment, equally simple, about how the position of the body and one’s opinions. People are given a list of celebrity names and they are asked to put the names in a chart of like, dislike and neutral. They are asked to write the names with their non-dominant hand, while the hand they usually write with is placed in one of two ways relative to the table. Either, their dominant hand is placed palm down on the top of the table, pressing downwards; or palm up on the bottom of the table, pressing upwards. Results revealed that those pressing the palm up listed more names in the Like column, and those with palms down listed more Dislikes. As holding the palm up is a gesture of openness and approachability, it puts people in a kinder frame of mind; palms down is a closed position more defensive in nature, and increases the likelihood of casting negative opinions.

These are fun little experiments, and they are relevant to how we take our asana, and also illustrate a deeper benefit to the practice. Relative to the actual asana practice, we know now that if you are in a difficult pose—smile! You’ll like it better! If you are in Corpse Pose, turn your palms up, stay open and you’ll be more likely to enjoy that blissful relaxation that follows a practice. If you are scrunched up and tense in Dolphin Pose or Revolved Triangle, you are creating a negative mindset for yourself, which in turn makes you scrunch up and resist yourself even more, not to mention hate the pose or think you can’t do it. If you find a way to relax some part of your body that is typical of positive emotion, your mind will take the queue: breathe deeply, relax the neck and eyes, open the hands; according to the conclusions reached in this research, these minor adjustments should help you to form more positive memories of the pose and the muscle groups you are starting to use, as well as the effort it takes to get into it. You will feel the challenges of the practice as something that brings pleasure, not something you must brace yourself against.

Secondly, if our opinions are affected so noticeably by such minor things as open or pursed lips, palms up or down, imagine how affected we are in our daily lives by much more dramatic habits of posture. Many of us go through our day with pain, often in the spine, knees or hips. Many of us have perpetually tense shoulders and chests rounded defensively inward; or weak abdominals that don’t support our spine, making it harder to balance and less in control of our own movements. These physical queues are constantly informing our mental selves that there is a threat in the environment, that we are not safe, or at the mercy of external forces instead of engaged participants. This will effect not just our moods, but our very experience of the “objective” world that we perceive, interpret and draw inferences from. By learning to pay attention to what our body is telling us, and gaining skills to create a body that is balanced, centered, upright and open, we are in a very direct way making ourselves happier.

Marcus, G. (2008). Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company.


Jacqueline said...

This is very interesting. I think that would be 'environmental cues' and 'physical cues' (rather than queues ....). I am not sure how much faith I have in the experiments he writes about - there are lies, damned lies, and statistics ....

Isabelle Skaburskis said...

right, "cues." :-)

You know, though, these are not difficult experiments to replicate; you could test it on your students: divide your lecture hall into two categories and distribute pens freely. That would save you having to find a set of neutral cartoons, anyway.

Thanks, mum.