Category: Embodied cognition

Walking lifts your mood, even when you don’t expect it to

By Christian Jarrett

The mere act of putting one foot in front of the other for a few minutes has a significant beneficial impact on our mood, regardless of where we do it, why we do it, or what effect we expect the walk to have. That’s according to a pair of psychologists at Iowa State University who claim their study, published in Emotion, is the first to strip away all the many confounds typically associated with exercise research – things like social contact, fresh air, nature, the satisfaction of reaching fitness goals, and the expectation of the activity being beneficial – to show that the simple act of walking, in and of itself, is a powerful mood lifter.

The reason, argue Jeffrey Miller and Zlatan Krizan, is connected with how we evolved to move to find food and other rewards, which means positive emotions are closely linked with our movement. In essence, the psychologists write, “movement not only causes increased positive affect [emotional feelings] … but movement partially embodies, or in a sense reflects, positive affect.” Continue reading “Walking lifts your mood, even when you don’t expect it to”

Embodying another person’s face makes it easier to recognise their fear

An illusion that provokes a sense of ownership over another person’s face has provided new clues about the way we process other people’s emotions.

Lara Maister and her colleagues used the “enfacement” illusion, in which a person watches a two-minute video of a face being stroked with a cotton bud, while at the same time their own face is stroked in synchrony. People who experience this illusion tend to rate the face in the video as being more similar to their own, and, if they see the face cut, they show a physiological stress reaction as if the wound was theirs.

In the study, 15 female participants were challenged with identifying the emotional expression shown by a woman in a photo – either happy, fearful or disgusted. The photos had been morphed with neutral expressions to varying degrees, leading to seven different levels of task difficulty.

The key finding was that the participants were significantly better at recognising the facial expression of fear after they’d experienced the enfacement illusion for the face showing the fear. Simply watching a two-minute video of the person displaying fear didn’t lead to this subsequent performance boost, neither did a “sham” version of the illusion in which the stroking of the model’s and participant’s face is out of synch. Another detail – the genuine version of the illusion led to enhancement of fear recognition only, with no effect on recognising happiness and disgust.

The main result is consistent with past research suggesting that we recognise emotions in other people by simulating their state in our brains. It’s as if we temporarily embody the person we are empathising with. Related to this, people with a rare condition known as mirror-touch synaesthesia (they experience touch when they see someone else touched) show enhanced facial expression recognition.

It’s curious that the enfacement illusion only enhanced the recognition of fear, but then previous studies have suggested that this emotion, more than others, is recognised through a process of embodying the person who is afraid. This makes evolutionary sense too. There are obvious advantages in responding to the sight of a fearful ally by preparing one’s own body for a threat.

“Our results suggest that the way we represent the relationship between the bodies of self and other is an important factor in the somatosensory simulation of emotions,” the researchers said, “and furthermore, demonstrate that such a process is sensitive to multisensory intervention.”


Maister L, Tsiakkas E, and Tsakiris M (2013). I feel your fear: Shared touch between faces facilitates recognition of fearful facial expressions. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 13 (1), 7-13 PMID: 23356565

Image reproduced with permission of the first author.

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

Feeling lonely? Have a bath

Wallowing in the bath, immersed in soothing warm water, the benefits are more than sensuous, they’re social too. That’s according to John Bargh and Idit Shalev, researchers at Yale University, whose new research shows that physical warmth can compensate for social isolation. Indeed, their study suggests that people subconsciously self-comfort against loneliness through the use of warm baths and showers.

Among 51 undergrads, those who reported being more lonely also tended to bath or shower more often, to do so for longer and with warmer water. Overall, 33.5 per cent of the variation in these measures was accounted for by loneliness. A similar result was found for a community sample of 16 women and 25 men. Perhaps lonely people simply have more time to take baths because they go out less, but the association with preferring warmer water is harder to explain away.

A second study confirmed the causal role that physical temperature can play in people’s sense of social warmth. Students conducted what they thought was a product test of a small therapeutic pack, which was either warm or cold. Those who evaluated the cold pack, holding it in their palm, subsequently reported feeling more lonely than those who tested a warm version of the pack.

What about a direct test of the therapeutic benefit of physical warmth? Another study had students recall a time they’d felt socially excluded, then they went on to perform the same product test of a warm or cold pack used before. Recalling being excluded had the expected effect of making students desire friendly company and comforting activities like shopping. But this effect was eradicated if they’d product tested the warm pack. “…Warm physical experiences were found to significantly reduce the distress of social exclusion,” the researchers said.

Our recognition of the link between physical and social warmth is reflected in our language – “a warm smile”, “a cold shoulder” – and has been for centuries: Dante in the Inferno links the betrayal of trust with the punishment of being physically frozen. Yet Bargh and Shalev think this understanding remains largely unconscious. To test this they had participants rate the loneliness of a protagonist after reading one of two near-identical versions of a short story. Participants who read the version in which she took a bath and shower in the same day didn’t perceive her to be any more lonely than those who read the version without the extra bathing.

These findings build on the broader literature on embodied cognition, which has shown the effects of physical states on our thoughts and behaviour, and vice versa (e.g. heavier books are considered more important; washing alleviates guilt). And they add to past research suggesting a specific link between physical and social/emotional warmth. One earlier study found that participants felt socially closer to a researcher when they were tested in a warm room. Other research has linked physical and social warmth to activity in the same brain region – the anterior insular.

But this new study is the first to suggest we subconsciously administer our own tonic of physical warmth to compensate for social rejection. And it’s the first to provide causal evidence that physical warmth can ameliorate feelings of exclusion. Bargh and Shalev speculated their findings could even have practical applications … “the physical-social warmth association may be a boon to the therapeutic treatment of syndromes that are mainly disorders of emotion regulation, such as Borderline Personality Disorder,” they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgJ Bargh, and I Shalev (2011). The substitutability of physical and social warmth in daily life. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/a0023527

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.