The Science of Embodiment

Is There An Evidence-Base For Embodied Training?

Embodiment is the study of the subjective aspect of the body. If the standard medical model sees the body as an object, a thing, embodiment concerns the body as who we are – an I. It is about our felt experience of the body “inside-out” and application of this to wellbeing, relationships, leadership, etc. By definition, embodied or somatic knowing has a first-person perspective on the body and scientific understanding of the body a third-person or objective understanding. While both are empirical, embodied knowledge is somewhat counter-cultural in the Western World as scientific understanding is generally privileged and subjective experience ignored or considered in need of validation. For this reason people on my business courses will sometimes say, “well that feels right, it’s useful too, but what’s the evidence?” First-person evidence alone is not trusted, and studies and academic proof is sought. Happily there is a weight of scientific evidence related to this area and the two ways of understanding the body seem to be increasingly coming together. I have written this article to gather some of the relevant threads as they are somewhat diverse, and also highlight gaps that might be fruitful to explore.

A useful comparison at this point would be between embodiment and mindfulness which was at one time a largely esoteric Buddhist discipline, but now is supported by a wealth of Western scientific literature showing its effects on stress, anxiety, depression, etc; and various objective neuroscience measures of brain function such as using MRI and PET scans. Jon Kabat-Zinn is the name most associated with this validation movement and I see embodiment being “made respectable” by scientific establishments in a similar fashion. This article is primarily aimed at those already working with embodiment. However, researchers interested in learning more about the rich traditions of embodied learning that exist may also enjoy it. I would point them to this set of embodiment resources to learn more about the field and ask they forgive the lack of academic standards in this article!

The Bodymind Link

An embodied or somatic paradigm takes the position that mind and body are not separate, but even a conventional dualistic viewpoint has found it impossible to claim that the body and mind are not closely linked. What was once called “psychosomatic illness” and is now called “medically unexplained symptoms” (MUS) is an example of this. MUS is an established field with numerous journals and specialists.

In the British National Health Service Dr Helen Payne has done work showing how dance movement therapy (DMT) – a form of embodied practice – can help alleviate MUS. It’s my sense that dance movement and body psychotherapy are now establishing the validity of their work as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has done. On that note, while CBT is known for thinking strategies and thinking errors, the “B” part should also be remembered as very aligned with embodied practice!

Another classic body-mind link is the placebo effect, where belief that say a sugar pill is actually a medicine when it is not, leads to beneficial medical effects. The placebo effects is widely known and something that has to be rigorously controlled for in double-blind pharmaceutical studies as it is so powerful. Similarly brain scans of various kinds have shown that asking people to think about different things, imagine things or meditate for example changes blood-flow, neurotransmitter and electrical activity in the brain. This is common sense really, there is a physical basis to any subjective act – it’s not magic. It is beyond doubt that mental activity can affect the brain and more generally the body (the “brain” is actually diffused as we shall see) but what about the other way around?

The Body and Emotions

Perhaps the grandfather of embodied scientists is William James who along with Carl Lange came up with the notion that physiological arousal is what leads us to experience an emotion not the other way around. Later experimenters found emotion could be induced through adrenaline shots though interpretation of context are also vital. The idea of emotions as bodily as well as mental phenomena makes sense to most people I work with as even people with low levels of bodily awareness have experienced the fight-flight responses bodily component. The physiological correlates of subjective emotion are relatively well documented – for example.

Richard Wiseman refers back to James’ work in his book Rip it Up – showing how personal development is best done not with positive thinking but with physical action. This article of his in the Guardian newspaper collates much useful information and it is almost a simple reinvention of embodied practice. Examples Wiseman quotes include the finding by James Laird that when people are made to smile (for example by holding a pen between their teeth) they become happier and that when people are asked to nod they agree more. Other examples include research by Chen-Bo Zhong from the University of Toronto discovered that people who carried out an immoral act and then cleaned their hands with an antiseptic wipe felt significantly less guilty than others, that weighing up two sides of an argument is facilitated by swaying on a Wii board between two sides and findings that willpower is linked to contracting muscles.

That there are postures associated with certain mental and emotional states is unquestioned, but what has only recently been proven is that this link goes both ways. Not only can being depressed for example make us slump and our facial expressions change, but slumping and changing our facial expressions can make us depressed. Dr Paul Ekman found the latter out while having researchers take on certain facial expressions – it takes some practice to make emotional expressions accurately and he found those making expressions for hours felt the emotions they were “faking”. Many actors have found the same thing of course.

Amy Cuddy (pictured) and colleague Dana Carney found something similar with postures and novelly, discovered that the hormones cortisol and testosterone were mediating this. When people sat or stood in expansive, dominant “power poses” even for a few minutes, it changed their hormonal make up which changed how they felt, how they communicated and how they were perceived by others – e.g. in job interviews.

Movement, Psychology and Personality

As well as expressions and postures, movement is also starting to be studied as something which can change mental events and decision making. Dr Peter Lovatt at the University of Hertfordshire, known affectionately as “The Dance Doctor”, has shown for example that different types of dancing facilitate different kinds of thinking and problem solving, and can increase or decrease risk taking behaviour. Again there is a link between the way people dance, and I would say more generally move, and hormone levels.

There is some research on the connection between movement style and personality type for example from Dr Luck in Finland. Using movement and postural patterns as a way of quickly judging personality (a type of “thin-slicing”) is something we all do. Dogs do it, kids do it and for better or worse adults do it as this study shows. Here’s a video of me playing with assessing people’s personalities from movement on Brighton-sea front in a fun but unscientific way. There are many opportunities here as embodied schools from Reich and Laban onwards have models that could be tested against personality psychometrics relatively easily. With modern motion capture technology a valid video-only psychometric could even be developed. Such a validated measure would help distinguish between projection of stereotypes and accurate assessments. A visual motion capture personality metric would also be of great use to animators and computer games companies in designing characters I imagine. The FEBI is the only validated psychometric I have come across so far which incorporates any theory on movement style at all, strange really as some researchers go so far as to say we have brains to move (organisms that don’t move like plants don’t have them for example) and from an embodied perspective movement is so core to who we are and how we operate.

Embodied Cognition

Many of the studies above showing the influence of posture and movement on thinking are not surprising considering the notion of embodied cognition. Found in both philosophy and robotics it states that thinking is dependent on (human or robotic) bodily feedback and more broadly the wider environment. This article is a good introduction and the quote from this article “the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems” sums much of it up. Lakoff and Johnson are well known writers in this field.

Other interesting examples of embodied and situated cognition studied by researchers are that people who hold warm mugs of coffee or hot pads, rate others as warmer people and become more generous themselves and Joshua Ackerman at the MIT Sloan School of Management finding that participants who sit on either soft or hard chairs had differences in negotiation styles. The change in body state changes the thinking and the behavioural tendency, in fact, I would go so far as to say such studies point to what is evident as an embodied trainer, that the environmental and habitual personality influenced body state, is the substrate of thinking, perceiving, acting, relating etc, and such studies are just the tip of the ice-berg.

Evidence for Centring and Relaxation Techniques

State management though various techniques involving posture, movement, breathing, visualisation and awareness are the basic tools of the embodied trade, sometimes called “centering”, “grounding” “tuning-in” etc. In scientific literature these may be referred to in a somewhat reductionist fashion as “relaxation techniques” and there is evidence such techniques are effective to alleviate many conditions. Given how widespread such techniques are however, even in the mainstream, it is surprising to me that there few studies comparing the effectiveness of different techniques, especially for short-term efficacy. Here is one however. A problem here is that certain techniques may have very different, even opposite effects depending on say how they are done.  Take “deep breathing” for example – if the out breath or in breath is lengthened or if the “deep” breath is done with the chest as opposed to the belly (diaphragm) there will be opposite effects. I would sum up the research in this area as supportive to embodiment practice but lacking depth, and with room for further studies.

Neuroscience and Embodiment

The relationship between embodied approaches and neuroscience is now also being explored. Amanda Blake is making a name in this meeting and ahead of her new book this paper is a great summary. While one also has to be careful of “neurobunk” and using a discipline selectively to meet an end, there are many ideas from neuroscience that give weight to the embodied training approach, and none I have seen which go against it. For example the impact of implicit learning and the importance of conscious practice to overcome engrained circuitry and habits. Neuroscience shows us how reading books is not enough to change our behaviour as we are neurologically disposed to certain emotionally linked behaviours. Neuroscience also shows how we can the amygdala can “hijack” the brain in fight and flight responses, necessitating techniques such as centring which enable us to regain use of our more rational neocortical areas of the brain. Even a primitive Triune brain model can be very useful in explaining embodiment. Neuroscience also describes how the heart and gut have large numbers of neurones, sometimes even called secondary “brains”, and this is relevant to embodied work. Nerves are distributed throughout the body and our whole nervous system is linked – as Amanda Blake says “your body is your brain.” Neuroscience also highlights the social relational nature of the human nervous system and why the learning through interaction and community found in embodied approaches is so powerful. Remember the Romanian orphans for the psychical and mental ill effects that can occur when touch, movement and social interaction are not present by way of contrast.

Trauma and The Body

The field of trauma was one of the earliest areas of psychology to recognise the importance of the body and also deserves mention in its own right. Bassel van der Kolk in his seminal article “The Body Keeps the Score” bought this area to attention and he has shown the efficacy of working with the body. Other scientifically orientated “embodied” trauma specialists include Pat Ogden and her Sensori Motor approach, Babette Rothschild, David Bercheli and Peter Levine. It is now established that trauma and related disorders such as PTSD are not purely mental phenomena.

Conclusion and Barriers

So that was a brief overview of some of the research that I’ve come across relating to embodiment. There is a growing academic evidence-base for the work I that do, and much of this didn’t exist when I started perusing my career so this is gratifying. The field of somatic or embodied training is still somewhat “alternative” and many of those doing the academic work are likely unaware of the parallels, some I would say are even reinventing the wheel. Mutual understanding between academic psychology and those expert in working with the body in the flesh, can only be a good thing.

Please send me any studies that I’ve missed out, or mention them in the comments, I’m sure there’s much more that has been excluded as I haven’t surveyed academic literature since university. I will likely update this article as time goes by and the field grows. I also think that it’s worth mentioning the main barriers that I see could hinder the scientific understanding of embodiment. These are:

Prejudice from scientists who have gone through an extremely disembodying education system and have been taught not to value the body. As one academic friend of mine put it, “my body is just a cart that gets me from one classroom to another.” If mindfulness had an uphill battle against prejudice against Eastern methods, “bodyfulness” certainly will!

Defensiveness from embodied practitioners, especially those who demonise “Western science” as oppressive, and charlatans invested in not to having their claims actually tested. Sadly, the impression I get is that some would prefer imaginary mental powers to clarity.

My hope is that mutual opportunity will bridge the gap between these groups and overcome the difficulties. The opportunity for embodiment practitioners like myself is that we can point to studies to help participants overcome fear of the body and unseal methods and enter into their own experience (I call this a “cognitive bypass”). We can also gain new directions in our work from research. For academics novel avenues of enquiry that may not be obvious from a purely theoretical perspective can come from working with embodiment practitioners.

Opportunities for Research and Collaboration

I’d like to finish with some opportunities for research that I’d love to see happen. I am partially writing this in the hope of collaboration in fact:

Correlating personality metrics and movement to produce a new video only test

Research on movement styles and changing thinking, leadership, relationships, communication patterns etc. So far much of the research has focussed on dance not movement patterns more generally.

Collaboration with computer games and animation companies around this

Collaboration with technology companies on the embodiment issues around new technology.

Research on the effectiveness of various state management techniques.