If you catch sight of a beautiful flower, you’ll want to take a closer look. Spot a rattlesnake, and you’ll back away fast. It’s natural to move towards pleasure and away from anything that could cause pain.
In each case the emotion or thought comes first, followed by the physical action.
But what if it also occurred the other way around? Can emotion be created by motion? Can physical movement change the way we process thoughts?
If that’s true it might be possible to boost cognition by the way we move our bodies.
That’s what a group of researchers from the Netherlands sought to find out.
Retreating Enhances Cognition
For their study the research team recruited 38 college undergraduates with an average age of 21½. Each student had to take several steps in any one of four directions and complete the Stroop task.
In this test, participants read a word that’s the name of a color. The color is itself printed in a particular color. For instance, the word “red” might be printed in red ink or it might be mismatched and printed in blue ink. Words that don’t name colors are also included in the test, for a total of 12 separate tasks.
As soon as the word is presented on a screen, the participant must name the ink color – not the word — as fast as possible. Because there is a natural tendency to read the word first, speed of performance depends upon being able to suppress this impulse when word and ink color are mismatched. This indicates the subject’s ability to focus and concentrate.
Before each task, the students were instructed to take either four steps forward, backwards, left or right.
The results, reported in the journal Psychological Science, found that those stepping backwards had far greater focus and attention than did those making any of the other movements.
The study authors wrote, “…stepping backward significantly enhanced cognitive performance compared to stepping forward or sideways. Considering the effect size, backward locomotion appears to be a very powerful trigger to mobilize cognitive resources.
“Thus, whenever you encounter a difficult situation, stepping backward may boost your capability to deal with it effectively.”
Deep Evolutionary Roots
The reason for the difference in mental functioning between approach (moving closer to objects in the environment) and avoidance (retreating) movements is thought to go back to our prehistoric ancestors.
If people felt safe, free from any danger, they would move in a forward direction with confidence. Encountering a threat, they would be on their guard, pay particular attention to their surroundings, and move back.
These deep-wired impulses became ingrained within our developing brain to such an extent that today, even when we have nothing to fear, stepping back automatically improves our concentration, focus and attention.
The idea that bodily states influence cognition isn’t new. It was proposed by psychologist and philosopher William James in the 19th century and has been followed up by a number of other researchers in the last two decades.
We now know that different areas of the brain are involved in approach and avoidance behaviors. The findings of this study also corroborate those of other studies that used arm rather than leg movements.
So if you have a problem that needs solving, just take several steps back. It could give you the answer you’ve been looking for.