Book Review: How The Body Knows Its Mind

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Author: Sian Beilock
Publisher: Atria Books
Book Publication: 2015

A growing movement in neuroscience, called embodied cognition, adheres to the belief that the body plays a central role in shaping the mind. In her book How the Body Knows Its Mind, brain scientist Sian Beilock shares research, insights, and inspiring anecdotes to explain how our bodies, along with our physical surroundings, have the power to shape how we think, feel, and behave.

Beilock’s findings, presented in a clear and compelling fashion throughout, are varied and intriguing. She explores cases where a focus on the body can alleviate a disorder seemingly rooted in the mind, such as when Botox injections not only removed frown lines, but helped reduce feelings of sadness, anger and depression. Likewise, participation in laughter yoga classes and clubs revealed that laughter, or even the formation of an unconscious smile, could lift the mood of a person. Beilock explains this is because “our body has a direct line to our mind – telling us how to feel. Assuming a happy or sad bodily posture, a confident or anxious mien, conveys to our brain what emotional state we are in.”

Beilock also cites research demonstrating how motor competency correlates to increased cognitive capability. For example, nine-month-old infants who can crawl have better memory than those who aren’t able to do so freely on their own. Children with better finger dexterity are able to use their fingers more efficiently to count and calculate. And in a month-long reading-program study, preschool children who practised printing had better letter recognition than those who practised naming the words instead. “When the body figures out how to write the letters, the mind follows suit in being able to read them.”

Movement and motor competency are equally important to the healthy function of the older adult brain. “There are clear differences in brain health in fit, older adults compared with their more sedentary counterparts, and these differences carry consequences for thinking and reasoning as well as for memory.” Mental health is particularly improved by aerobic exercise, which can alter the structure and functioning of the brain.

Research on body language and gesturing also reveals some surprising information: we agree more with speakers when they gesture with the hand we prefer to use; math performance improves markedly if students are taught gestures that mimic the equation problem solution, and cradling your grocery basket in the crook of your arm makes it more likely you will buy products that gratify cravings. Gestures, according to Beilock, help us to not only learn and remember, but influence how we think and feel. Our thinking, says Beilock, extends way beyond the cortex. This original and captivating book will entertain and inform, while taking the reader on a fascinating journey from the body to the mind.

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Susannah Kent is a Toronto area Fitness and Healthy Lifestyle Instructor.

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