Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Body Movements Can Help Influence Problem Solving

I enjoy moving around and learning about how the body moves. If I was going back to college, I would be interested in the field of Kinesiology and I probably would not be interested in the field of education (one lifetime spent teaching is enough!). I like to run and exercise and find the times I am running or working out are the times when I do my best thinking. Sitting still is not something I enjoy doing at all. However, I am a teacher and sometimes I feel that my job is finding ways to get my students to sit still. After all, they are "supposed" to be thinking and working and when do we ever equate movement with either of those in the classroom?

Now comes a study out of the University of Illinois that shows for the first time that how a person solves a problem can be "influenced" by how that person moves. Psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, who conducted the study with Vanderbilt University postdoctoral researcher Laura Thomas, observed that participants who swung their arms were more able to solve a problem whose solution involved swinging strings. This demonstrates that the brain can use bodily cues to help understand and solve complex problems. This experiment shows a link between the body and the mind, something called "embodied cognition." Lleras said:
“People tend to think that their mind lives in their brain, dealing in conceptual abstractions, very much disconnected from the body. This emerging research is fascinating because it is demonstrating how your body is a part of your mind in a powerful way. The way you think is affected by your body and, in fact, we can use our bodies to help us think.”
The experiment was fascinating as described here.
The researchers asked study subjects to tie the ends of two strings together. The strings dangled from ceiling rafters and were so far apart that a person grasping one could not reach the other. A few tools were also available: a paperback book, a wrench, two small dumbbells, and a plate. Subjects were given eight, two-minute sessions to solve the problem, with 100 seconds devoted to finding a solution, interrupted by 20 seconds of exercise.
Some subjects were told to swing their arms forward and backward during the exercise sessions, while others were directed to alternately stretch one arm, and then the other, to the side. To prevent them from consciously connecting these activities to the problem of the strings, the researchers had them count backwards by threes while exercising.

You can see short videos of the subjects here:

Participant during a swinging exercise break
Participant during a stretching exercise break
Swing group participant attempting to solve the problem
Stretch group participant attempting to solve the problem

The subjects in the arm-swinging group were more likely than those in the stretch group to solve the problem, which required attaching an object to one of the strings and swinging it so that it could be grasped while also holding the other string. By the end of the 16-minute deadline, participants in the arm-swinging group were 40 percent more likely than those in the stretch group to solve the problem.

"By making you swing your arms in a particular way, we're activating a part of your brain that deals with swinging motions," Lleras said. "That sort of activity in your brain then unconsciously leads you to think about that type of motion when you're trying to solve the problem."

Now I am not sure how this all applies directly to the classroom. As you may have noticed, it was not just any movement that helped the subjects solve the problem. It was a more directed movement that "played into" the solution. The study is fascinating and I was also intrigued by the hint of a previous study by Lleras and his colleagues that has shown that directing a person’s eye movements or attention in specific patterns can also aid in solving complex problems.
However you take the study Lleraa offers some practical thoughts:
“We view this as a really important new window into understanding the complexity of human thought,” he said. “I guess another take-home message is this: If you are stuck trying to solve a problem, take a break. Go do something else. This will ensure that the next time you think about that problem you will literally approach it with a different mind. And that may help!”
Read about the study here.
One of the practices I have been applying to my own athletic endeavors is called Z-Health. Z-Health is a joint mobility program that strives to re-educate the nervous system to improve poor movement patterns. I think that this study parallels some of the concepts of Z-Health through its use of precise movement patterns to rewire the nervous system for better performance. I should also note that some Z-Health drills also target eye-movements.


Mike T Nelson said...

YES!!! Brilliant study! This is something I've suspected for awhile, but the direct evidence was lacking. Really appreciate you posting it here!

Your brain is always tying together emotions and movements together. More fluid movement = more fluid thought.

Don't get me started on how schools DESTROY this in the learning environment.

The first you learn in school is--sit down, don't move, be quiet and some schools don't even have freakin' recess. I'm sure you have seen differences in kids that may have ADHD but are allowed hard exercise---they seem to get much better. Hmmmmm.

How eye movements are related is whole different can of worms, but they are VERY related and the human eye normally does not go through a full range of motion.

Would you not take your other muscles through a full range of motion? Why would not do it with your eyes, esp since they are so important.

Great stuff and thanks for posting again. I have tons of Z-Health, movement, athletic performance stuff on my blog.

Mike T Nelson PhD(c)
Extreme Human Performance

Jim Hansen said...

Hi Mike,
When I read the study, I wondered if I should send it your way. I wasn't sure if it was something you already knew about, though. I follow and read your blog all the time. When I post there it is from my recoveryourstride blog. I tried a very unscientific version of the experiment with my class. I just explained the experiment and then had them all do the stretching arm motions. I asked if anyone knew how to solve the problem. None did. Then I had them swing their arms. When I asked if anyone had a clue, about 5 arms shot up. The first boy I asked solved the problem. He said that if you moved the strings back and forth you could catch both of them. How's that?