FARGO - Humans are not just a pair of eyes and a brain floating around.
The idea that humans are active beings with bodies that interact with the environment is at the core of the study of embodied cognition: what a person sees and perceives in the world around them as influenced by aspects of the body beyond the brain. The parts of the brain a person uses to perceive the world are also the same parts of the brain they use to think.
“We’re acting beings who have these bodies that allow us to do things in our environment,” said Laura Thomas, an assistant professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. “The idea is what I’m ready to do with the environment is going to have this interaction with the information that I’m biased to perceive.”
The NDSU Action and Cognition Lab, headed by Thomas, studies the impacts a person’s physical, social and kinetic interactions with the world have on the way the brain processes information. Studies in the lab have found that factors as minor as how a person holds their hands affects their ability to perceive movement or fine spatial details.
“Just being ready to catch a ball or thread a needle will create this subtle bias in terms of what my brain is going to emphasize when I take in that information,” Thomas said.
The lab’s primary study looks at how a person perceives visual information near their hands based on what they are doing with their hands.
Researchers have subjects put their hands in a “power grasp,” with their fists closed as though they are ready to swing a hammer, and perform a task on a computer display. They then have them do the same task with their hands held in a “precision grasp,” as though they are about to tie their shoes or thread a needle, and compare their performance against the same activity done with their hands in their lap.
“We’ve found that if people are holding their hands up on a computer display (in a power grasp), they’re more sensitive to changes in motion information -- information that changes quickly over time,” Thomas said. “That’s the kind of visual information that is most useful to me if I’m doing something like trying to catch a ball or swing a hammer.”
“If your hands are positioned (in a precision grasp), you are more likely to respond to visual information that is related to fine spatial details. Little differences between the positions of dots on the screen are going to be easier for you to notice.”
The other two areas of study in the lab test how social interactions affect what a person sees and the effect of physical motion on thought processes.
The social interaction study tests how people perceive a person’s face if they compete with them versus if they work together on a team.
“We found that if you’re playing against another person -- if you’re competing -- you remember that person’s face as being more aggressive looking,” Thomas said. “This idea of facial aggression is measured basically by -- if you think about a triangle where you’ve got your eyes and your mouth -- a triangle that is more scrunched up is more aggressive.”
The study on the impact of physical motion on thought tasks subjects with solving a difficult spatial reasoning problem. The solution to the problem involves swinging a string like a pendulum. The study has found that if they ask subjects to swing their arms back and forth, without telling them it has anything to do with the problem, they are much more likely to solve the problem.
“Movements of the body can serve as primes or triggers to particular types of thought,” Thomas said.
The lab also provides opportunities for undergraduate students to conduct studies. Junior psychology major Hallie Anderson is about to begin a study on the impact handshakes have on business interactions. They are bringing in a grip testing machine to see whether a firm handshake actually yields superior economic results.
“The popular hypothesis would say that the firmness of the handshake would play a factor into who would receive more money in an economic game,” Anderson said. “But I almost think personality will play a factor as well. We’ll see if the handshake itself is making that difference.”