Embodiment of emotions and embodiment in religion


We have used this cool mannequin to help us document full body postures of emotions and prayer orientations:

We received a grant to support our research on the close interconnection between body and mind: “The embodiment of worship: Relations among postural, psychological, and physiological aspects of religious practice” funded by the John Templeton Foundation (PI Patty Van Cappellen, $554,790).

In this line of research, we are gathering empirical data on two important topics for the lab: embodiment of religious/spiritual practices (what are the prayer postures, are they related to the religious experience at all?) and embodiment of positive emotions (what are the full body postures associated with the experience of positive emotions?)

We have pre-registered all of our studies’ hypotheses and plans for analyses on OSF. You can also find codebooks and useful materials: https://osf.io/9vksz/

For a lay introduction to the role of body postures in religious/spiritual practices, see this piece we wrote for the SPSP Character and Context blog: The psychological and social importance of posture during worship

For more information on this grant, see: The Embodiment of Worship: Relations Among Postural, Psychological, and Physiological Aspects of Religious Practice

Grant Abstract:

Looking at prayer and worship practices around the world, it quickly appears that only a subset of all possible postures are commonly adopted (e.g., bowing one’s head or kneeling). Why is this so and why does it sound incongruous to pray while doing a headstand? Surprisingly, these questions have not been the focus of much empirical research in psychology. Therefore, the present proposal first aims at investigating the range and meanings attributed to common postures adopted in worship. Although sometimes considered cultural or symbolic practices, religious postures may also be involved in important psychological processes that accompany religious practice. According to multiple theories in psychology, people’s thoughts, emotions, and attitudes are grounded within the body and expressed by the body. Importantly, in return, bodily positions shape both people’s psychology and physiology. Psychologists use the term “embodiment” to refer to the reciprocal relationships between bodily positions and psychological processes. Therefore, a second aim of the present proposal is to investigate the relation between body postures commonly adopted in worship and key psychological and physiological processes. Are certain postures associated with specific emotions, thoughts, or attitudes? And does varying people’s posture change the way they feel and think? Focusing on psychological processes that are related to religious experiences, we will investigate postures’ effects on prayer experience, emotions, virtues of humility and gratitude, self-transcendence and subordination to God, coping with adversity, and physiological activity. The proposed research investigates outcomes that have also clear downstream consequences for health as well as moral behaviors. Given that the postures studied here are frequently adopted by worshippers, their effects may compound over time and explain in part why religion has been related to better health and societal good.


For a theoretical review of the work on the embodiment of worship:

Van Cappellen, P. & Edwards, M. E. (2021). The embodiment of worship: Relations among postural, psychological, and physiological aspects of religious practice. Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion, 6(1-2), 56–79. https://doi.org/10.1558/jcsr.38683  PDF

Figure 1. The top part of this figure depicts two mechanisms through which body postures may influence emotions, thoughts, and attitudes: through physiological and biological changes or by priming the posture’s symbolic meaning and the experiences associated with previous exposure to the posture. The bottom part suggests that the choice of posture and the embodied processes highlighted above, can be affected by variations in features of the situation (context in which the posture is adopted), the communicator (individual differences in the one adopting the posture), and the target (toward whom the posture is directed). Posture drawing by Eva Kundtová Klocová, used with permission.

This empirical study provides the first data describing Christian postures adopted in Sunday worship services, related meanings, and association with the affective and religious experience during that same service:

Van Cappellen, P., Cassidy, S., & Zhang, R. (2021). Religion as an embodied practice: Organizing the various forms and documenting the meanings of Christian prayer postures. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 15(2), 251-261. https://doi.org/10.1037/rel0000412

This empirical study provides the first data describing the postures people would use to express various prayer orientations and related emotions using our mannequin method:

Van Cappellen, P., & Edwards, M. (2021). Emotion expression in context: Full body postures of Christian prayer orientations compared to specific emotions. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 45, 545-565. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-021-00370-6

Across this series of three studies, we examined how affective states (dominance, joy, hope, and awe) are expressed in the full-body (using a novel method of positioning a small mannequin) and what expansive postures communicate in terms of affect and personality:

Van Cappellen, P., Edwards, M. E., Shiota, M. N. (2023). Shades of expansiveness: Postural expression of dominance, high-arousal positive affect, and warmth. Emotion, 23(4), 973-985. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0001146

Here we examined the effect of static full-body postures on positive and negative affect using both explicit and implicit measures:

Van Cappellen, P., Ladd, K. L., Cassidy, S., Edwards, M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2022). Bodily feedback: Expansive and upward posture facilitates the experience of positive affect. Cognition and Emotion, 36(7), 1327-1342. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2022.2106945

More empirical studies are currently under review… stay tuned!
Media Coverage:

Interview with Annalise Jolley for the John Templeton Foundation: Disembodied Worship? How Posture Impacts Spiritual Experience. September 28, 2022.

Interview with Jill Suttie for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine: How Your Body Posture Communicates Feelings to Others. April 27, 2023.