Tag Archives: William James

File under “theater has known this for years”

An article in my Twitter feed today caught my eye: “How Posture influences mood, energy, thoughts,” Kristen Brown for the San Francisco Gate.

We start in a Holistic Health class where the professor intersperses his lectures with time for students to “get up and wiggle.” Professor Erik Peper ties this tool to his behavioral science research on the mind-body connection. Immediately, I was hooked in. Surely someone is going to mention theater at some point. How could they not? I read on.

The article mentions the stir psychologist William James made in the late 1800s when he ruminated on the connection between physiological and emotional responses. Which comes first, the bodily experience or the mental feeling? A chicken or egg kind of situation. Then the Gate article author jumps to early 21st century research about the influence of bodily action on mental state: a 2003 study on nodding or shaking heads that showed how the action influenced group opinions, a 2009 study showing sitting up straight improved confidence. There’s even a mention of “embodiment” —

Scientists who study the influence of the body on the mind, a subdiscipline of social psychology called embodiment, are only now beginning to understand the physiological underpinnings behind it.

— but instead of a turn to theater, the article moves further into the scientific domain, neuroscience, to illustrate emerging physiological evidence that appears to link physical action to emotional states/moods (and vice-versa).

Now, I’m not surprised. For this to be “news” it has to be illustrative of the “real world” connections and that equals scientific inquiry. I bring it up here not to chafe at the neglect of performing arts like dance & theater whose artistry is dependent upon unique strategies of connectivity between mind and body but to illustrate how certain scientific fields are studying the kind of connections you are exploring in your movement work with Kali. As we look for ways to access greater paths of connection between the physical worlds you all have been exploring in workshop and the textual landscape of the script, it seems important to recognize how these psychology and neuroscience studies are searching for some similar kinds of connections just in a different domain.

“If I do a power pose, that sends signals up to the brain, and it says ‘I’m feeling powerful,’ ” said [Dana] Carney [social psychologist at UC-Berkeley]. “It starts as a neural impulse and then ends up acting a little bit like a drug.”

In the study, those signals, for example, triggered the production of testosterone and decreased levels of cortisol, making a person feel more confident and less stressed. What is still unclear is the exact pathway those signals take.

“We are just defining now what those pathways might be,” said Carney. “The knowledge will come … but science is slow.”

Peper, the SFSU scientist, readily espouses his philosophy to any available ears – including the reporter, who he instructed to put down the phone and stretch “toward the sky” for a few minutes.

“Just get up and do some active movement for a moment, then observe yourself,” he said.

Philosophy and religion have long debated the nature of the mind-body relationship.

James, the 19th century psychologist, inspired a wave of criticism that lasted long after his death. Since James’ era, what has emerged is a picture of emotion that is much more complex. Sometimes, a mood is perhaps tied to the physiological. Sometimes perhaps it’s not. Scientists still disagree.

Don’t worry scientists. Artists disagree too.

“It’s complicated.”

Professor Erik Peper talks about stress in his holistic health class at San Francisco State University. Much of his work focuses on how posture can affect mood. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

Professor Erik Peper talks about stress in his holistic health class at San Francisco State University. Much of his work focuses on how posture can affect mood. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle