I struggle to write when I sit at my desk for too long. My students freeze when stressed. Chicagoans pine for sun in winter. “How the Body Knows Its Mind” resonated with me because it identifies the science behind what we feel and suggests simple changes to improve our lives. I caught up with neuropsychologist Sian Beilock after her week of presentations around the country.
What was the impetus for the book? How does it follow the work that you did on human performance in your previous book “Choke”?
I think everyone thinks of the mind as telling the body what to do — our thoughts, our feelings, our learning, our ability to perform — reside in our head. As I started doing research for “Choke” I realized what we do with our bodies and our surroundings have a big impact on how we learn and how we feel. No one was really telling that story. Everyone was telling the story about what happens inside our head. There’s a great story to tell about some simple things we can do to feel better, perform better and learn better if we understand a little bit of the science.
How does it relate to the work you do at the Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago?
We study why people excel and why they sometimes fail, especially under stress. We are always looking at the building blocks of human performance and optimal performance. In the book I talk about work that my colleagues and I have done, looking at using the body as a learning tool to change how we think. There is research in the book that comes straight out of studies I have done, and other information from the science community. I want to reach businesspeople, athletes, coaches, parents and teachers—so they can create new tools and have some ammunition to talk to people who don’t think this is important.
What surprised you?
There are little things that we can do that have a big effect. Holding our body upright helps our confidence. Being in nature affects our ability to focus our attention. How we gesture can help us remember. We may have heard some ideas or experienced them intuitively, but by unpacking the science we have tools at our disposal to enhance our performance.
In the workplace we eat lunch at our desks and think it’s increasing time on task, but getting up and walking away is like rebooting your hard drive. You get rid of dead-end connections. You are likely to come up with the right answer. Once you’re powered by the science, you can change what you do. I make a point of walking around, looking out the window, going outside, things I hadn’t considered.
Is having this information packaged together with practical suggestions helpful for teachers?
High schoolers are meant to be confined to their seats and have attention spans that go on forever, but we know that teenagers don’t have that. The front part of their brain that controls this ability is still developing. By knowing the science we can think about how we can do this better. We are so focused about what they are learning, whether we talk about the common core or the skills we give our athletes, that we forget the rest of the puzzle—our emotions, attitudes, motivations and bodies. If you don’t have the whole package, you won’t succeed.
Can anxiety about a math test manifest as physical pain?
Our bodies don’t make the distinction about what’s mental and what’s physical. When we’re anxious many of the same brain areas involving our physical sense of pain are activated. Our neural alarm signals are going off. Knowing this arms us with the tools to address anxiety. When people feel rejected socially or torn down at, that same neural alarm triggers. Those people are unlikely to function at their best.
With changes occurring so rapidly in cognitive science and neuroscience, what’s it like to write in this field?
We’re building the plane while it’s flying. We can’t stop building, so we take our best guess and move forward. Our knowledge will evolve. For a long time neuroscientists and cognitive scientists thought about a disembodied mind: the mind as software, the brain and body as hardware—the hardware didn’t matter. This has been challenged. We work in the lab where we can control things, we work in the classroom where it is very messy, and we do work in business settings. We use neuroscience tools such as MRI and fMRI. We look at the convergence and go forward in that direction.
How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment To Influence How You Think and Feel
By Sian Beilock
Atria Books, 288 pages, $26