Embodied Cognition is a branch of neuroscience which explores the unconscious effects of touch (and other senses) on the mind and emotions.
Touching a “soft” article or texture has been linked to creating deeper states of kindness and social friendliness.1,2
Feeling a soft object (like a teddy bear) stimulates the motor cortex, which in turn stimulates the higher thought centers. The implications suggest that squeezing a rubber ball before (or during) a meeting, for example, could enhance a situation that requires social affiliation, relaxation, tolerance, or similar moods.
In addition to sensations of softness, warmth also has been found to induce a spirit of kinship and calmness. (If you doubt this, just consider the effects of sitting next to a crackling fire on Christmas Eve.) The “warmth” of things has been associated with the “warmth” of feelings when it comes to the brain and emotions.
Pen and Paper
The mere act of expressing one’s thoughts on paper can be therapeutic.
Similarly putting your feelings into words, either in writing or just saying them aloud, can reduce fear and anxiety. Vocalizing your feelings helps you to be more mindful of what’s going on in your head and deal with the situation better. Finally, describing negative experiences in a way that implies completion reduces their effect on you.3
According to related studies:
…researchers found that when people wrote down their thoughts on a piece of paper and then threw the paper away, they mentally discarded the thoughts as well. On the other hand, people were more likely to use their thoughts when making judgments if they first wrote them down on a piece of paper and tucked the paper in a pocket to protect it.4
Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University, stated that “However you tag your thoughts [as trash or as worthy of protection] seems to make a difference in how you use those thoughts.”
In other words: Writing down positive thoughts (or intentions) and then keeping them on your person, has been found to reinforce their influence on your life. The reverse is also true. Tearing-up and trashing negative written thoughts can help to eliminate bad habits.
The act of writing down thoughts is the most important thing. “Merely imagining engaging in these actions has no effect.”
Muscle Flexing Tools
The practice of strength-training has been linked to increased will power. The research is cited in sciencedaily.com:
Participants who were instructed to tighten their muscles, regardless of which muscles they tightened — hand, finger, calf, or biceps — while trying to exert self-control demonstrated greater ability to withstand the pain, consume the unpleasant medicine, attend to the immediately disturbing but essential information, or overcome tempting foods…
From the same source:
They also found that the tightening of muscles only helped at the moment people faced the self-control dilemma. (If they did it beforehand, they felt depleted by the time it was time to make a choice.)
Small “strength-training” tools like a hand flexor should be flexed during (but not before) a situation that requires determination: Such as a stress test, business meeting, speech, or marriage proposal. (Even a diet temptation!)
Hand flexing (or similar) tools are designed to increase muscular strength; but, as the research indicates, they also increase higher functions of the will.
The act of cleansing has an “embodied effect” on the emotions. Soaping one’s hands can lessen the feelings of shame and guilt. The guilt can be over something large or small, perhaps “anything from the past, any kind of negative emotional experiences, might be washed away,” posits Spike W. S. Lee, a psychology researcher at the University of Michigan.
“A few years ago, scientists asked people to describe a past unethical act,” writes Nell Greenfieldboyce in an article for NPR. “If people were then given a chance to clean their hands, they later expressed less guilt and shame than people who hadn’t cleansed.”
Soaping can be used to “cleanse away” difficult emotional episodes, feelings of disgust, etc. (But it should not be used as a “fake” substitute for establishing “clean” moral principles.)
Handling money increases strength and reduces pain. “As far as your brain’s concerned,” an NPR article explains, “money can act as a substitute for social acceptance, reducing social discomfort and, by extension, physical discomfort and even pain.”
What’s more: “… in our brains, money has become a curious force, in this case behaving a bit like aspirin.” (Counting money enhances the effect!)
Delicious Gum or Candy
Tasting something “sweet or delicious” has been suggested to influence moral, aesthetic, and other reactions in test subjects. The effects appear to be bidirectional: in other words, one’s taste can be influenced, as well, from this experience.
For the most part, the research has explored moral and aesthetic judgments, but other studies suggest wider implications. For example, being exposed to a pleasurable experience has been found to increase food’s pleasure… and vice-versa.
The insights gleaned from neuroscience and embodied cognition teach us that direct impressions have “tangible” effects on higher brain functioning. (So does the use of objects in a particular way, such as writing.)
The more we learn about sensual effects on the mood and mind, the more we discover that the human head cannot be severed from the rest of the body. Whether it’s clutching a comforting keepsake, or destroying a page of harmful words, the emotions react in kind.
Conscious thoughts create a small outer fragment of the brain’s inner iceberg, a structure so vast and deep that it’s hard to ignore it in the super scheme of time.
Using “objects of touch” for personal advantage can be a unique and disarming tactic towards leading a more mindful life.