I’ve been gettin’ my nerd on. The Scientific American; NPR archives; The Psychonomic Bulletin And Review…are you snoring yet? I’ve been reading up on a concept called “embodied cognition” because I’m always trying to understand WHY things work. Things like… my own coaching programs.
I’m an intuitive human. I can often tell you the answer to a question but have no rational explanation as to how I arrived at the answer. (It’s a little bit like in high school, when I’d write my research papers out in full and THEN go back and write the outline. I could NEVER do it in the proper order.)
I’ll often get an intuitive guess about one of my private clients that isn’t based on anything logical; it’s just a hunch that’d make Nancy Drew proud.
This is useful for a life coach, but sometimes maddening, too.
Witness me: “The Queen Sweep works!!! I have no idea WHY! None at all! But….but I swear it does!”
That’s not a very compelling argument, even for an English major.
On the one hand, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that when people moved things around in their environment, they shifted their inner mental and emotional patterns. I had seen again and again that something as simple as clearing off the top of a dresser could give someone a boost of courage and resolve.
I had witnessed firsthand that dealing with stacks of old papers could unstick someone’s career trajectory. I knew that my new pale blue Smeg teakettle up there inspired bouts of honest-to-goodness heroism in me (which is a whole ‘nother story; remind me to tell you sometime.)
But it sounded almost too magical to be true.
“Ummm, it’s because we’re metaphorical creatures,” I’d mumble. “It sometimes…well…it sets off all kinds of larger ripples,” I’d say sheepishly, sounding even to myself like a snake oil salesman, someone who’d tell you to stop paying your taxes and taking your meds and just read The Secret instead. (Incidentally, for the record, I think The Secret is absolutely snake oil.)
I have a running joke with my lifetime Queen Sweepers where they’ll send me an article with the comment, “Hey, THIS is why such-and-such exercise works!” and I’d always reply, “Ha! I love it when science tells me I’m right!”
But I wanted to understand. So, prompted by yet another one of these articles (thanks Wende!), I went down the internet rabbit hole trying to decode the big rambling Scrabble board of tangentially related studies, theories, concepts, and philosophies that gets lumped under the phrase “embodied cognition.”
Now if you’re a neurologist behavioralist psychological researcher, please cover your ears for this next part.
I’m going to reduce this big jumbled, contradictory, mishmash of ideas to this tiny yet radical idea.
How I think about embodied cognition:
We don’t just live in our logical, cognitive minds. We are physical beings and the physical world we move through – and the way we see, touch, taste, smell, and hear it – shapes our experience so fundamentally that we mostly don’t even know it’s happening.
It doesn’t sound that crazy when you say it like that, right?
(But oh you should witness the frenzy of scorn some academics lavish on this idea, tossing around the words “nonsensically,” “trivial,” and “vacuous” like they’re 20th century scientists talking about…well…women.)
Of course, like any exciting new idea, some people take it all the way to the ridiculous extreme, proclaiming that a building’s wallcoverings matter more to a company’s outcomes than the culture of the organization inside it. Or saying that teachers AND THE MATERIAL THEY TEACH aren’t as important as the color of the school’s linoleum. Even I, the original Queen Sweeper herself, thinks that’s ridiculous. So can we just agree to dismiss the fringe elements?
Because it’s still a pretty exciting idea– that the experiences we give our physical body impact the world we shape in our minds. And our minds then go on to think marvelous or terrible thoughts within that world, which in turn steer the actions we take, which create the world we shape with our choices…and so on and so forth.
15 ways you can use embodied cognition to make life feel more doable
- Clear off your nightstand
- Toss the junk mail that’s sitting on the dining room table
- Put the dirty dishes in the sink (You don’t even have to wash them! Just hide them for a bit!)
- Donate those jeans that don’t fit and those ratty t-shirts from college
- Eat a meal on the “good” dishes
- Drink your coffee or tea out of your cutest mug
- Light a candle
- Buy a cheap bouquet and put it somewhere you’ll see every day
- Actually use that beautiful notebook for your daily to-do lists
- Replace those stretched out underwear with something both comfortable and cute
- Find a way to store things that you + your family will actually use – hooks? cute open-topped bins? lockers?
- Tidy your kitchen for the length of one perfect song from your adolescence
- Replace that burnt out light bulb – finally!
- Spend 15 seconds making your meal look nice – a drizzle of olive oil, a bits of something chopped and green
- Figure out what is making the fridge smell bad and get rid of it
Now obviously, there are 42 ways to look at pretty much everything in the world. Embodied cognition is just one lens.
For example, taking ownership of your “story,” the mental narrative you tell yourself about what your life means, is powerful. Choosing to cast yourself as the intrepid heroine of your own lifetime movie is going to be more helpful than constantly repeating an inner litany of how unfair life is and how nothing ever goes your way and you’re doomed, DOOOOOOOMED. (Not exactly rocket science.)
And questioning your own inner belief system, especially the one you probably inherited unconsciously from your family/community/religion/culture of origin, is a fantastic way to break out of old handed-down patterns and upper limits.
But you know what else is super awesome?
Cleaning off your desk. Throwing away outfits that make you feel small. Facing down the piles of paper. Reclaiming your dining room table for meals with candles and china.
And I’m going to be honest: grappling with the physical world is a lot more appealing for most of us than grappling with inherited trauma.
Plus: at the end of it, your house looks pretty.
So it’s a two-fer!
If you want to run your own highly scientific experiment, pick one small spot in your home that you look at every day; ideally something you look at for long periods of time each day. This might be the area right around your computer monitor, or your main kitchen island, or your couch. (Also? My free, five-day mini course can help with this!)
Imagine that the person using this space is infinitely worthy of dignity and respect. Imagine that she has a sacred purpose in her life (even if you have no idea what it might be). Imagine that she is doing the very best she can and she could use a few little reminders that she is worthy and capable.
How would you style that spot if Michelle Obama was going to come sit in it? If your beloved mentor was going to use it? If your favorite writer was going to write you a book there, just for you?
I’m guessing you can think of some immediate upgrades you’d make.
I know, I know; you’ve got a lot on your plate. 84,000 things on your mind. I get it. (Me too.)
So what if you gave yourself the best possible chance of being someone who can HANDLE those things like a boss?
Of being someone who can pick out the truly essential meaningful things and do THOSE things?
If embodied cognition teaches us anything, it’s that beautifying our spaces can’t hurt, and it just might reflect back the person we want to be….and help us grow into her more quickly and more effortlessly.
Now here’s the important part. It’s the part where you take that brilliant cognitive mind of yours and you embody it– in other words, go and actually DO that thing.
Clear off your desk. Set the table for dinner with your best china. Wear a great outfit. Put on your shitkicker boots. Or your finest silk gown. Or both!