Thinking with your body


October 14th, 2011

Do you know that game where you’re given two equally unappealing options: to kiss Tony Abbott or George Bush (for example)? Here’s another one: to sit through a deadly boring powerpoint presentation or to play silly games. Yeah – I actually understand that some people would prefer to sit through a boring presentation than to risk looking foolish while playing a participatory game. Just.

Surprisingly, there are times when, I too, inwardly groan when someone tries to jolly me into doing an activity that I’m not up for.

The argument for sitting through a presentation – even if it’s deadly boring – is that I might learn something or get some useful information. Maybe. And anyway, I can always catch up with people and have the ‘real’ conversations afterwards.

Yeah. Right.

We’ve long known that we humans prefer the known to the unknown. There’s the saying “better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t”. And someone else said (sorry can’t remember who) that we’re often happier to put up with something familiar that obviously doesn’t work, than to risk something new or different. And of course, there’s the famous Albert Einstein quote: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

I’ll take my chances with the silly games. At the very least I’ll get to have some fun, maybe even a laugh, generate some endorphins and might even learn something – about myself and about my fellow players.

Violia Spolin said “You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I like it!

And the boffins at New Scientist concur. There’s an interesting article in the latest issue (October 12) Your clever body: Thinking from head to toe. Author David Robson describes recent research into ’embodied cognition’ that shows that the whole body is involved in the thinking process.

Here’s an interesting snippet and reason enough to avoid all that abstract language in meetings: “Other studies show that language is also deeply embodied. Every time we hear a word, the brain seems to stimulate the actions associated with its meaning. When someone says the word “climb” for example, it activates the same neural regions that trigger our muscles to pull our weight up a tree. What’s more, appropriate hand gestures can help our understanding of these words (New Scientist. 8 April 2000. p 30).”

This is not to negate thinking. Sometimes there’s nothing better than mentally wrestling with a tricky puzzle. It also seems that physically wrestling might also help. It sure isn’t going to hurt.

Embodied cognition has implications for how we physically meet – especially if it’s to grapple with difficult topics or to learn something new and complicated. It’s become custom to sit – often for many hours at a time. Apart from anything else, sitting is not good for us. Even standing or lying down is better.

So in designing meetings, we should be thinking about how to accommodate our bodies, as well as our brains; how to intersperse periods of thinking and struggling with ideas and solutions, with movement and activities.

It might look like a silly game to outsiders, but it’s really an opportunity to release different ways of knowing with all the spin-off benefits that improvising brings to groups: greater awareness of each other, trust, acknowledgement and empathy.

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