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Aug. 13 2009 - 12:03 pm | 232 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

The reclining neuron

I’ve had my fair share of arguments over the years. I’ve had squabbles in the kitchen, dustups in the boardroom, quarrels on the ball field. I’ve had “words” while standing, sitting, and gesturing in colorful ways. But I’m fairly certain I have never had a really good fight lying down, hands behind my head, legs crossed. It just doesn’t work.

Why is that? It’s surely not impossible to argue and gesture angrily from, say, a hammock. But most of us just don’t do it. We stand, or at least sit upright; we lean forward when we’re miffed. Psychologists are actually very interested in this odd fact, and more generally in the link between body and emotion. We all know fighting words when we hear them. Is there such a thing as fighting posture?

Texas A&M psychologists Eddie Harmon-Jones and Carly Peterson decided to explore this provocative idea by looking inside people’s brains. It’s been well-documented that a particular region of the brain, known as the left prefrontal cortex, is especially active during anger. This is particularly true for confrontational anger–the kind that makes you go after someone, or at least want to. It’s obviously harder to confront someone when you’re reclining, but how does the brain know you’re kicking back? Is it possible that our neurons somehow link heated emotion with confrontational posture, and coolheadednes with repose?

This is the notion that Harmon-Jones and Peterson tested in the laboratory. The first thing they had to do was make some people angry, and this is how they did it. They misled volunteers into believing they were part of a personality experiment that involved writing a persuasive essay; the essay was to be evaluated by an anonymous person in another room. In reality, the evaluations were part of the experiment, and they were deliberately insulting to the writer’s intelligence. The insults were intended to provoke anger.

While they did this, the scientists measured the volunteers’ anger response in the neurons. But here’s the catch. About half the volunteers were sitting upright in a chair when they heard the insults. The others were also in a chair, but it reclined during the testing (again explained as part of the sham experiment). The idea was to see if the volunteers’ posture influenced the firing of their neurons.

And it did, clearly. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, the anger neurons lit up much more in the brains of the sitting volunteers than in the brains of those who were lying down. Indeed, the brains of the reclining volunteers–even when they were insulted–looked much like the controls who had not been insulted at all. It appears that the reclining posture actually damped down the brain’s confrontational response. Put another way, the neurons interpreted the body’s relaxed posture as a signal to chill.


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    About Me

    I've been a Washington, DC-based science writer for many years, specializing in psychology and human behavior. I currently write a blog for the Association for Psychological Science called "We're Only Human," and am also a regular contributor to Newsweek.com and Scientific American Mind. Crown will be publishing my book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits, in September. I am an old-school journalist embracing the world of new media. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. I believe that every news story--whether it's about money or politics or crime or love or health-- is in large part about psychology and the quirks of the human mind. When I am not writing, I am hanging out at Westside Club, riding my bicycle, listening to music and/or cooking for family and friends.

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    For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit my “We’re Only Human” blog. Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at the website Newsweek.com.