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What you DO affects what you THINK


What our users DO with our products--or even what they see someone else do--has a bigger effect on their brains than we might believe. How we move (or imagine moving) our bodies changes our thoughts. And if there's a mismatch between thought and physical action, brains don't like it. Whether you're designing interfaces or instructional materials, you can't afford to ignore the research on this.

The rest of this post won't make sense unless you do the following exercises, so... you've been warned.


1) Say the word "zeal" out loud. Twice, clearly.

2) Without changing the position of your mouth and lips, imagine yourself saying "zeal." Make sure you "hear" it.

3) Now--this is the important one--open your mouth as wide as you possibly can, keep it open, and imagine yourself saying the word "zeal."

So, what happened when you tried to imagine saying "zeal" with your mouth wide open? Did the state of your physical body--in this case your mouth--affect your ability to think?


1) Tighten your whole body, grit your teeth, clench your jaw, tense the muscles in your shoulders and arms, and clench your fists. Hold that position and imagine yourself pushing a piece of big heavy furniture across the room.

2) Now relax all your muscles. Let them go as limp as you can, unclench your jaw, relax the face, shoulders, hands, all the way down. Picture yourself lying on a beach listening to the sound of the waves. KEEP THAT RELAXATION in your body for the next step.

3) Holding that completely relaxed position, imagine yourself pushing a piece of big heavy furniture across the room. No matter what, do NOT let your muscles tense up.

What happened? Did the state of your muscles affect your ability to think?

Both of these exercises are from neuroscientist Richard Restak's latest book, The Naked Brain. From the book:

"Our mental processes are sufficiently tethered to our bodily senses that we have difficulty with situations when the brain and other parts of the body aren't in sync."

Even more dramatic, in a test measuring the association of arm posture and attitude, he demonstrates that the way you hold your arms affects how you feel about items you encounter. Apparently even just imagining items while your arms are extended in the "pushing away" position can cause you to like those items less than if you imagined them while your arms were in a flexed "bringing-to me" position.

One experiment he describes:

"Half of the participants in the experiment were asked to push a lever away from them if they reacted positively to a particular word but pull it toward them if the word gave rise to negative associations, while the other half of the participants were told to do the opposite, pulling forward with positive words and pushing away with negative words. Overall, people were faster to respond to positive words when they were pulling instead of pushing the lever, and faster to respond to negative words when they were pushing rather than pulling the lever."

In another experiment, half the participants were told simply to push a lever the instant they saw a word on the screen, regardless of any like or dislike. The other half were told to pull a lever the instant they saw a word. You can imagine what happened... those asked to push the lever reacted more quickly to negative rather than positive words, and those asked to pull reacted more quickly to positive words.

And of course scientists have found evidence now that simply thinking about an action--or watching someone else do the action--activates the same brain regions that would be involved in actually doing it yourself.

I'm sure you can imagine the implications, including one of the key design principles known as natural mapping, outlined so well by Don Norman in The Psychology of Everyday Things (the title was later changed to "The Design of Everyday Things).

A quintessential example of mapping for those new to design:

A switch for moving something up or down should have "up" position move the thing up and the "down" position move the thing down. The most ridiculous example of bad/incorrect mapping would be to reverse that--the "up" switch position moves the thing down, and vice-versa.

Usually we think of mapping in the context of usability and "mental models"--the most natural mapping helps the user intuitively do the right thing without having to consciously think, learn, or remember the switch positions. But Restak's brain/body link goes beyond just mapping, and into attitudes. And when you factor in mirror neurons, then even just the pictures you use on your website can matter.

Consider the following two pictures, and think about your feelings related to each one:



Even if you don't consciously notice anything significant, your brain is still doing that "pushing away = dislike, bringing in = like" thing. (Technically, this is an unfair apples-to-oranges comparison because I was forced to switch genders (I couldn't find suitable pictures of two men or two women), but you still get the idea.)

I'd very much like to hear your thoughts about the body/thought connection, and how it might relate to the kinds of work we're all doing...

Posted by Kathy on December 22, 2006 | Permalink


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About a year or so ago I bought a desk that requires standing up to work. Once I got used to it -- which didn't take as long as I thought -- I found my work productivity got a lot better.

I've been asked WHY that is, and the only answer I have is that I just *feel* more engaged to my work. Sitting at my desk feels more passive than standing at it. That physical action of actively choosing to stand has translated into a better mental ability to stay focused, think through tough problems, etc...

Posted by: brasten | Dec 22, 2006 2:51:01 PM

If you put captions to those pictures, you could set up the classic mismatch between words and actions that is a standard dramatic tool. And what do we believe EVERY TIME? The actions or the mood or the flicker in the eye -- anything BUT the words.

The inadequacy or limitation of words is also why demonstrations are far more powerful than descriptions, particularly if the user participates. The more they interact with it, the more real it is.

Basically, we don't trust words, not when there are more potent cues around.

Posted by: John Windsor | Dec 22, 2006 3:38:56 PM

C.S. Lewis said that the body's position (kneeling) had a profound effect on one's ability to pray. I'd disagree with him, but I have no doubt that Lewis was far more engaged (and efficacious) in his praying than I am in my own feeble and infrequent attempts at it. So maybe there's something to it.

I don't have a direct quote regarding that on me, but e-mail me if you want me to dig one up.

Posted by: Charlie Park | Dec 22, 2006 3:39:19 PM

There is a quick experiment that I use a lot in my training to show this:

Sitting or standing, point your right arm and then twist your body and point as far around you as possible. Notice where you point to. Now close your eyes and imagine doing the same thing and pointing much further. Now physically repeat the same thing and notice what happens.

So can your users imagine doing more with your product? How do you give them a story or two, that not only shows them what they can do, but also has them thinking further than before?

Posted by: Michael Vanderdonk | Dec 22, 2006 4:56:36 PM

Even if they weren't gesturing, that girl is way more inviting than that guy.

Posted by: Ryan Fox | Dec 22, 2006 7:47:47 PM

WOW. This post got me thinking about alot of neuro-linguistic programming stuff I read as a kid. Likewise, it made me think about Joseph Chilton Pearce's Crack in the Cosmic Egg (yes dating myself somewhat). I put a TON of faith in keep mind/body/attitude in synch. I try to instill it in my team. I use alot of guided imagery with them to help them see themselves succeeding. Likewise in problem solving, we try to return to the metaphors (hopefully very visual ones) we use to describe our products and picture how the system would look with the problem solved. Sometime its helpful and other times not. The most important aspect of it all is the boost in attitude. I've experienced that when the individuals on the team picture themselves succeeding (getting the release out, finishing a feature, resolving a dispute) that they tend to invariably adopt a more positive attitude which strongly influences the positive outcome.

The thoughts/body/attitude connection is a Moebius strip as well in that I find my staff members who are runners or are more athletically inclined tend to have a performance edge. There body being better tuned tends to allow their mind/thoughts to be more fully engaged and integrated.

The last piece I am trying to instill in my team is exercising their grey matter. Even software development can get staid and routine once you've mastered a particular skill set. To help move to the next level I challenge them to read a book like HF Design Patterns or pick up the RoR book, read blogs on the cutting edge of their technology or just READ!

The last thing I'll say on this is my own personal use of the body/thought connection. I'm trying very much to use this more and more as I communicate to larger audiences and with upper management. My thoughts drive my body language and convey a more effective message. The Presentation Zen site has been particularly helpful in trying to align the two in regards to communications.

Posted by: Greg B | Dec 22, 2006 9:51:28 PM

If this topic interests you; you might enjoy the works of Moshe Feldenkrais. It's hard to think of a few sentences that would sum his work up without being trite and ineffective, but I will make an attempt. The gist of it is neurologically mapping physical processes that are underused, unknown, or distorted. The result is an expanded range of possible movements and some psychological benefits. He also manages to avoid being "touchy feely" by being a physicist and an atheist - which may be a pro or a con to you depending on your outlook.

His approach is food for thought, and if you have chronic back pains, etc. you may sort them out in the process of furthering cognitive science interests.

Here are some links to check out:

Posted by: Noah Thorp | Dec 23, 2006 12:51:24 AM

You really couldn't find any pictures of women pushing someone away? My photo album is sadly full of them!

Posted by: John Dodds | Dec 23, 2006 3:37:00 AM

Interesting: I saw the picture of the man as inviting me to put my hand against his and the woman as starting to make a rude, dismissive gesture towards me! This was before I had scrolled down and read the text below.

Note that Feldenkrais is a variant of /development from/closely related to (a point of argument!) of Alexander technique. Alexander's writings on this kind of thing are a little old fashioned now and quite hard but worth having a go at. If you can find a (good) teacher get some Alexander lessons - it's amazing what you'll learn about your body. (I'm sure that Feldenkrais is just as good but I have no experience of it to compare with)

Posted by: L. | Dec 23, 2006 8:28:18 AM

A classic example of this is the slot machine. You pull the big lever towards you, never push it away from you.

Posted by: Jack Dahlgren | Dec 23, 2006 11:07:07 AM

I've been writing about being "intentional" a lot this past year; about a variety of topics. I'll have to include this..

One "exercise" - quoted only because for me it isn't an exercise but a practice - is - during my attempt to solve a programming or technical issue - one that has proven frustrating - to sit back in my seat, relax with a deep breath, and smile. Not a forced - huge smile - just a casual smile.

The affect is half-contrived but half - and a big half - physiological.

You just feel more in control – confident.

This is can be used during conflict – during Christmas shopping – when you get cut off on the freeway – etc.

For years the gesture of smiling has been tied to so many – unforced (spontaneous) happy moments that your body reacts accordingly.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Dec 23, 2006 8:13:40 PM

If we followed what is said - the poor body would always be under a constant stress. I am sure it is possible to maintain an omnipresent awareness to keep the body relaxed while the mental gears are rotating at top speed for any purpose.
It doesnt come naturally - it is an art - of detachment.

Posted by: yogi | Dec 24, 2006 1:54:39 AM

I have been reading your blog for some time now and continue to enjoy
it. It never ceases to amaze me how you bring some of the same
techniques from your HF books to this blog, effectively advocating
change in the way information can/should be presented on a webpage. I
particularly enjoy your emphasis on education as a user's experience.
The following is my two pence worth on the mind-body connection.

I believe it is fairly well-known that the brain changes over time and
in response to external stimuli. This was addressed most recently
with regard to taxi drivers, the memory portions of whose brains were
larger than average seemingly due to the addresses, landmarks, and
other information they had to recall. But it can be seen in many
parts of life. In learning, one should not be uncomfortable (on pins
and needles) but one should also not be in a lounger either; too much
pain/pleasure detracts from one's ability to absorb information. One
of my uni professors used to say that the classroom should be just
below room temperature, not warmer or colder than 20 degrees C (68
degrees F). Any colder and students start to freeze; any warmer and
they start to go limp and sleep. I have tried this in my own classes
and it works. Either extreme distracts the student and causes his/her
body to disengage from the material. I also found this temperature to
be just right when I did my doctoral research, as well.

In psychological terms, I think it comes down to the fact that it
takes emotion to move a muscle, and emotion is the substance of mental
principles because it is the substance of relationships. We cannot
understand relational dynamics -- even of inanimate things -- without
attributing some level of emotion (not passion) to the relationship.
We often do this through metaphor, both on the linguistic level (so
Lakoff) and in the non-linguistic but nonetheless cognitive parts of
our thinking. I think it all boils down to the fact that we, as
humans, are basically relational and attribute or imagine relationship
even among inanimate things.

If you want a good example of how relational our physical exertion is,
ask someone to push against your open palm while you try to resist.
You cannot resist by trying to stand still; you must push back,
counterbalancing the other person's pushing. This effectively invokes
the same emotion as moving the piece of big heavy furniture which you
mentioned in your entry. If the other person stops suddenly, your hand
will jerk forward -- proving that it was pushing and not merely
resisting. The emotion involved was dynamic and not static. This may
seem off-topic, but this relational principle seems to be manifest in
purely physical ways, as well. I know from experience that major parts
of the muscular system work on it -- the muscles on one side of the
leg balance out the muscles on the other side. If one side is
overdeveloped, it pulls things out of alignment and you get muscle and
joint problems.

One aspect of these mind-body dynamics that is not discussed very
often is the extent to which some of them are culturally determined.
For example, if you watch a video of a person nodding their head up
then down and saying "No", you will probably experience a level of
(humourous) dissonance. However, a Bulgarian would not. Bulgaria is
one of, I think, two places on the planet where the nodding of the
head means "no" and the shaking of the head means "yes". With respect
to colours and images on websites, you will find similar dynamics with
the disparate meanings/symbolism between the West and, say, China.

Even with cultural sensitivities considered, one is shooting at a
moving target when applying this information. This is largely due to
micro-evolution on the part of the user. As you have taught us,
Kathy, the brain likes puzzles and new stuff. It also grows
accustomed to that new stuff, and there is a direct relationship
between the newness of the stuff and the effect it has on the person's
learning experience. As the person gets used to the new stuff, they
want more, and it can become something of an addiction.

However, there are also limits to what people can do with new designs.
As you mentioned recently, too much innovation goes beyond the pale of
the user's ability to adapt and is called "crappy" just like designs
with insufficient innovation. It is the Peter Principle's bell curve
applied to design. This is seen in designs like the five-button mouse
or the quasi-3d desktop environments that are around. For most
people, myself included, working such things requires too much Zen to
be effective. There is a niche group who uses them, but isn't there
always a long tail niche for just about anything?

From a user's perspective, when a person thinks about an action, they
should have the tools closest to hand that they would want to perform
that action. This is shown in your switch graphic, too, and is
naturally why some old-timers and geeks still prefer keyboard
shortcuts to diverting their (my) eyes -- and therefore their (my) attention -- from
their (my) work to hunt for the damned mouse. I will show my age in IT-years
by saying that WordPerfect for DOS was, for me, a significantly better
designed program than MS-Word, and the reason was that it thought the
way I thought. I did not have to crawl into the head of the developer
and ask "Now, where would s/he have put that?" It had a wonderful way
of putting power at the überuser's disposal whilst keeping it out of
the way for the newbie. In this way, I think well-designed programs
should shepherd the user (not to mention not crashing and corrupting
the user's data like the *other* wordprocessing program does).

Again, just my 2p.

Posted by: Al Lukaszewski | Dec 24, 2006 6:06:40 AM

The light switch and related examples made sense to me, but I didn't have any problem with the "zeal" exercise. What was supposed to happen? I realize I may not be typical, but I had a different reaction to the pictures. I felt like the "monk" was protecting me from danger by stopping me and the person in the other picture seemed to be a bit manipulative -- like they wanted me to come to them because they wanted something from me. I appreciated the monk more. I'm a little surprised at this myself since the pictures are obviously selected to invoke the opposite response. The "pushing away" picture is dark and the person has a serious look, for example, and the "come hither" is light and the person is smiling. It really doesn't prove much about reactions to the pushing away or come hither gestures per se since there is so many other factors that may also influence a viewer's reactions. Still, it was an interesting blog entry. Thank you.

Posted by: Frank | Dec 24, 2006 6:42:00 AM

Totally agree with you on this - 'mind' is much more physical than we usually notice; 'body' is much more intelligent than we give it credit for.

So if you're stuck with a mental or creative block, one of the best things you can do is change your physical state - get up, go for a walk, do some stretches, wash the dishes, do some yoga etc.

The implications for health are even more profound. Here's someone (a friend and colleague) who's doing some amazing work with 'bodymind': http://reversetherapy.wordpress.com/

Posted by: Mark McGuinness | Dec 24, 2006 6:53:32 AM

I disagree that things that go up should be labelled up. At least not all the time. Plane controls are inverted for good reason. At first, it does seem strange. But once you start using it, it makes complete sense. It depends on what your thinking of moving. If you're thinking of moving what you see, inverted controls will frustrate you. But if you're thinking of rotating the plane, then the controls are in direct accord. Personally, I can't play 3d games if the controls are not inverted. And I haven't seen a single one that doesn't allow the option for both.

The reason for different people liking different controls is simple. It's about perspective. Not everyone, no matter what those tests seem to suggest, view things the same way. With levers, they are attached to a static background. But when both the user and the background move, then it's all relative. Every time something goes up, something else must go down. So how do you determine what's best? Who's to say who is right or wrong?

This may seem blunt, but it would be better to come up with your own ideas, Kathy, instead of repeating other people's words. What are your thoughts? What was your contribution? I don't see it. And the ideas were not well thought out.

Posted by: Vorlath | Dec 24, 2006 9:40:45 AM

I wish what you said was true for all people. I can hear music perfectly in my head but can't replicate it

Physically there are some things that I just can't do and have spent too much time feeling bad about

Doctors are increasingly giving people puzzles to solve to check for signs of dementia. Though I'm not elderly and my "limitations" are hidden, I feel as if I should walk around with a doctor's note saying that I could never play games except for Jeopardy and the like

Yes there is a gigantic body mind connection--and those neurons are always charging, firing and misfiring

If a group of 50 people are taught yoga to relax and four can't master the positions, anxiety takes over.

I have spent a lifetime controlling my body to be completely socially appropriate and did master appearing calm while inside I was a gigantic anxiety attack

Until and unless there is room for individual variables in tests such as the ones you showed--and by definition there can't be, we're forcing individuals to be the round cookie when they would rather be the oval one

Posted by: pia | Dec 25, 2006 8:13:54 PM

Very interesting... but not stupid. I think there is a lot to mind over matter. Another component that may play a part in this: culture. While living in France, I never was able to fully wrap my brain around the fact that light switches are the opposite over there... up is off and down is on. Go figure. And I have never had the courage to drive in London or Australia or Japan... my brain aches at the thought of driving on the opposite side of the road.

Posted by: Paul | Dec 26, 2006 8:29:00 AM

The chinese do not actually make a difference between the brain and the body, they are both part of a single organism, you. Being a bit of an intellectual, I always separated them but you do think better after exercising and there is something to be said about the greek ideal (a healthy mind in a healthy body). Watching my wife, it is becoming more obvious how the chemistry of your body has an influence on your personality and everything else. The point I suppose is that they are not actually two separate things and work best when they are both going in the same direction.

Posted by: Yann | Dec 27, 2006 9:26:10 AM

In meditation such as Vipassana meditation you get to observe very clearly a constant connection between mind and body. You trend towards greater awareness of conscious/semi-conscious/unconscious sensations in your body and you see how your thoughts are connected. You don't think about it or casually notice it, you vividly EXPERIENCE this connection throughout your body. For example, you might be thinking an angry thought and see how closely correlated it is with some pain in your body, and the act of calmly accepting the pain and not reacting to it becomes synonymous with, say, forgiving the object of your angry thought (even if it's Windows). A result is an eventual untangling of internal mental/physical knots which you could call an internal state of flow much like has been discussed on this blog so much.

Posted by: David Ball | Dec 28, 2006 12:20:20 AM

In the UK, the magician Derren Brown (www.derrenbrown.co.uk) has a trick where he gets someone to hide an object, then he locates the object simply by holding on to the person, and getting them to think about how to get to that object. In his recent book, he claims that if someone thinks a direction (e.g. "Move Left"), their muscles also react (I think he calls it muscle memory), so that by applying pressure on the person's arm and feeling for resistance, he can then locate the hidden object.

Posted by: Oliver Lippold | Dec 28, 2006 7:27:56 AM

Antonio Damasio makes a philosophical and neuroscientific case for the interdependence of brain and body in creating "mind", in his book Descartes' Error. It's a very interesting read, and if you have some spare time you should check it out.

Posted by: Jonathan | Jan 2, 2007 1:34:53 PM

Am hoping desperately this doesn't mean I have to wave my arms in the air when I worship. I don't mind if OTHER people do it, you understand.... (she lies)

Not that bad really. But it underlined for me how important it is to do worship which is fully inclusive of those with learning disabilities by using movements. SO much of our worship is words, words, words. I watch my learning disabled son and he is just a spectator, and probably will be all his life. Where is the worship that includes him? Is a banner to wave really all I can offer him? And what about those elderly who can't do the silly actions the teens can do, but can do gentler movements, and who may also be having language processing problems, and sensory disabilities due to age.

Hmmmmm .....

Warmest blessings on a good blog,
Eleanor TSSF novice, Penzance, Cornwall.

Posted by: Eleanor Burne-Jones | Jan 2, 2007 1:44:15 PM

It's interesting how traditional mechanics can result in "bad mapping" e.g. you pull down on a pulley system to raise it and vice versa.

Posted by: Alan Coady | Jan 5, 2007 12:22:10 PM

Actually in the UK that "up" switch IS reversed! I found out rather quickly and still never got used to it. Also, the toilet flusher-thing NOT on the left side (if you're facing the toilet, it's on the right).

Posted by: Alex | Jan 12, 2007 10:21:09 AM

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