We may think we are brave or cowardly by nature, but a change in posture can change our minds and our behaviour, writes Lori Anderson
If an Englishman’s home is his castle what is a Scotswoman’s home? Well at the moment mine is a sullied wreck, courtesy of wrong un’s who decided to smash their way into my sanctuary, and hopefully perdition, a few weeks ago. I am, however, in good company. My favourite muso, Kid Rock (don’t judge me… no, I said not to do that), was also the victim of a home invasion this week. His response was: “I am an avid hunter and a marksman and I will not hesitate to shoot anyone who has myself or family in fear for our lives.”
Me? I am standing, with my hands on my hips, legs akimbo and a rictus of a smile brought about by clenching a Bic pen between my teeth. Ching Ching, you may think I have strapped on finger cymbals and gone all hippy dippy but, please, let me try to explain.
The reason I’m pulling myself out into Stretch Armstrong “power poses” is to discover if the claims of Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard are correct. Last year, she received a standing ovation when Ted, the global brand for erudite speakers, arrived in Edinburgh, where she lectured the audience not on how to fake it to make it, but that if you fake it, you will eventually become it. What she had discovered was that our bodies can change our minds and “our minds can change our behaviour, and our behaviour can change our outcome”. In a nutshell, she argues that how we stand, can affect our body’s neurobiology and in turn how we are perceived by others.
Cuddy discovered that there are particular “high-power” poses and “low power” poses. Standing with legs apart and arms above the head is a universal display of power and authority, replicated from jungle to boardroom to stadium. Sitting with ones feet on the table and with hands wrapped behind the head is another high-power pose. In contrast, crouching down and wrapping our arms around ourselves is a low-power pose, and the lowest of all these poses is to sit looking down and holding your neck, a universal sign of vulnerability.
In an experiment, Cuddy asked volunteers to assume either a high-power pose or a low-power pose and to hold it for two minutes. She discovered that those who held the high-power poses saw their testosterone, which is a “dominance” hormone, spike by up to 20 per cent, while it dropped by 10 per cent among those who held the low-power poses. She then examined the volunteers’ levels of cortisol, low levels of which allow people to handle stress better. Cortisol levels rose in the low-power pose volunteers and dropped among the high-power volunteers.
The manner in which those individuals stood for just two minutes had affected their body chemistry, but would it make a tangible difference to them in a social situation? A second experiment was devised in which volunteers took either pose prior to a job interview, and with all elements of ability and eloquence taken into consideration, those who had spent two minutes adopting the high power pose, performed far better.
Fear and anxiety can be overcome by taking on the shape of the powerful – those who are less troubled by each emotion. Cuddy’s lecture, which is available on YouTube where it has already been viewed by millions, was a comforting companion to this week’s exploration of fear and what it takes to overcome it, namely courage.
In order to bolster me from my nervous, fragile emotional state, I’m currently reading The Society of Timid Souls: or, How to be Brave by Polly Morland, which takes its title from a genuine society set up in New York in 1942 to help musicians overcome stage fright.
Scientists have long known that fear lies in the amygdala, an ancient part of the brain that is linked to memories and our fight or flight mechanisms, which are controlled by epinephrine (adrenalin), cortisol, dopamine and other key hormones. Back at the end of the 19th century, experiments on rhesus monkeys revealed that if their amygdala was damaged they became fearless. This was confirmed among humans by a recent paper, The Human Amygdala and the Induction and Experience of Fear published in the journal Biology, in January 2011, which focused on an American woman who had a rare congenital disease that caused calcium deposits to build up on the amygdala. Scientists at Caltech and the University of Southern California studied her behaviour and discovered that fear appeared to have been erased with dangerous consequences. On a visit to a pet store she had to be stopped from reaching out to dangerous snakes, while a visit to a specially rigged haunted house, the Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Kentucky, led to her scaring the trained actors instead of vice versa.
If fear dwells within the amygdala where does courage live? The author of The Society of Timid Souls reveals that neurobiologists at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Israel, have been able to pinpoint courage’s cerebral home. By devising a test in which volunteers were asked to lie in an MRI scanner and activate a conveyor belt that brought a snake closer to their head, the team found out that it took six seconds for subjects to adequately steel themselves to act and when they did two other parts of their brain lit up, the tricky-to-pronounce subgenual anterior cinguiate cortex (sgACC) and the right temporal pole (rTP).
The French may have given us all the notion that courage comes from the heart but we now know that it comes from the same place as its alter-ego - fear, the brain, and that we can now do something about it. Now everyone, humour me, put down your newspaper, pick up your pen and assume the power position. Your two minutes starts... now.