September 8, 2009

Ain't Taking This Lying Down..!

Apologies for the lack of activity in recent months, I have been absorbed in a number of promising projects as well as taking a much-needed vacation.

ResearchBlogging.orgAn interesting report in New Scientist magazine suggests that insults are handled better when lying down rather than sitting or standing up. According to the article, University students who were insulted while seated exhibited neural activity consonant with "approach motivation", which describes to desire to approach and explore. This activity appeared absent in a control group insulted while lying down. Eddie Harmon-Jones, a cognitive scientist at Texas A&M University, interprets this as suggesting that one might be more inclined to attack if one were in the upright state, whereas while lying down we may be more inclined to brood.

At first glance this seems a little odd to me. Brooding is quite different to receiving insults and possibly reacting to them. Brooding means a certain amount of thinking and contemplation is occurring. It isn't the done thing to offer or accept anecdotal evidence as important fact, but from personal experience I've sometimes become more enraged over an incident by brooding about it (while lying down) than I have reacted to insults while sitting or standing upright. Would that mean my reactions contradict this research? The real value of psychological research lies in the ability to translate insights and findings into our lives and observe how relevant or useful they are, and I also have to consider these things personally. I downloaded and read the paper for this experiment; technically it is not an actual paper but a 'short report', a brief description of the subject and experimental method followed by conclusions. A mini-paper. Here's an extract:

"Body movements affect emotional processes. For example, adopting the facial expressions of specific emotions (even via unobtrusive manipulations) affects emotional judgments and memories (Laird, 2007). Manipulated body postures can affect behavior: slumped postures lead to more ‘‘helpless behaviors’’ (Riskind & Gotay, 1982). Simple body postures may also affect other emotive responses and the neural activations associated with them."

That's from the very first paragraph, and to me it seems to get more unreal every time I think about it. I don't dispute that body postures can affect neural activation (anything can affect neural activation, that's kind of what the brain does in the first place, reacting and responding to stimuli) but it seems overstated a bit much. The link between body posture and affectability on emotional reaction looks tenuous when compared with something as fundamental as the availability of oxygen and the human requirement to inhale it to live. But let's take a look at the study: 23 females and 23 males (n = 46) were randomly assigned to write a polemical essay featuring their views on a hot topic (e.g. smoking in public, abortion, etc.) and were told assessment would be carried out by another participant. After attaching EEG sensors, participants were randomly assigned to the upright or lying positions on a reclining chair while hearing themselves being rated on six characteristics including intelligence (1 = unintelligent, 9 = intelligent). Needless to say, participants heard negative reviews of themselves and fumed.

To be more specific, all 'reclined' participants heard negative reviews of themselves while only half 'uprights' heard negative. The other half heard slightly positive reviews. It's good to add a little variety to these things to account for different causes and effects, but I think the total sample size here was too small. Gender effects were accounted for too; males and females were randomly assigned to the two conditions, and male participants heard male-voiced feedback with females hearing female-voiced feedback. For future research, switching gender-voice feedback would make an interesting manipulation.

The results showed that for those in the upright position, the left prefrontal cortex (PFC) was substantially activated more than those who were reclining. Even though both sets of participants expressed similar levels of anger in response to the negative feedback, the left PFC has been linked to anger and approach motivation. This suggests a marked reduction in approach motivation when lying down.

What this means in reality remains under question: Does body posture really affect emotional reactions that much? Similar levels of anger existed between both groups, but those who were lying down appeared less inclined to do something about it? How might those students have reacted with the absence of inhibitory factors? I know that this is preliminary research but these are just some of the questions that need to be researched and accounted for.

Why? Because although some people may consider a study like this to be "fluff psychology" and a little boring, clinicians need to take these types of things a little more seriously when you consider that a large proportion of serious neuroscience is carried out with reclining participants in fMRI-scanners. So I agree with the conclusion of Harmon-Jones' paper; that research is required to help evaluate neuroimaging techniques requiring supine positions. There may not be much to it, but it's worth an exploration.
Harmon-Jones, E., & Peterson, C. (2009). Supine Body Position Reduces Neural Response to Anger Evocation Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02416.x

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