Thursday, September 10, 2009

How slouching could be causing your PhD Depression

We're all PhD students here, so it's only natural that this blog cites journal publications sometimes....but I'll try not to make a habit of it!

It's a pretty well known finding that smiling can cause you to feel happier. I even mentioned it briefly in a tip a few weeks back. But what I had never heard before - though it makes total sense now that I've heard it - is that slouching may induce symptoms of depression.

I guess this is a concept that I was mildly aware of. Anyone who took intro Psych knows that William James thought your bodily functions caused your mood. But the way I heard it explained before always sounded so absurd- of course I'm not frightened just because I'm quivering.

But after I read the results of the study it made more sense. So I'll try to summarize it...to all the Psych PhDs out there, feel free to correct me if I interpret anything wrong.

The Study

Much like the study about facial arrangements eliciting emotions, this study tried to secretly get people into one of two positions: slouching or sitting up straight. Participants are put into these positions for 3 minutes, while experimenters pretend to take measurements of muscle activity (they aren't supposed to know the true purpose of their posture). Afterwards, participants are given a note saying they did well in their muscle test, are asked to take a mood assessment test, and finally must solve 4 puzzles: the first 2 are unsolvable and the second 2 solvable.

The results show that the "slouch" group had significantly lower "persistence" on the puzzles, thus showing signs of "learned helplessness" and depression. There was no significant difference between the groups' answers to the mood assessment test. The authors conclusions to this is that the body posture affected the mood but only once there was additional evidence to support it - i.e. when they first finished slouching (and filled out the mood assessment test) there was no reason to "believe" what their body was telling them about being in a "depressed posture". But once they had to go do something difficult, their brain put two and two together and thought "I was slouching, and now this is hard, life sucks" versus the people who weren't slouching whose brain just said "hmm, this is hard, keep trying I guess".

So what does this mean for us?

For me, it means that constant urge I have to get up and stretch and walk around when I'm working may not just be due to boredom and back problems. Is it a cry for help from my body? "Listen dummy! Stop bending me all up into positions that make us feel sad. Can't you hear me? Sit up!"

How often during your PhD work are you slouching in front of a computer or leaning over a table working? How often do you feel your back all knotted up from hours of that same hunched position?

Could it be that the hours of hunching and slouching, deep in thought, working on difficult problems is in itself driving us to an unavoidable learned helplessness? Yes and no.

Yes, it could be that our inherent "learning" position is a main contributor to our sad state of mind, but we don't have to accept that we're doomed to suffer this fate. The same guy who coined "learned helplessness", Martin Seligman also wrote Learned Optimism, yep that same book that I told you about a few weeks ago. He argues that there are certain things that prevent some of us from falling down the trap of learned helplessness. If you want to know what he suggests, pick up any of his great books (Authentic Happiness, Learned Optimism and What You Can Change and What You Can't). But for now, I think we should all try something.

Let's all try to just sit up for a week. As the study says, the results won't be immediate, but you might start to notice a difference with time and as situations arise. By the way, try not to sit up too tensely because later in the study he demonstrates that being tense causes stress. But try this for a week and come back and report to the survey. I'll write a follow up post a week from now to report how it worked for me.

Did it help?


Riskind, J. H. and Gotay, C. C. (1982). Physical posture: Could it have regulatory or feedback effects on motivation and emotion? Motivation and Emotion, 6(3):273-298.