Thinking with your feet

Have you ever got, when you were stuck thinking on your feet in an interaction that really mattered? Have you reached for mindfulness tools, or confidence tools and found they didn’t deliver the solution? It turns out that beyond the standard suite of assistance we turn to in such times, we have a very powerful ally within ourselves. This ally is being explored in a relatively new sub-field of psychology and coaching called embodied cognition.

Reaching for an answer that won’t come

I was returning from a meeting in South Africa, and the plane ride home gave me plenty of time to consider the remarkable experience I had there. The country was embroiled in political change and my client was being affected by that. Our team’s advice was make-or-break for them. On top of that, we had to get board approval and convince a hard-nosed CFO (with a reputation for destroying consultants).

The remarkable experience I pondered that flight, was having answers to tough questions jump to mind as I wandered round the board room, holding up large A1 sheets of paper, gesticulating wildly as I described a metaphor and even leaning over the boardroom table to make a point.

We’ve all been in situations where we should have known the answer to a question, but it never came to mind. Or perhaps halfway through a sentence the right word won’t come to mind; or there was a distracted. Somehow, this time, I broke the log-jam and it got me thinking.

Great ideas, just not under stress

Thinking using our raw intelligence, or building great teamwork can be helpful getting ready for such situations (that’s where all by diagrams, metaphors, spreadsheets and A1 print-outs had come from after all. The team in Africa had unconventional thinkers, sense makers, co-creators, fearless confronters, commercially minded people and network thinkers. But this alone would not help me with the tough question at the board meeting.

Calming down to think straight

Stilling yourself, resetting your autonomic nervous systems and centering can really help create a state change. And I tell you what, that’s really helped me calm down just before getting up to speak to an audience or make a presentation. Going to yoga, meditation, deep-breathing, and mindfulness are good ideas for reducing stress, but rarely do you have the space, time or ability to do them mid-presentation (excise me while I adopt the Lotus position, won’t you?). These techniques also never serve me the ideas I need in the moment.

Fake it till you make it

Once up to speak, tensing up (gut-clenching) has given me willpower, allowing me to access that inner confidence and sense of wry humour I needed to make people laugh (Hung & Labroo, 2011). You’ve probably already come across Amy Cuddy on TED talks striking a power pose for 60 seconds to feel confident (Carney et al., 2014). Knowing where to stand, and how to gesticulate to be more persuasive is good public speaking practise, but give me an idea in that boardroom before that CFO, it doesn’t.

Glitching the glitch

These strategies do not help with memory glitches. But as it turns out, doing gentle aerobic exercise, changing the lean of your body, gesticulating, crossing your arms and reaching out for an answer all do. Problem solving under duress is assisted by your heart and gut brain – the intelligence in your body (embodied cognition).

Here are five embodied cognition tips

  1. Doing aerobic exercise, even mild or short exercise, every day helps memory. Aerobic exercise helps build the density and cortical function of the amygdala, a brain organ entwined with on-the-fly recall from memory (Brinke et al., 2014).
  2. Changing the body’s angle in relation to vertical (called vection) affects the direction the brain casts its thinking; leaning forward encourages forward thinking; leaning backward casts our mind back. Try this when recalling an event from the past (Miles et al., 2010).
  3. When wrestling with a problem or a new piece of information, stand up and walk. Gesturing helps you make sense of information and brings in information to assist your understanding, called somatic memory (Cook et al., 2007).
  4. When wrestling with a tough problem, try crossing your arms. Scientists don’t know exactly why this helps, but it has to do with bi-hemispheric interaction (both sides of the brain being employed) and mind-body intelligence interaction (Friedman & Elliot, 2008).
  5. The ability of a baseball player to react in advance of the curved movement of a ball going 150km/hr, then catch it, is called prospective perception. This ability can be engaged to pre-empt your audience reactions by moving around and employing your peripheral vision (Dessing et al., 2002).


Brinke, L.F., Bolandzadeh, N., Nagamatsu, L.S., et al. (2014). Aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume in older women with probable mild cognitive impairment, British Journal of Sports Medicine. Published Online First: 07 April 2014. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-093184

Carney, D.R., Cuddy, A.J.C., & Yap, A.J., (2010). Power Posing, Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance, Psychological Science 21(10).

Cook, S.W., Mitchell, Z., & Goldin-Meadow, S., (2008). Gesturing makes learning last, The Journal of Cognition, 106(2):1047-1058, doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.04.010

Dessing, J.C., Bullock, D., Peper, E., & Beek, P.J., (2002). Prospective control of manual interceptive actions: comparative simulations of extant and new model constructs, Journal of Neural Networks, 15(2):163-179

Friedman, R., & Elliot, A.J., (2008). The effect of arm crossing on persistence and performance, European Journal of Social Psychology, 38(3):449-461

Hung, I.W., & Labroo, A.A., (2010). From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower: Understanding the Role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation, Journal of Consumer Research, 37(6):1046–1064

Miles, L.K., Karpinska, K., Lumsden, J., & Macrae, C.N., (2010). The Meandering Mind: Vection and Mental Time Travel. PLOSOne, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010825

Feature image:
Copyright Angelo Cordeshi, 2017 “psichosomatika”