Think about the couch in your living room. Presumably you like it and it is comfortable. If it is neither of those things, then just imagine the most comfortable couch you could ever experience. Most likely, you will feel very happy in this couch, very relaxed, yes? With rare exceptions, most of you are probably imagining a couch that involves cushions, armrests, a certain level of sink when you sit down, and a backrest that may even go as high as to support your head. Perhaps the couch you are imagining even has recliners built into it, or maybe a heater. As fancy as you may be dreaming, I would also guess that the couch most of you are imagining is not made out of solid wood, concrete, a bed of nails, sandpaper, a giant cheese grater, or anything else that would likely put you in a terrible mood the instant you sat down, let alone after trying to finish a movie (let alone after trying to finish the last Lord of the Rings movie).
What if you were holding a cup of warm soup on a cold winter afternoon? Do you think that you would be nicer to company, or a door to door salesman, than if you were holding a cold sandwich?
A number of scientists are predicting this exactly: the idea that our sense of touch and how it is being affected at any moment can affect our mood, decisions we make, and our ability to do math. Sounds crazy, right? Grab a hold of a soft blanket, it may seem more plausible.
The theory is called embodied cognition, and it is emerging as a field that has the potential to change everything from the way we teach to the way we sell things such as cars.
Scientists collaborating from schools including MIT and Yale have shown that kids that use their hands while doing math have an easier time with the problems at hand (pun obviously intended), that actors remember their lines better if they are physically moving (Christian Bale must have been standing incredibly still), and people sitting in stiff car seats tried to drive a bargain with more insistence than people whose car seats were soft and cushy.
Another study showed that people making decisions reading a piece of paper attached to a clipboard thought the decision was more important and thought it over for longer if the clipboard was very heavy, and less important (and thought about it less) if the clipboard was extremely light weight. This is a curious finding. Do our highest government officials even receive documents on paper, or are they just using a computer? How heavy is an image displayed on a screen? Does this blog post weigh a lot to you, the reader?
However, it is not like all of our thoughts and decisions are at the mercy of our physical surroundings, but merely that the two are far more connected that we thought about ten years ago. No one is saying that if I wear my LL Bean slippers and sip on some hot apple cider I’ll let every Jehovah’s witness into my house that rings the bell, but maybe that I’ll politely decline their offer instead of just shutting the door or quoting evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to them.
The connection can also go both ways, which has the potential to bring many other experiments up to the plate. What I mean by this is that not only does our sense of touch affect our thoughts, but our thoughts can affect our sense of touch. For example, imagine being told an elaborate story about a bunch of pieces of sandpaper getting in a fight and rubbing against each other, the friction that that would cause, and then touching a piece of cloth. Maybe you would claim that the cloth felt very coarse to you, compared to someone else who touches the same piece of cloth after hearing a story about cute soft puppies playing in a big pen filled with cotton balls.