By Sharon Naylor
Are you a slumper? Check your posture right now to see if your shoulders are rounded forward and your back curled. Chances are you’ve eased into your natural posture: slouched down, head in alignment with your spine, shoulders back, back not straight. And your brain may be paying the price.
Researchers at several top academic institutions, including Harvard and Columbia universities, have been studying the link between bad posture and the brain for decades, and their recent findings show that improving posture can improve the brain’s function, and thus your mood and memory levels.
Researchers, for instance, found that when you assume what they call “power poses” of confident stance and tall, uplifted posture, your decision-making is subconsciously affected. When you stand or sit up taller, and pull your shoulders back and outward, your brain gets a signal that it’s the confident, powerful you in charge of your thinking, and, in turn, you might make more confident choices.
A 2003 Ohio State University study found that when you shake your head “no,” or nod your head “yes” while observing a scenario or listening to information, you may form positive or negative opinions about your observations depending on the motion of your head and its positive or negative message to the brain. And when you sit up straight, you’re more likely to think positively and recall more positive memories. Slumping and slouching can generate negative memories, thoughts and perceptions, which creates stress hormones in the brain, as opposed to happier hormones that can trickle down into your daily choices and create a more energetic, happier you that feels like working out. Everything is connected, and it all starts with how you hold your frame.
Dana Carney, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley, conducted a 2010 survey that was among the first to reveal that power poses demonstrating confidence (regardless of whether or not a person actually feels confident) increase levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol — the stress hormone — in the brain. Because testosterone is associated with self-confidence, having good posture can create hormones in the brain that make you feel more self-assured. Carney says the power pose sends a signal to the brain, and what begins as a neural impulse turns into an actual, physiological response that boosts brainpower.
And science aside, your posture affects how you see yourself, as well as how others see you. If you’re slumped down and slouching during a job interview, for example, the interviewer will likely see you as less confident, and perhaps will have a neural impulse to judge you as less capable. If you have good posture, with your shoulders back and your body aligned, you can look better in your clothes and will likely receive compliments from loved ones, which will boost your confidence and mood. You could also just love how you look in the mirror, which will make you feel lighter and more positive.
Good posture also pertains to walking. If you walk slumped down and in a shuffle, you look bedraggled and overwrought, which can make you actually feel bedraggled and overwrought. When you walk uplifted and with confidence, your brain registers “uplifted and with confidence,” and pumps out happy hormones to match the message.
Physical pain from bad posture can affect your brain, too. When you slouch often, you may experience back, neck, shoulder and even wrist pain, which can send signals to the brain that you’re suffering. The brain then needs to create pain-reducing hormones rather than happy ones. It’s quite hard to feel happy when you’re achy, sore or in such pain that you have to take medication for relief. Pain can cause depression when the brain gets sapped of positive hormones.
So in many connected ways, good posture makes for a happier brain. And with your happier brain, you have better relationships, fitness, work performance, more intimacy and other positive effects on your lifestyle.
There are several ways to improve your posture, including taking a “yoga for better posture” class, or just yoga classes in general, since yoga elongates the body and retrains your frame to be more upright with your shoulders back and spine aligned, the position will soon feel more natural to you. Exercise as a whole also helps to improve posture.
You might also ask a co-worker or relative to help you get more mindful of your posture, with a gentle touch on your shoulder if you’re slouched down at your desk or kitchen counter. When you feel the touch, you’ll straighten up your posture and send a positive message to your brain. And even if you get a hundred touches in a day, you’ll eventually retrain your frame to hold power poses, and your helper won’t have to signal you to straighten up as often.