The grounded cognition of high-stakes situations

Recent research in cognitive psychology suggests that our cognition emerges out of diverse systems. Processes of learning, memory, and conceptual representation are largely based in rich representations across the brain’s various perception, action, and emotion systems.

For example: when your friend says “I had the best fish tacos at Filibertos last night”. If you know that taqueria, you might draw on your spatial/geographical representations- Where is it?  How would you get there, and where would you park or lock your bike? You engage visual system: What do tacos look like? Chunks of golden fish, flecks of light green cabbage. You engage your olfactory (smell) systems-  what does it smell like in a taqueria? a combination of food and whatever they mop the floor with. Your motor system engages, representing the posture you’d have as you sit at the booth, the taco-pinching shape your hand would assume, and the slight tilt of your head as taco reaches mouth. Your gustatory (taste) system comes online representing the tanginess of the tartar sauce and the tomatillos, the spiciness of jalapeño and serrano peppers, the umame of the fried fish. Of course whenever you go to Filiberto’s you order an horchata- mmm that cinnamon- you realize you’re a bit thirsty. Perhaps triggering all these systems makes you feel hungry.

Now imagine your friend had instead said “I got food poisoning from my tacos last night”

While many of the same systems described above would come online, you’d also engage visceral/proprioceptive systems related to being sick- that ‘eww’ feeling. You might even feel your own stomach churn (some research suggests this depends how empathic you are).

For brief overview check out this video or read this wikipedia entry on the related theory of embodied cognition.

Chin up!

Coolest of all, it looks like the states of these systems feed into cognition. So in addition to cognitive processes activating representations across all these systems, activating these systems feeds back into cognition. Studies show that assuming a better posture and bending your mouth into a smile actually makes you feel more positive.

Why is grounded cognition relevant for your presentations, big interview, or getting through a tough day? 

How your body is functioning has direct consequences on your cognition!

Eat right- Eating protein helps with sustained energy/alertness for a few hours + bright veggies can provide vitamins and nutrients important for restoring your neurotransmitters which are easily depleted by things like stress and coffee consumption. Avoid too much starch/sugar (which tend to fill you up briefly, but then lead to a crash, and hunger after a little while). Eating too much fat will cause divert blood from the peripheral body parts to the stomach to aid in digestion- producing food coma.

Sleep- seriously.

Exercise- increases blood flow and enforces deep breathing and helps with stress.

Practice to decrease stress response- by rehearsing your presentation in as realistic circumstances as possible, you are repeatedly playing out the situation across your various systems- thus preparing your autonomic nervous system to have a toned down response, this helps you overcome the stress response.
Posture- research shows that assuming a better, more open posture not only makes people feel more positive, but also makes others assess their performance as being of better quality than those who have poor posture/collapse in on themselves.
Consider the grounded experience of others attending your presentation
Attire- look sharp, not distracting. Think twice about perfume, dangly earrings, or ridiculous ties. Be comfortable- wear practical shoes.
Cleanliness- wash your hands- be prepared for handshakes.
Brush your teeth. In a loud poster session people may need to stand pretty close to hear you.
Invite interaction- don’t be clinging to your phone or other nervous props, open up and face the crowd- inviting those real world interactions etc.
Sneaky but not unethical- plant interested people and intelligent questions around your poster. Encourage your friends, colleagues, mentors to attend.

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