“Trust your hunches. They’re usually based on facts filed away just below the conscious level.”
— Dr. Joyce Brothers
That pit in your stomach, that flutter of your heart, that frisson down your spine . . . sometimes your body knows things before your brain does.
More than odd sensations, these signals from our bodies can actually help us and our students to think.
In her new book The Extended Mind, Annie Murphy Paul explores the power of bodily intuition (what psychologists call interoception). She cites numerous studies that prove that the most successful Wall Street traders, the most unflappable Marines, and the most effective students think with their bodies as well as their minds.
Why? Because much of the input from our bodies is processed subconsciously and instantaneously, meaning we often intuitively know something before we consciously do. Tapping into this intuitive sense can make us wiser and more effective.
Paul outlines four techniques that we and our students can use to strengthen this brain-body connection: bodily meditation, affect labeling, intuition journaling, and reappraising.
What is bodily meditation?
Bodily meditation is a simple, 5-minute breathing technique that helps us consciously acknowledge sensations, opening lines of communication from body to brain.
Lead students through these steps:
- Sit upright in a comfortable chair with feet flat on the floor and eyes closed.
- Note how your body feels overall in its current position.
- Inhale deeply, feeling the sensation of air entering your nose, mouth, throat, and lungs. Note any sensations from these body parts. Exhale.
- Inhale again, imagining the life-giving breath extending from lungs to heart and throughout your chest and stomach. Note any sensations. Exhale.
- Inhale, mentally sending the energy of that breath out through shoulders and arms to hands. Note any sensations. Exhale.
- Inhale, sending energy down through hips and legs to feet. Note sensations and exhale.
- Inhale once more, imagining energy suffusing the neck and head and brain. Note sensations, and exhale.
This technique not only improves our bodily awareness but also calms our minds. We can then strengthen our brain-body connection through affect labeling.
What is affect labeling?
Affect labeling is the clinical term for naming what we feel—sensations, intuitions, and emotions. Paul writes, “Research shows that the simple act of giving a name to what we’re feeling has a profound effect on the nervous system, immediately dialing down the body’s stress response.”
The process is simple. Have students complete this sentence:
I feel ________________________.
Any response is valid:
I feel worried.
More specific responses are more powerful:
I feel like my gut is tied in knots.
Completing the same sentence in multiple specific ways is even more powerful:
I feel as if the roller coaster has ratcheted to the top of the track.
I feel as if my stomach is dropping even before the coaster takes the plunge.
Though we might expect that giving voice to such feelings will amplify them, in fact the opposite is true. Consciously acknowledging our feelings—and expressing them to others—makes us feel better. Think of it as getting up to answer an insistent knock at the door to our minds rather than just sitting there and hoping the pounding stops.
After labeling our feelings, how can we take the brain-body connection to the next level? Let’s try intuition journaling.
What is intuition journaling?
Intuition journaling tracks the decisions we make based on what our bodies are telling us.
Provide students a template for their intuition journals, with these instructions:
Track the ways that you use intuitions to make decisions. (Your intuition journal is private, shared only if you wish.) Use one row for each decision:
Column 1: Describe a decision you face.
Column 2: Describe physical sensations, emotions, and intuitions related to the decision.
Column 3: Describe the decision you make and how you feel about it.
The first row gives you an example.
Decision I Face
Feelings I Have
Decision I Make
Should I try to sit at the “cool kid” table at lunch or stay with my friends?
I feel jealous. I want to be cool. My heart is in my throat. My mouth is dry. It feels like a trap.
I sit with my real friends, instead. I can breathe around them. They like me for me.
Encourage students to make a daily habit of reflecting in their intuition journals, strengthening their mind-body connections.
In time, you can introduce one more strategy for getting the most out of intuition: reappraising.
What is reappraising?
Reappraising is changing the labels we apply to feelings, replacing maladaptive ones with adaptive ones.
For example, students in high-stakes testing situations often feel pounding hearts, sweaty palms, bouncing legs, and goosebumps. Students label these adrenaline responses as fear, so they naturally want to freeze or fly—“I can’t think! Get me out of here!”
However, they could reappraise the same feelings as excitement, evoking the fight response. Instead of cringing back from the test, they can attack it with intense focus and determination, committed to beating it—“Let’s do this!”
The body’s adrenaline response is appropriate given the threatening situation, but the brain needs to find an adaptive use for all that emotional energy. Reappraising lets students use the wisdom offered by their bodies without being ruled by every bodily impulse.
Where can I learn more?
You’ll discover much more about embodied thinking (and other ways to think outside the brain) in Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind.
Consider this support as you help students make the brain-body connection.
- Develop awareness of bodily cues, sensations, and emotions and identify them with increasing specificity and regularity.
- Strengthen self-control and improve decision-making abilities academically and socially.
- Improve focus on academic tasks in low-stakes and high-stakes situations.
- Recognize body language in others and increase empathy.
- Extend thinking to include body and brain.
- Introduce the four techniques in order, building students’ brain-body connection step-by-step.
- Repeat each technique until students are able to perform it independently. Encourage them to do so until the technique is habitual.
- Provide time for students to discuss observations they make about the brain-body connection. Share your own stories. (For example, if you are an athlete, you can talk about “muscle memory” and “being in the zone.” If you are an actor, you can discuss how physical movement helps you remember lines.)
Check out additional social-emotional learning resources:
Minilesson: Expressing Emotions Through Movement
Minilesson: Seeing Emotions in Body Language
Minilesson: Seeing Emotion in Facial Expressions
Minilesson: Checking the Emotion Thermometer