Muscle Power Equals Willpower


I recently wrote about how posture and mood are a two way street. For example, feeling bold can cause you to adopt an expansive posture, and adopting an expansive posture can make you feel bold. This an example of embodied cognition - the brain’s use of physical movements as part of its process of forming mental representations. There are numerous fascinating little examples of embodied cognition, and thankfully many of them fit right into quick little blog posts such as this one. Here’s another.

A new study tried to find out whether clenching muscles can improve willpower. The study asked volunteers to engage in a number of challenges like submerging their hands in ice water, consuming disgusting beverages, and trying to resist eating tasty desserts. Sounds like a good reality t.v. show.

And the results? Here's a quote from Iris W. Hungh, the author of the study:

Participants who were instructed to tighten their muscles, regardless of which muscles they tightened — hand, finger, calf or biceps — while trying to exert self-control demonstrated greater ability to withstand the pain, consume the unpleasant medicine, attend to the immediately disturbing but essential information, or overcome tempting foods.

So there you have it. This study makes me wonder whether people with a frequent need for significant willpower will develop habits of excessive muscular contraction.

Imagine that you need some willpower to finish up a few more hours of boring deskwork. Some extra tension in your traps will help you power through, but it will also tend to cause discomfort and eventually some pain. Which means you need even more discipline to finish working, which means more muscular contraction, etc. A potential viscious circle. Surely only one of many that end in pain, but yet another example of how mental stress and an unhappy mind eventually lead to physical stress and an unhappy body. Thankfully, as noted above, this is a two way street, so you can hope to destress the mind by working through the body.