Did you ever get the giggles during a religious service or some other serious occasion?  Did you ever have to smile politely when you felt like screaming?  In these situations, the emotions that we are required to express differ from the ones we are feeling inside.  That can be stressful, unpleasant, and exhausting.  Normally our minds and our bodies are in harmony.  When facial expressions or posture depart from how we feel, we experience what two psychologists at Northwestern University, Li Huang and Adam Galinsky, call mind–body dissonance.  And in a fascinating new paper, they show that such awkward clashes between mind and body can actually be useful: they help us think more expansively.

Ask yourself, would you say that a camel is a vehicle?  Would you describe a handbag as an item of clothing?  Your default answer might be negative, but there’s a way in which the camels can be regarded as forms of transport, and handbags can certainly be said to dress up an outfit.  When we think expansively, we think about categories more inclusively, we stop privileging the average cases, and extend our horizons to the atypical or exotic.  Expansive thought can be regarded a kind of creativity, and an opportunity for new insights.

Huang and Galinsky have shown that mind–body dissonance can make us think expansively.  In a clever series of studies, they developed a way to get people’s facial expressions to depart from their emotional experiences.  Participants were asked to either hold a pen between their teeth, forcing an unwitting smile, or to affix two golf tees in a particular position on their foreheads, unwittingly forcing an expression of sadness.  While in these facial configurations subjects were asked to recall happy and sad events or listen to happy and sad music. 

The team found that people are more likely to consider a camel a vehicle in conditions where their expressions different from the emotions caused by music or autobiographical memories.  In a further study they showed that this effect is not limited to facial expressions and emotions.  They asked people to play either dominant or submissive roles in a game, while sitting in postural positions that have been shown in other research to reflect power or weakness.  Once again, the dissonance between mind—feeling dominant in a game—and body—sitting in a constricted position—lead to more expansive thinking.

These curious findings have some significant implications.  They back up a growing body of evidence that cognition is “embodied,” meaning that our physical actions directly influence the way we think.  For example, Arthur Glenberg and Michael Kaschak have demonstrated that we have difficulty understanding sentences when we have to simultaneously perform actions that are in conflict with those sentences. 

The new research also adds support to work showing that facial expressions influence our emotions.  For example, Fritz Strack and collaborators have that people rate cartoons as more funny if they are forced to smile.  Participants in the Huang and Galinsky studies reported that their facial configurations influenced their moods, confirming that emotions are intimately connected to the body.  There is also a large body of evidence showing that emotions influence how we think.  For example, in another new study, Kendall Eskine shows that drinking bitter beverages can lead people to make more negative moral judgments. 

Huang and Galinksy’s work contributes by showing that conflicts between the emotions created by the body and the emotions elicited by other sources, such as music and memory, do not just influence what we think, but how we think.  Earlier research by Alice Isen has linked positive feelings to creative thinking styles, and this work shows that a special form of creativity—expansive thought—can be enhanced by emotional conflict.

The most exciting aspect of this work is that Huang and Galinksy find that mind–body dissonance has a positive payoff, even though it can feel unpleasant.  There are conditions under which is it good for us, not just polite, to express emotions that differ from how we are feeling.  For example, William James said that putting on a happy face helped him cope with debilitating depression.  Perhaps expression therapy can join pharmacology in the battle against the blues.  We can also increase empathy for others by mimicking their expressions, even when we don’t share their feelings. 

Now Huang and Galinsky have discovered a new benefit to adopting expressions that don’t originate from within.  Doing so leads us to think more flexibly: our categories become more inclusive.  This may help with creative problem-solving, as well as social conflicts.  For example, prejudice often derives from the use of stereotypes, but mind–body dissonance leads people to kick away the crutch of stereotypes and think expansively.  Can an African American be president?  Can an Islamic State be a democracy?  Can a stranger be the object of compassion?  When we experienced mind–body dissonance, the foreclosed begins to look feasible.  Inner conflict shakes us from cognitive complacency and makes us receptive to new possibilities.

Are you a scientist? And have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Then contact Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com