Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence
by Thalma Lobel
Atria Books, 2014 ($26)

What if flipping a light switch could jump-start your thinking? Or if giving a friend a sugary snack could make them “sweeter” company?

These situations may sound bizarre, but some psychologists suspect that our physical experiences—what we see, smell, touch, taste and hear—profoundly influence our mental states. In Sensation, psychologist Lobel explores the theory of embodied cognition, which posits that our body can direct our mind just as much as our mind directs our body.

Studies in embodied cognition reveal myriad ways in which our physical sensations unconsciously sway our thoughts and emotions. Holding a mug of hot tea may make you a warmer conversationalist, even when trying to be a tough negotiator, and washing your body may help clean your conscience.

The connections we make between body and mind are not random, Lobel says; many are actually ingrained early in life. For instance, after receiving a vaccination, a child may automatically come to associate a sharp sensation with an emotional pang and the cold temperature of the doctor's office with feelings of distress.

Being aware of these deeply ingrained associations can help us sidestep them or use them to our advantage, Lobel reveals. Researchers at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University found that people prefer a job applicant whose résumé is attached to a heavy clipboard, viewing the candidate as having a more serious interest in the job. Perhaps, Lobel says, submitting résumés on heavy paper would give applicants a leg up.

Recently the idea that our body can be directing our brain rather than the other way around has met with serious criticism by researchers who have been unable to replicate findings. To her credit, Lobel acknowledges this debate, albeit briefly, at the book's end. Yet the controversy casts a shadow on much of the results and conclusions she discusses.

For readers interested in understanding an intriguing theory of how our physical experiences affect our mental ones, Sensation is a good place to start. But those looking for a more critical, nuanced look at the subject may be disappointed. Regardless, the book chronicles some of the quirky contributions of embodied cognition research and provides a nice reminder that the relation between mind and body is complex.