“Sit up straight!” The exhortation rings through many a primary school classroom and across the family dinner table. A large body of research suggests that controlling your position can be a task like any other, drawing on cognitive resources: simple tasks such as counting backward get harder when you must also hold a particular pose, and vice versa.
Most of these previous studies of posture, however, focused on standing positions rather than different sitting postures. Now, in a vindication for slouchers everywhere, a small study of seated Japanese fourth graders suggests that a relaxed posture may somehow help us concentrate on mentally challenging math.
In the study, 28 children sat on a backless stool like those used in elementary schools in Japan. They were fitted with electrodes to record the activity of core muscles involved in maintaining upright posture, and after asking the kids to focus on sitting up, the researchers had some sit quietly for two minutes, whereas others were asked to answer first easy math problems orally, then harder ones.
The researchers found that the children doing math relaxed their core muscles. The muscles were the most relaxed when the kids were working on the harder problems, and they did just as well on the hard problems as on the easy ones. That may mean, the researchers speculate, that slouching frees up some cognitive power that would otherwise be tied up in sitting up straight, allowing them to do better on tough problems than they might have otherwise.
The results are suggestive, but they are far from conclusive (sorry, slouchers). To get a clearer picture of what effect posture has, researchers would have to test each child's math skills without having them pay particular attention to posture and then test them again after asking them to focus on sitting up, says Marjorie Woollacott, a neuroscientist studying motor control at the University of Oregon, who was not involved in the research. As it stands (or rather, sits), the exact effects of posture remain a question for future research.