Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Body Memory vs. Mental Memory

Academic sociologists have been getting a lot of press lately about their research into the value of appearing confident or powerful in interviews or business meetings. Sitting in a confident position and/or speaking with a powerful voice produce measurably positive effects.

In the voice study, one group of research subjects were instructed to remember a time when they felt confident or powerful; another group were told to think of a time when they had less power and status. Another group listened to recordings of the subjects reading the same material and were able to correctly identify which were the most powerful 72% of the time.

Amazing! Perhaps more amazing that these academics evidently have never heard of Stanislavsky's acting methods, or have never realized that this is what actors do.

The published result: If you really relive a powerful moment in your mind, your body reacts as if you really did have power.

But these results are not body "reactions." When we have an experience of power, our emotions respond first, our bodies second, our minds third. Our cells remember that moment, our muscles remember that moment.

And it's our bodies that will retain the memory most accurately and recall it most efficiently. An earlier study that asked subjects to write about the time they felt powerful before going into an interview found that the effect faded over time.

I use a different method in which the effect doesn't fade, but strengthens over time. (Chapter 6 in Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer.) Mental memory can shift and change, acquiring different nuances and meanings, but body memory seems to remain stable.

I stumbled on this idea by chance: I had stopped performing during the last few years of a "Gaslight" marriage in which I had lost all confidence in my mind - in fact, had become convinced I was crazy. Shortly after my divorce I was asked to sing again. As I walked through a pair of swinging doors onto the stage, I felt my posture immediately change, a change so complete that I thought, "What the hell just happened to me?"

After the performance, when I had time to analyze what had happened, and to shift back and forth between the body on one side of the doors and the body that appeared on the other side, I recognized the latter as my "star body," a posture I had not used for many years. I had never consciously developed that posture, so no mental memory was involved. But my body remembered.  

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