Do better in math: Don’t slouch-Be tall!

“When I saw the exam questions, I blanked out and slouched in defeat. Then I shifted to an erect/tall position and took a diaphragmatic breath. All of a sudden I remembered the answer.”                                                                                                                        College student

Anticipating that math is difficult, experiencing test anxiety, blanking out on exams, or being scared when asked to give class presentation are common experiences of many students.  Their thoughts include, “I am not good enough,“What will the other students think,”  “I am embarrassed and can’t remember what to say,” or “I only thought of the correct answer after it was all over.” Many students report some test anxiety: 32% report severe test anxiety, fear of math and blanking out on exams while less than 10 percent report minimal test anxiety, fear of math and blanking out on exams.

When students anticipate that they will perform poorly on an exam or class presentation, they tend to sit in a slouched or collapsed position, coincident with feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness and defeat. This posture not only communicates to others that they are powerless and defeated, it also decreases their self-esteem, mood and cognitive performance.  In previous research, Tsai et al (2016) and Peper et al (2017) observed that when participants sat in a slouched posture, they could access hopeless, helpless, powerless and defeated memories much more easily than when they sat in the upright/erect position.  In the upright position it was much easier to access positive and empowering memories. For numerous participants they also experienced being captured and flooded by emotions associated with defeat and hopelessness when they slouched. These feelings and memories associated with a slouched posture may affect how we feel and perform. Nair et al (2015) found that adopting an upright seated posture in the face of stress can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and increase positive mood as compared to a slumped posture. Furthermore, sitting upright increases rate of speech and reduces self-focus.” Posture may also affect our hormone levels. Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy has reported that sitting in a slouched posture (powerless position) decreased testosterone (the hormone associated dominance and assertiveness) and increased cortisol (the hormone associated with stress) and performance on a stressor test (Cuddy, 2012; Carney et al, 2010). 

This blog points out how posture significantly impacts math performance especially for students who have test anxiety, are fearful of math, and blank out on exams and is adapted from our published research article, Peper, E., Harvey, R., Mason, L., & Lin, I-M. (2018). Do better in math: How your body posture may change stereotype threat response. NeuroRegulation, 5(2), 67-74 

In our study 125 university students participated. Half the students sat in an erect position while the other half sat in a slouched position and were asked to mentally subtract 7 serially from 964 for 30 seconds. They then reversed the positions before repeating the math subtraction task beginning at 834. They rated the math task difficulty on a scale from 0 (none) to 10 (extreme).

Fig 1 Slouch collapse positionFigure 1. Sitting in a collapsed position and upright position (photo from: http://news.sfsu.edu/news-story/good-posture-important-physical-and-mental-health)

The students rated the mental math significantly more difficult while sitting slouched than while sitting erect as shown in Figure 2.

Fig 2 difficulty in math by positionFigure 2. The subjective rating of difficulty in performing the serial 7 math subtraction when sitting in a collapsed or upright position.

For the students with the lowest 30% test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out scores, there was no significant difference between slouched and erect positions in mental math performance.  More importantly, students with the highest 30% test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out scores rated the math task significantly more difficult and some could not do it at all and blanked out in the slouched position as compared to the erect position as shown in Figure 3.

Fig 3 30 percent math performanceFigure 3. Effect of posture on math performance for students with test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out.

 The students with the highest test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out scores also reported significantly more somatic symptoms as compared with those with the lowest scores as shown in Figure 4.

Fig 4 SymptomsFigure 4. Self-reported symptoms associated with the highest and lowest 30% of summed test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out.

Discussion

Posture affects mental math and inhibit abstract thinking. By incorporating posture changes clinicians and teachers may help students improve performance.  The slouched position was associated with increased difficulty in performing a math subtraction task for 15 seconds, especially for students reporting higher test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out on exams. In contrast, slouched position had no significant effect on students who reported that they were not stressed about performance. For participants who report higher test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out they also reported significant increase in breathing difficulty, neck and shoulder tension, headaches, depression and anxiety. Most likely, the students attribute physiological reactions such as increased heart rate and breathing changes negatively, which amplifies their negative self-perception and exacerbates their anxiety symptoms which then may inhibit their cognitive ability to perform on math tasks.

The slouched position combined with the somatic symptoms activate are part of the a “defense reaction.” The slouch posture evokes a classically conditioned response to protect oneself under conditions of perceived physical threat. The activation of this defense pattern is associated with reduced levels of abstract thinking and frontal cortical deactivation as observed in this study.  This biological defense response is triggered when the person expects the situation to be ‘dangerous’ and include conditions of social-evaluative threat. By changing posture to an erect/upright posture appears to inhibit the defense reaction; thus, the person may perform better on cognitive tasks. 

Summary

Head-upright/erect postures may make it easier to access ‘positive and empowering’ thoughts and memories, thereby helping students, especially those who are anxious or fearful of math and blank-out during exams,   Anxious students who also slouch may benefit from training with a posture feedback  devices such as the UpRight Go™[1].  We recommend that students use posture feedback to become aware of the situations that are associated with slouching, such as ergonomic factors (looking down at the screen), being tired, or having depressive thoughts or feeling of powerless and defeat. 

The moment students experience the feedback that they are slouching, they become aware and have the option to shift to an upright posture and perform interventions to counter the factors that caused the slouching.  These interventions included ergonomic changes of their computer or laptop, transforming self-critical thoughts to empowering thoughts, or taking a break or performing movements. When students practice these interventions for four weeks, they report an increase of confidence, decrease in stress levels and an improvement in health and performance (Colombo et al, 2017; Harvey et al, in press). Equally important is to teach the participants self-regulation strategies  such as slower breathing, heart rate variability training, and muscle relaxation to reduce symptoms. The training needs to be generalized and practiced at home, school or work.

We recommend that students guide themselves through the posture positions as described in this research while performing mental math to experience how posture impacts performance. This experiential practice may increase motivation to be tall since the participant can now have a choice based upon self-experience.

Take home message echoes what your mother said, “Don’t slouch. Sit up tall!” 

  • If you feel secure and safe, posture has little to no effect on performance–you can be collapsed or slouched.
  • If you are anxious and fearful, sitting tall/erect may improve your performance.
  • If you want to become aware when you slouch, posture feedback from a wearable posture feedback device such as an UpRight Go can provide vibration feedback each time you slouch. The feedback can be the reminder to sit tall and change your thoughts.
  • If you automatically slouch while working at the computer or sitting in chair, change your furniture so that you sit in an upright position while studying or watching digital devices.
  • If you experience significant somatic symptoms (e.g., headaches, breathing difficulty, neck and shoulder tension, or depression and anxiety) learn self-regulation skills such as slower diaphragmatic breathing and heartrate variability training in conjunction with transforming negative self-talk to positive self-talk to improve performance.

Changing posture may also impact other areas of one’s life besides improving math performance as illustrated by the report from a mother of ten-year old boy.  

”At the moment I am trying to be aware of the situation in front of me rather that reacting to it. For example, yesterday my son who is 10 had a bad mood and I did not know what had happened, and he at first refused to tell me. Because I was aware of the posture information I could help him open up by making him change his posture without knowing. He became more open and told me what had happened earlier and I could help him move forward.”

REFERENCES

Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363–1368.

Colombo, S., Joy, M., Mason, L., Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Booiman, A.C. (2017). Posture Change Feedback Training and its Effect on Health. Poster presented at the 48th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Chicago, IL March, 2017. Abstract published in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback.42(2), 147.

Cuddy, A. (2012). Your body language shapes who you are. Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Talk, available at:  www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are

Harvey, R., Mason, L., Joy, M., & Peper, E. (in press). Effect of Posture Feedback Training on Health, Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. 

Nair, S., Sagar, M., Sollers, III, J., Consedine, N. & Broadbent, E.  (2015). Do Slumped and Upright Postures Affect Stress Responses? A Randomized Trial. Health Psychology, 34(6), 632–641.

Peper, E., Harvey, R., Mason, L., & Lin, I-M. (2018). Do better in math: How your body posture may change stereotype threat response. NeuroRegulation, 5(2), 67-74

Peper, E., Lin, I-M., Harvey, R., & Perez, J. (2017). How posture affects memory recall and mood.  Biofeedback.45 (2), 36-41.

Tsai, H. Y., Peper, E., & Lin, I. M.* (2016). EEG patterns under positive/negative body postures and emotion recall tasks. NeuroRegulation, 3(1), 23-27.

[1] UpRight Go is produced by Upright Technologies. LTD, Ha’atzmaut 56, Yehud 5630425, Israel  https://www.uprightpose.com

 


Digital addiction*

CartoonFrom: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/life-without-cellphone-waseem-abbas/

I felt dismissed and slighted when in the middle of dinner, my friend picked up his phone and quickly glanced at the notification.  The message appeared more important than me.

I had accidentally left my phone at home and the whole day long, I kept reaching for it to check email and social media feeds-I felt emotionally lost.

The host at the dinner party asked us to turn our phone off or leave it at the door.  At first I felt the impulse to check my phone, but during the evening I really connected with the other people.  

As I was running on the trail behind UC Berkeley enjoying the expansive view of the San Francisco Bay, an other idea for this article popped into my head–the importance of taking time to reflect and allow neural regeneration. I rushed back to add those concepts to the article.

When observing university students sitting in the classroom, I see them alone with their heads down looking at their mobile phone. When students enter a classroom, during class breaks, or after class they are continually texting, scrolling, clicking or looking at their smartphone screen instead of engaging with people next to them.  The same habits exist outside the classroom, whether they are leaning against the walls in the hallways, walking between classes, eating pizzas, or standing on the bus, the iNeck posture has become the all too common body position.

We respond automatically to notifications from email, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.  Each notification feels so important that we interrupt what we are doing and look at the screen.  The notifications activate neurological pathways that would have been triggered if we perceived a danger signal in our environment (e.g., a carnivore) that would threaten our existence. In addition, it provides updates on our social environment which would be necessary for our group’s survival.

This orienting process is automatic. For example, when you sit next to someone and they open their computer screen – without being prompted and against social etiquette – you automatically glance at their screen. The changing visual stimulation especially in the peripheral vision triggers us to orient to the cause of the visual changes.  In the past these peripheral changes would indicate that there is something going to which we need to pay attention.  It could be the tiger shadowing us or a possible enemy.  Now the ongoing visual display changes hijacks our vigilance that evolved over millions of years for survival. Looking at and being captured by the screen has now become an evolutionary trap (Peper, 2015). A fictional account of the stress generated during  texting when there is not an immediate response is superbly described  by Aziz Ansari & Eric Klinenberg (2015) in their book Modern Romance.

Besides automatically responding to the novel stimuli, our neural reward pathways are activated when we respond to the stimulus, click and scroll and are rewarded by text, videos, or music. The rewards from our scrolling, clicking and surfing are intermittent and creates the internet addiction.

As a result, many people preemptively check their phone or automatically respond to notifications during their waking hours. In social situations, constant phone interruptions cause others to feel slighted and snubbed. In our research students who use their phone the most experience significantly higher levels of isolation/loneliness, depression and anxiety than those who use their phone the least as shown in Figure 1 (Peper et al, 2016).

high and low

Figure 1. Self-reports of isolation, depression and anxiety were significantly higher for students who use their phone the most as compared to those who use their phone the least during socializing.  Reproduced with permission from Peper et al, 2016.

Being on-call and continuously checking the phone also contributes to multitasking which interrupts attention and performance (Jarmon, 2008; Brinols & Rajesh, 2014). Many students no longer focus on one task at hand; instead, they are multitasking and interrupt their tasks by by responding to social media, listening to music or surfing the web (Swingle, 2016Clement and Miles, 2018).   In our recent survey of 135 university students, almost all report that they multitask even though it would be better to focus on the required task and shift focus after the task was done as is shown in Figure 2 (Peper et al, 2014).

multitasking

Figure 2. Self-report of multitasking. Reproduced with permission from Peper et al, 2014.

How come we have become so addicted that we feel the urgency to check our phones day and night even if when there are no notifications?

The screen is the first focus of attention when we wake up and the last one before sleep. We cannot even wait to finish a meal or talk to a friend before checking the phone for possible updates.  For this addictive behavior, we can thank the major tech companies who have hired the smartest and brightest engineers, programmers and scientists to develop software and hardware to capture our attentions and conditions us to be addicted to increase corporate profit: more eyeballs, more clicks, more money. For a detailed analysis of how Tech companies created our addiction, see the superb article by Michael Schulson (2018), If the internet is addictive, why don’t we regulate it?

Do not place the blame on the child or adult who claim they do not have self-control.  The addiction was predominantly created by tech companies in their quest to capture market share by exploiting our natural evolutionary survival responses to orient and attend to a change in our visual and auditory world which has become an evolutionary trap. By providing intermittent reinforcers, the addiction is quickly established and challenging to overcome (Alter, 2017).  The addiction is similar to the opioid addiction which was created by pharmaceutical companies in their on-going quest to increase profits. Just as opioid addiction leads to long term harm, I wonder about the long term harm of internet addiction. It may be worse than the opioid addiction because it reduces actual social connections and emotional regulation, increases distractibility and attention deficit and, and decreases self-initiative (proactive versus reactive behavior) which may result in compromised health and well-being.

Being plugged-in and connected limits the time for reflection and regeneration. This un-programed time allows new ideas and concepts to emerge, provides time to assess your own and other people’s actions from a distant perspective.  It offers the pause that refreshes and time for neural regeneration. Our nervous system, just like our muscular system, grow when there is enough time to regenerate after being stressed. Ongoing stress or stimulation without time to regenerate leads to illness and neural death.  The phenomena can be seen in the development of rat brains.

Neuroanatomist Professor Marion Diamond showed that rats who were brought up in an impoverished environment and had very little stimulation had a thinner cortex and less dendritic connections than rats brought up in an enriched environment (Rosenzweig, 1966; Diamond et al, 1975).  More importantly, an excessively enriched environment was associated to a reduction of neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity (Joels et al, 2004). The more hours of television a child between age 1 and 3 watched was directly correlated with associated attentional problems at age 7 (Christakis et al, 2004). This suggests that excessive stimulation during brain development may be harmful.  Thus,  from a biological perspective health is the alternation between activity and regeneration. If the brain is not allowed enough time to be off-line and regenerate, neural degeneration most likely will occur.

Mobilize your health and disconnect to allow regeneration. Take charge of your addiction,  regain social connections, and develop proactive attention.

  1. Recognize that you have been manipulated into addiction by the tech companies which have covertly conditioned you to react to notifications and creating the desire (addiction) to check for updates.
  2. Become proactive by limiting interruptions when you work and play.

Recommended readings

Alter, A. (2017). Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. New York: Penguin Press. Explores in detail how and why we have become addicted and offers strategies how we can harness the addiction for the good.

Clement, J. & Miles, M. (2018). Screen schooled-Two veteran teachers expose how technology overuse is making our kids dumber. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. A superb analysis how screen saturation at home and school has created a wide range of cognitive and social deficits in our young people.

Foer, F. (2017). World without mind-The existential threat of big tech. New York: Penguin Press. A passionate informed case that the great tech companies are robbing us of our individuality, humanity, our values and how to deal with complexity. It offers strategies to take back your autonomy and mind.

Swingle, M. (2016). i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media are Changing our Brains, our Behavior, and the Evolution of our Species. Gabriola Island, BC
Canada: New Society Publishers. Based upon 18 years of clinical observations this book describes in detail how the digital revolution is change our brains and offers constructive strategies how to use the digital tool constructively.

* Adapted from Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2018). Digital addiction: increased loneliness, depression, and anxiety. NeuroRegulation. 5(1),3–8doi:10.15540/nr.5.1.3

References

Alter, A. (2017). Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. New York: Penguin Press. Explores in detail how and why we have become addicted and offers strategies how we can harness the addiction for the good.

Ansari, A. & Klinenberg, E. (2015). Modern Romance 
by Penguin Press: New York.  https://www.amazon.com/Modern-Romance-Aziz-Ansari/dp/0143109251/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1518021029&sr=1-1&keywords=Modern+Romance

Brinols, A.B. & Rajesh, R. (2014). Multitasking with smartphones in the college classroom. Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, 77(1), 89–95. http://journals.sagepub.com.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/2329490613515300

Christakis, D.A., Zimmerman, F.J., DiGiuseppe, D.L., &  McCarty, C.A. (2004). Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children. Pediatrics. 113(4). http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/113/4/708

Clement, J. & Miles, M. (2018). Screen schooled-Two veteran teachers expose how technology overuse is making our kids dumber. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. https://www.amazon.com/Screen-Schooled-Veteran-Teachers-Technology/dp/1613739516

Diamond, M. C., Lindner, B., Johnson, R., Bennett, E. L., & Rosenzweig, M. R. (1975). Difference in occipital cortical synapses from environmentally enriched, impoverished, and standard colony rats. Journal of Neuroscience Research, 1(2), 109-119. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1223322

Jarmon, A. L. (2008). Multitasking: Helpful or harmful? Student Lawyer, 36(8), 31-35. https://ttu-ir-tdl-org.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/ttu-ir/bitstream/handle/10601/925/Jarmon_Multitasking%20Helpful%20or%20Harmful.pdf?sequence=1

Joels, M.., Karst, H., Alfarez, D.,  Heine, V.M., Qin, Y.,  van Riel, E., Verkuyl, M., Lucassen, P.J., & . Krugers, H.J. (2004). Effects of chronic stress on structure and cell function in rat hippocampus and hypothalamus. Stress, 7(4), 221-231. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10253890500070005

Peper, E., Harvey, R., Lin, E., Lau, S., Mitose, J., & Rogers. (2014). Cellphone and multitasking survey of college students.  Unpublished manuscript. San Francisco State University.

Peper, E. (2015). Evolutionary/environmental traps create illness: Be aware of commercialized stimuli. Psychophysiology Today-The E Magazine for Mind-Body Medicine. 10(1), 9-11. http://files.ctctcdn.com/c20d9a09001/eabdf1d4-f4a1-4eea-9879-44ff24e6224c.pdf

Peper, E., Silva, L.M., & Grasham, G. (2016). Cell phone use by university students. Unpublished manuscript, San Francisco State University.

Rosenzweig, M. R. (1966). Environmental complexity, cerebral change, and behavior. American Psychologist, 21(4), 321-332. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0023555

Shulson, M. (2018). If the internet is addictive, why don’t we regulate it?Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/if-the-internet-is-addictive-why-don-t-we-regulate-it?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm_campaign=b9442547f4-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_01_29&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-b9442547f4-68958453

Swingle, M. (2016). i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media are Changing our Brains, our Behavior, and the Evolution of our Species. Gabriola Island, BC
Canada: New Society Publishers.