The blog has been adapted from our published article, Harvey, R., Peper, E., Booiman, A., Heredia Cedillo, A., & Villagomez, E. (2018). The effect of head and neck position on head rotation, cervical muscle tension and symptoms. Biofeedback. 46(3), 65–71.
Why is it so difficult to turn your head to see what is behind you?
How come so many people feel pressure in the back of the head or have headaches after working on the computer?
Your mother may have been right when she said, “Sit up straight! Don’t slouch!” Sitting slouched and collapsed is the new norm as digital devices force us to slouch or tilt our head downward. Sometimes we scrunch our neck to look at the laptop screen or cellphone. This collapsed position also contributes to an increased in musculoskeletal dysfunction (Nahar & Sayed, 2018). The more you use a screen for digital tasks, the more you tend to have head-forward posture, especially when the screens are small (Kang, Park, Lee, Kim, Yoon, & Jung, 2012). In addition, the less time children play outside and the more time young children watch the screen, the more likely will they become near sighted and need to have their vision corrected (Sherwin et al, 2012). In addition, the collapsed head forward position unintentionally decreases subjective energy level and may amplify defeated, helpless, hopeless thoughts and memories (Bader, 2015; Peper & Lin, 2012; Tsai, Peper, & Lin, 2016; Peper et al, 2017).
Explore the following two exercises to experience how the head forward position immediately limits head rotation and how neck scrunching can rapidly induce back of the head pressure and headaches.
Exercise 1. Effect of head forward position on neck rotation
Sit at the edge of the chair and bring your head forward, then rotate your head to the right and to the left and observe how far you can rotate. Then sit erect with the crown of the head reaching towards the ceiling and again rotate your head from right to left and observe how far you can rotate as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Head-erect versus head-forward position.
What did you experience?
Most likely your experience is similar to the 87 students (Mean Age = 23.6 years) who participated in this classroom activity designed to bring awareness of the effect of head and neck position on symptoms of muscle tension. 92.0% of the students reported that is was much easier to rotate their head and could rotate further during the head-erect position as compared to the head-forward position (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Self-report of ease of head rotation.
What does this mean?
Almost all participants were surprised that the head forward position restricted head rotation as well as reduced peripheral awareness (Fernandez-de-Las-Penas et al., 2006). The collapsed head forward may directly affect personal safety; since, it reduces peripheral awareness while walking, biking or driving a car. In addition, when the head is forward, the cervical vertebrae are in a more curved position compared to the erect head with the normal cervical curve (Kang et al., 2012). This means that in the head-forward position, the pressure on the vertebrae and the intervertebral disc is elevated compared to the preferred position with a stretched neck. This increases the risk of damage to the vertebrae and intervertebral disc (Kang et al, 2012). It also means that the muscles that hold the head in the forward position have to work much harder.
Be aware that of factors that contribute to a head-forward position.
- Sitting in a car seat in which the headrest pushes the head forward. Solutions: Tilt the headrest back or put pillow in your back from your shoulders to your pelvis to move your body slightly forward.
- If you wear a bun or ponytail, the headrest (car, airplane seat, or chair) will often push your head forward. This causes a change of the head to a more forward position and it becomes a habit without the person even knowing it. Solution: Place a pillow in your back to move your body forward or loosen the bun or ponytail.
- Difficulty reading the text on the digital screen. The person automatically cranes their head forward to read the text. Solutions: Have your eyes checked and, if necessary, wear computer-reading glasses; alternatively, increase the font size and reduce glare.
- Working on a laptop and looking down on the screen. Solutions: Detachable keyboard and laptop on a stand to raise screen to eye level as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Trying to read the laptop screen, which causes the head to go forward as compared to raising the screen and using an external keyboard. Reproduced by permission from www.backshop.nl
- Being tired or exhausted encourages the body to collapse and slouch and increases the muscle tension in the upper cervical region. You can explore the effect of tiredness that causes slouching and head-forward position during the day by observing the following if you drive a car.
In the morning, adjust your rear mirror and side mirrors. Then at the end of the day when you sit in the car, you may note that you may need to readjust your inside rear mirror. No, the mirror didn’t change of position during the day by itself—you slouched unknowingly. Solutions: Take many breaks during the day to regenerate, install stretch break reminders, or wear an UpRight Go posture feedback device to remind you when you begin to slouch (Peper, Lin & Harvey, 2017).
Exercise 2: Effect of neck scrunching on symptom development
Sit comfortably and your nose forward and slightly. While the head is forward tighten your neck as if your squeezing the back of the head downward into the shoulders and hold this contracted neck position for 20 seconds. Let go and relax.
What did you experience?
Most likely your experience was similar to 98.4% of the 125 college students who reported a rapid increase in discomfort after neck scrunching as shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4. Symptoms induced by 30 seconds of neck scrunching.
During scrunching there was a significant increase in the cervical and trapezius sEMG activity recorded from 12 volunteers as shown in Figure 5.Figure 5. Change in cervical and trapezius sEMG during head forward and neck scrunching.
What does this mean?
Nearly all participants were surprised that 30 seconds of neck scrunching would rapidly increase induce discomfort and cause symptoms. This experience provided motivation to identify situations that evoked neck scrunching and avoid those situations or change the ergonomics that induced the neck scrunching. If you experience headaches or neck discomfort, scrunching could be a contributing factor.
Factors that contribute to neck scrunching and discomfort.
- Bringing your head forward to see the text or graphics more clearly. There may be multiple causes such as blurred vision, tiny text font size, small screen and ergonomic factors. Possible solutions. Have your eyes checked and if appropriate wear computer-reading glasses. Increase the text font size or use a large digital screen. Reduce glare and place the screen at the appropriate height so that the top of the screen is no higher than your eyebrows.
- Immobility and working in static position for too long a time period. Possible solutions. Interrupt your static position with movements every few minutes such as stretching, standing, and wiggling.
These two experiential practices are “symptom prescription practices” that may help you become aware that head position contributes to symptoms development. For example, if you suffer from headaches or neck and backaches from computer work, check your posture and make sure your head is aligned on top of your neck–as if held by an invisible thread from the ceiling and take many movement breaks.The awareness may help you to identify situations that cause these dysfunctional body patterns that could cause symptoms. By inhibiting these head and neck patterns, you may be able to reduce or avoid discomfort. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, self-experience through feeling and seeing is believing.
Bader, E. E. (2015). The Psychology and Neurobiology of Mediation. Cardozo J. Conflict Resolution, 17, 363.
Fernandez-de-Las-Penas, C., Alonso-Blanco, C., Cuadrado, M. L., & Pareja, J. A. (2006). Forward head posture and neck mobility in chronic tension-type headache: A blinded, controlled study. Cephalalgia, 26(3), 314-319.
Kang, J. H., Park, R. Y., Lee, S. J., Kim, J. Y., Yoon, S. R., & Jung, K. I. (2012). The effect of the forward head posture on postural balance in long time computer based worker. Annals of rehabilitation medicine, 36(1), 98-104.
Lee, M. Y., Lee, H. Y., & Yong, M. S. (2014). Characteristics of cervical position sense in subjects with forward head posture. Journal of physical therapy science, 26(11), 1741-1743. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.26.1741
Nahar, S., & Sayed, A. (2018). Prevalence of musculoskeletal dysfunction in computer science students and analysis of workstation characteristics-an explorative study. International Journal of Advanced Research in Computer Science, 9(2), 21-27. https://doi.org/10.26483/ijarcs.v9i2.5570
Peper, E., & Lin, I. M. (2012). Increase or decrease depression: How body postures influence your energy level. Biofeedback, 40(3), 125-130
Peper, E., Lin, I-M., Harvey, R., & Perez, J. (2017). How posture affects memory recall and mood. Biofeedback.45 (2), 36-41.
Peper, E., Lin, I-M, & Harvey, R. (2017). Posture and mood: Implications and applications to therapy. Biofeedback.35(2), 42-48.
Sherwin, J.C., Reacher, M.H., Keogh, R.H., Khawaja, A.P, Mackey, D.A., & Foster, P.J. (2012). The Association between Time Spent Outdoors and Myopia in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Ophthalmology, 119(10), 2141-2151. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ophtha.2012.04.020
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.
*This blog was adapted from our published article, The blog has been adapted from our research article, Harvey, R., Peper, E., Booiman, A., Heredia Cedillo, A., & Villagomez, E. (2018). The effect of head and neck position on head rotation, cervical muscle tension and symptoms. Biofeedback. 46(3), 65–71.
Be safe rather than sorry. Cellphone radio frequency radiation is harmful!
The National Toxicology Program (NTP) released on October 31, 2018 their final report on rat and mouse studies of radio frequency radiation like that used with cellphones. The $30 million NTP studies took more than 10 years to complete and are the most comprehensive assessments to date of health effects in animals exposed to Radio Frequency Radiation (RFR) with modulations used in 2G and 3G cell phones. 2G and 3G networks were standard when the studies were designed and are still used for phone calls and texting.
The report concluded there is clear evidence that male rats exposed to high levels of radio frequency radiation (RFR) like that used in 2G and 3G cell phones developed cancerous heart tumors, according to final reports. There was also some evidence of tumors in the brain and adrenal gland of exposed male rats. For female rats, and male and female mice, the evidence was equivocal as to whether cancers observed were associated with exposure to RFR.
“The exposures used in the studies cannot be compared directly to the exposure that humans experience when using a cell phone,” said John Bucher, Ph.D., NTP senior scientist. “In our studies, rats and mice received radio frequency radiation across their whole bodies. By contrast, people are mostly exposed in specific local tissues close to where they hold the phone. In addition, the exposure levels and durations in our studies were greater than what people experience.”
In the NTP study, the lowest exposure level used in the studies was equal to the maximum local tissue exposure currently allowed for cell phone users. This power level rarely occurs with typical cell phone use. The highest exposure level in the studies was four times higher than the maximum power level permitted. Butcher state, “We believe that the link between radio frequency radiation and tumors in male rats is real, and the external experts agreed.”
I interpret that their results support the previous–often contested–observations that brain cancers were more prevalent in high cell phone users especially on the side of the head they held the cellphone.
More some women who have habitually stashed their cell phone in their bra have been diagnosed with a rare breast cancer located beneath the area of the breast where they stored their cell phone. Watch the heart breaking TV interview with Tiffany. She was 21 years old when she developed breast cancer which was located right beneath the breast were she had kept her cell phone against her bare skin for the last 6 years.
While these rare cases could have occurred by chance, they could also be an early indicator of risk. Previously, most research studies were based upon older adults who have tended to use their mobile phone much less than most young people today. The average age a person acquires a mobile phone is ten years old (this data was from 2016 and many children now have cellphones even earlier). Often infants and toddlers are entertained by smartphones and tablets–the new technological babysitter. The possible risk may be much greater for a young people since their bodies and brains are still growing rapidly. I wonder if the antenna radiation may be one of the many initiators or promoters of later onset cancers. We will not know the answer; since, most cancer take twenty or more years to develop.
Act now and reduce the exposure to the antenna radiation by implementing the following suggestions:
- Keep your phone, tablet or laptop in your purse, backpack or briefcase. Do not keep it on or close to your body.
- Use the speakerphone or earphones with microphone while talking. Do not hold it against the side of your head, close to your breast or on your lap.
- Text while the phone is on a book or on a table away from your body.
- Put the tablet and laptop on a table and away from the genitals.
- Set the phone to airplane mode.
- Be old fashioned and use a cable to connect to your home router instead of relying on the WiFi connection.
- Keep your calls short and enjoy the people in person.
- Support legislation to label wireless devices with a legible statement of possible risk and the specific absorption rate (SAR) value. Generally, higher the SAR value, the higher the exposure to antenna radiation.
- Support the work by the Environmental Health Trust.
For an radio interview on this topic, listen to my interview on Deborah Quilter’s radio show. http://www.blogtalkradio.com/rsihelp/2018/11/20/why-you-should-keep-your-cell-phone-away-from-your-body-with-dr-erik-peper
For more information on NTP study see:
*The blog is adapted in part from the November 1, 2018 news release from the National Toxicology Program (NTP)1, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences2, National Institute of Health (NIH)3.
- About the National Toxicology Program (NTP):NTP is a federal, interagency program headquartered at NIEHS, whose goal is to safeguard the public by identifying substances in the environment that may affect human health. For more information about NTP and its programs, visit niehs.nih.gov.
- About the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS): NIEHS supports research to understand the effects of the environment on human health and is part of NIH. For more information on environmental health topics, visit niehs.nih.gov. Subscribe to one or more of the NIEHS news lists (www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsroom/newslist/index.cfm) to stay current on NIEHS news, press releases, grant opportunities, training, events, and publications.
- About the National Institutes of Health (NIH):NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit nih.gov.
Faced with the challenges of fake news or the role of social media in shaping people’s actions, you may wonder what the future brings. Science fiction of the near future may suggest what could happen. I am so proud that my son, Eliot Peper, has explored these issues in his just published book, Borderless.
As he wrote, Borderless is a speculative thriller about a refugee-turned-rogue-spy navigating a geopolitical labyrinth through a near future where information is power and whoever controls the feed rules the world. Lush, nuanced, and philosophical, the story grapples with the decline of the nation state, the rise of tech platforms, and reconciling sins of the past with dreams of the future. Craig Newmark calls it, “A riveting cautionary tale about how the control of information could lead to new forms of democratic governance, or to accidental empires. Rooted in the current realities of the internet and social media, Borderless explores a near future in which our lives are shaped without our conscious consideration.”
Unlike any other book I’ve written, Borderless had a title before I sat down to draft chapter one. The dismantling of borders is a powerful theme in my life, and I began to recognize it beneath the surface of the headlines. The characters, plot, and world gravitated around this core idea before falling into place as I made my way through the manuscript.
I am a child of immigrants.
My father is from The Hague. My Jewish paternal grandfather was one of the only members of his family to survive World War II. He hid in a secret compartment while Nazi patrols searched their cramped apartment. Meanwhile, my paternal grandmother, a Protestant, became a secret agent of the Dutch resistance, ferrying information, supplies, and people out of the camps, even as she raised and protected her family. They fled to the United States when they worried that the Cold War might devolve into a third World War.
My mother is from Vancouver. Her family immigrated to Canada from the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, and for them, British Columbia must have felt tropical. I have many fond memories of scrambling over rocks and sneaking through forests on Vancouver Island with my cousins. And, of course, huddling around the monitor’s glow to play Final Fantasy VII while our parents shook their heads in bewilderment.
My wife is from Colombia, and her family escaped the drug violence that plagued Cali by moving to Connecticut. Just before I embarked on Borderless, we volunteered with a local resettlement agency to host a Ugandan refugee in our home in Oakland. The initial commitment was for three months, but Marvin ended up staying for nine months and became a dear friend. We’ve learned an enormous amount from each other, and he continues to find it quite odd that my “job” is writing books.
As I prepared to write this particular book, I couldn’t help but notice how different our world today is from the one my grandparents inhabited. Baby pictures from friends living in a far-off Austrian village greet me when I go online after my morning coffee. A momentary uptick in Sri Lankan tea prices zips through global markets at the impossible speed of high-frequency trading. We can fly halfway around the world only to board an on-demand car service and stay in a stranger’s apartment complete with an unfamiliar toilet and a friendly list of local tips taped to the fridge.
While I worked my way through the rough draft, more modern oddities presented themselves. I used Google Maps to track the trajectory of a character’s flight to and from the Arctic. I played around with a research tool that projects the impacts of sea-level rise on specific urban areas. I discovered the beautiful true story of the Golden Record via Maria Popova’s peerless blog, Brainpickings. Just for fun, I backed a Swedish artist’s Kickstarter project and began a collaboration with a designer living in Argentina and an illustrator living in New Zealand. My grandfather spoke Esperanto, but he would never have recognized this weird dimension we insist on calling “reality.”
Cars, telegrams, planes, phones, trains, broadcast media, and container ships made the world smaller. Now the internet is stitching the strange, scary, and wonderful pieces together into a single civilization.
Unfortunately the results aren’t always pretty. As I write this, authoritarian populism is rearing its ugly head, hate-mongers dominate the news cycle, and a country of immigrants is beginning to turn away people like Marvin. This is something my grandparents would recognize in a heartbeat.
Fear at an uncertain future is all too understandable. Technology isn’t just making our national borders more porous; it’s shifting the borders of the twentieth-century social contract and causing a lot of people a lot of suffering. But letting fear get in the way of reason leads to ruin. Civilization is more delicate than it seems, and unlike previous civilizations that were geographically limited, this is the only one we’ve got.
Progress is painful. We use technology to do work we would prefer to avoid, and then need to make up new jobs for ourselves. We enjoy the cheap prices made possible by offshore manufacturing, and then realize we can’t enforce social or environmental regulations across the supply chain. We download entire libraries of pirated music, and then discover we must support artists if we want more of what we love.
Problems beget solutions beget new problems. The snake eats its tail, and we go round and round again. But that doesn’t mean things don’t get better. Child mortality, infectious disease, poverty, and violent death are at all-time lows. Literacy, longevity, and scientific knowledge are at all-time highs. There isn’t a time in all of history I’d rather live in than the present, and there’s nothing more important than doing our part to build a better future.
When I finally reached the end of the rough draft, Diana, the protagonist, had become a close friend. As a quirky and dangerously competent spy, she was enormous fun to write. Chapter by chapter, she developed a stronger and stronger sense of agency until I felt like I was documenting her adventures rather than inventing them. Diana proved herself to be the kind of person who doesn’t shy away from hard truths, who confronts and overcomes her own flaws, who aspires to serve rather than rule others, and who fights through all the madness and pain that life throws her way in order to do what she feels is right.
I have a lot to learn from her. Perhaps we all do.
Thank you for reading. I put everything I have into this story, and if you’re still with me, I can only hope that it will resonate with you. As in so many other arenas of life, the borders delineating the publishing industry are changing fast. But there’s at least one thing that’s as true as ever: writers write manuscripts, but books succeed thanks to the support and enthusiasm of readers. If you enjoy Borderless, please leave a review and tell your friends about it. It may feel insignificant, but nothing is more powerful than word of mouth.
Onward and upward.
“A sharply rendered, wildly entertaining thriller speaking to the dangerous realities of our present: climate change, the changing shape of power, the very American values that defined Peper’s grandparents’ post-war lives—themes that are now fraught within our real world as it becomes increasingly globalized and divided.”
–East Bay Express
“William Gibson meets Daniel Suarez. Launching the reader into a world dominated by massive tech companies and struggling nation states, Borderless explores frighteningly plausible scenarios that extrapolate the social implications of privacy, data, and national sovereignty. Diana, a refugee-turned-secret-agent, barrels through Bay Area hipster hangouts and the inner sanctums of geopolitical power on her way to shaping a future that feels like it’s right around the corner. Borderless is fresh, intriguing, and inevitable.”
-John Hanke, CEO at Niantic and creator of Google Maps, Google Earth, and Pokémon Go
“Clock-ticking suspense… Resonates resoundingly with present-day headlines about net neutrality and global dependence on the internet.”
“Spectacular. Peper just gets better and better with each book. I stayed up way past my bedtime reading it. Riveting, relevant, and wonderful.”
-Brad Feld, managing director at Foundry Group
“Every empire builds an information infrastructure. Rome built roads. The British had an imperial telegraph system. What happens when the infrastructure is independent of the empires? That’s the fascinating question explored by Borderless, an entertaining novel of intrigue and action full of troubled heroes and imperfect compromises.”
-Peter Cowhey, dean of UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy & Strategy and Qualcomm Endowed Chair in Communications and Technology Policy
“Peper does an outstanding job of researching his books and painting futures that are all too plausible.”
“Eliot Peper’s Analog trilogy continues the war between the establishment and the future. This is Diana’s book: the freelance spy faces down her past and her present, to build a better tomorrow. Peper channels John Perry Barlow and declares independence.”
-Simon Le Gros Bisson, technology journalist
“Through exciting twists and turns, Borderless explores how the rise of tech platforms challenges traditional nation states.”
-Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View
“More action. More suspense. More intrigue. More of everything in the second installment of the Analog Series, Borderless.”
“Rising science fiction star Eliot Peper takes us into a near future where everyone, every nation, and everything depends on the feed—an extension of the dominant social media companies that dominate the news today. Compelling action is mixed with thoughtful treatises on the power of information and who should control it, and on the nature of human relationships. Borderless is a timely novel, and a worthy sequel to Bandwidth.”
-Glen Hiemstra, founder of Futurist.com
“Peper is on top of his game and delivers a stunning look into our future with Borderless. If I had a connection with a TV or movie studio and I was able to pitch one thing to them – it would be this series.”
Nearly every day when I listen to podcasts while commuting I learn something new that challenges my assumptions or that makes me say to myself, “Oh, I never thought of that.”
For thousands of years, ideas, myths, and history were transmitted through oral story telling. When we listen, our imagination has the opportunity to create and illustrate the scenes described in the story. Often this imaginary world is more vivid and real than the actual world. That is why it always seems to be true that “the book was so much better than the movie.” Unlike film, where the audiovisual experience are controlled, listening to oral storytelling provides the opportunity to create your own imagery and widen your perspective.
Take charge on where you choose to focus your attention. Instead of being hijacked by the headlines, listen to in-depth analysis, stories and different points of view provided by podcasts. In many cases what we thought was “the truth” may be just one more biased opinion. While driving, commuting on public transportation, or sitting at home, listen to podcasts to expand your horizon. Podcasts are the modern equivalent of sharing stories around a campfire. The following are a few of the podcasts that I enjoy. Please let me know your favorites.
Hidden Brain. Shankar Vedantam uses science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships. https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510308/hidden-brain
Revisionist History. Malcolm Gladwell’s journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood. Every episode re-examines something from the past—an event, a person, an idea, even a song—and asks whether we got it right the first time.
Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance. http://revisionisthistory.com/
Freakonomics. Discover the hidden side of everything with Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the Freakonomics books. Each week, Freakonomics Radio tells you things you always thought you knew (but didn’t) and things you never thought you wanted to know (but do) — from the economics of sleep to how to become great at just about anything. Dubner speaks with Nobel laureates and provocateurs, intellectuals and entrepreneurs, and various other underachievers. http://freakonomics.com/archive/
TED Talks Daily. Hear thought-provoking ideas on every subject imaginable — from Artificial Intelligence to Zoology, and everything in between — given by the world’s leading thinkers and doers. https://www.ted.com/about/programs-initiatives/ted-talks/ted-talks-audio
RadioLab. Hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich has been devoted to investigating a strange world. Radiolab has won Peabody Awards, a National Academies Communication Award “for their investigative use of radio to make science accessible to broad audience.” https://www.wnycstudios.org/shows/radiolab/podcasts
“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).
Figure 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.
Figure 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.
Figure 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.
Figure 4. Self-reported symptoms associated with the highest and lowest 30% of summed test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out.
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.
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™. 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.”
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.
Harvey, R., Mason, L., Joy, M., & Peper, E. (in press). Effect of Posture Feedback Training on Health, Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback.