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
“Although difficult and going against my natural reaction to curl up in the response to my cramps, I stretched out on my back and breathed slowly so that my stomach got bigger with each inhalation. My menstrual pain slowly decreased and disappeared.
“For as long as I remember, I had stomach problems and when I went to doctors, they said, I had acid reflux. I was prescribed medication and nothing worked. The problem of acid reflux got really bad when I went to college and often interfered with my social activities. After learning diaphragmatic breathing so that my stomach expanded instead of my chest, I am free of my symptoms and can even eat the foods that previously triggered the acid reflux.”
In the late 19th earlier part of the 20th century many women were diagnosed with Neurasthenia. The symptoms included fatigue, anxiety, headache, fainting, light headedness, heart palpitation, high blood pressure, neuralgia and depression. It was perceived as a weakness of the nerves. Even though the diagnosis is no longer used, similar symptoms still occur and are aggravated when the abdomen is constricted with a corset or by stylish clothing (see Fig 1).
Figure 1. Wearing a corset squeezes the abdomen.
The constricted waist compromises the functions of digestion and breathing. When the person inhales, the abdomen cannot expand as the diaphragm is flattening and pushing down. Thus, the person is forced to breathe more shallowly by lifting their ribs which increases neck and shoulder tension and the risk of anxiety, heart palpitation, and fatigue. It also can contribute to abdominal discomfort since abdomen is being squeezed by the corset and forcing the abdominal organs upward. It was the reason why the room on top of stairs in the old Victorian houses was call the fainting room (Melissa, 2015).
During inhalation the diaphragm flattens and attempts to descend which increases the pressure of the abdominal content. In some cases this causes the stomach content to be pushed upward into the esophagus which could result in heart burn and acid reflux. To avoid this, health care providers often advice patients with acid reflux to sleep on a slanted bed with the head higher than their feet so that the stomach content flows downward. However, they may not teach the person to wear looser clothing that does not constrict the waist and prevent designer jean syndrome. If the clothing around the waist is loosened, then the abdomen may expand in all directions in response to the downward movement of the diaphragm during inhalation and not squeeze the stomach and thereby pushing its content upward into the esophagus.
Most people have experienced the benefits of loosening the waist when eating a large meal. The moment the stomach is given the room to spread out, you feel more comfortable. If you experienced this, ask yourself, “Could there be a long term cost of keeping my waist constricted?” A constricted waist may be as harmful to our health as having the emergency brake on while driving for a car.
We are usually unaware that shallow rapid breathing in our chest can contribute to symptoms such as anxiety, neck and shoulder tension, heart palpitations, headaches, abdominal discomfort such as heart burn, acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, dysmenorrhea and even reduced fertility (Peper, Mason, & Huey, 2017; Domar, Seibel, & Benson, 1990).
Assess whether you are at risk for faulty breathing
Stand up and observe what happens when you take in a big breath and then exhale. Did you feel taller when you inhaled and shorter/smaller when you exhaled?
If the answer is YES, your breathing pattern may compromise your health. Most likely when you inhaled you lifted your chest, slightly arched your back, tightened and raised your shoulders, and lifted your head up while slightly pulling the stomach in. When you exhaled, your body relaxed and collapsed downward and even the stomach may have relaxed and expanded. This is a dysfunctional breathing pattern and the opposite of a breathing pattern that supports health and regeneration as shown in figure 2.
Figure 2. Incorrect and correct breathing. Source unknown.
Observe babies, young children, dogs, and cats when they are peaceful. The abdomen is what moves during breathing. While breathing in, the abdomen expands in all 360 degrees directions and when breathing out, the abdomen constricts and comes in. Similarly when dogs or cats are lying on their sides, their stomach goes up during inhalation and goes down during exhalation.
Many people tend to breathe shallowly in their chest and have forgotten—or cannot– allow their abdomen and lower ribs to widen during inhalation (Peper et al, 2016). These factors include:
- Constriction by the modern corset called “Spanx” to slim the figure or by wearing tight fitting pants. In either case the abdominal content is pushed upward and interferes with normal healthy breathing.
- Maintaining a slim figure by pulling the abdomen (I will look fat when my stomach expands; I will suck it in).
- Avoiding post-surgical abdominal pain by inhibiting abdominal movement. Numerous patients have unknowingly learned to shallowly breathe in their chest to avoid pain at the site of the incision of the abdominal surgery such as for hernia repair or a cesarean operation. This dysfunctional breathing became the new normal unless they actively practice diaphragmatic breathing.
- Slouching as we sit or watch digital screens or look down at our cell phone.
Observe how slouching affects the space in your abdomen.
When you shift from an upright erect position to a slouched or protective position the distance between your pubic bone and the bottom of the sternum (xiphoid process) is significantly reduced.
- Tighten our abdomen to protect ourselves from pain and danger as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Erect versus collapsed posture. There is less space for the abdomen to expand in the protective collapsed position. Reproduced by permission from Clinical Somatics (http://www.clinicalsomatics.ie/).
Regardless why people breathe shallowly in their chest or avoid abdominal and lower rib movement during breathing, by re-establishing normal diaphragmatic breathing many symptoms may be reduced. Numerous students have reported that when they shift to diaphragmatic breathing which means the abdomen and lower ribs expand during inhalation and come in during exhalation as shown in Figure 4, their symptoms such as acid reflux and menstrual cramp significantly decrease.
Figure 4. Diaphragmatic breathing. Reproduced from: www.devang.house/blogs/thejob/belly-breathing-follow-your-gut.
Reduce acid reflux
A 21-year old student, who has had acid reflux (GERD-gastroesophageal reflux diseases) since age 6, observed that she only breathed in her chest and that there were no abdominal movements. When she learned and practiced slower diaphragmatic breathing which allowed her abdomen to expand naturally during inhalation and reduce in size during exhalation her symptoms decreased. The image she used was that her lungs were like a balloon located in her abdomen. To create space for the diaphragm going down, she bought larger size pants so that her abdominal could spread out instead of squeezing her stomach (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Hydraulic model who inhaling without the abdomen expanding increases pressure on the stomach and possibly cause stomach fluids to be pushed into the esophagus.
She practiced diaphragmatic breathing many times during the day. In addition, the moment she felt stressed and tightened her abdomen, she interrupted this tightening and re-established abdominal breathing. Practicing this was very challenging since she had to accept that she would still be attractive even if her stomach expanded during inhalation. She reported that within two weeks her symptom disappeared and upon a year follow-up she has had no more symptoms For a detailed description how this successfully cured irritable bowel syndrome see: https://peperperspective.com/2017/06/23/healing-irritable-bowel-syndrome-with-diaphragmatic-breathing/
Take control of menstrual cramps
Numerous college students have reported that when they experience menstrual cramps, their natural impulse is to curl up in a protective cocoon. If instead they interrupted this natural protective pattern and lie relaxed on their back with their legs straight out and breathe diaphragmatically with their abdomen expanding and going upward during inhalation, they report a 50 percent decrease in discomfort (Gibney & Peper, 2003). For some the discomfort totally disappears when they place a warm pad on their lower abdomen and focused on breathing slowly about six breaths per minute so that the abdomen goes up when inhaling and goes down when exhaling. At the same time, they also imagine that the air would flow like a stream from their abdomen through their legs and out their feet while exhaling. They observed that as long as they held their abdomen tight the discomfort including the congestive PMS symptoms remained. Yet, the moment they practice abdominal breathing, the congestion and discomfort is decreased. Most likely the expanding and constricting of the abdomen during the diaphragmatic breathing acts as a pump in the abdomen to increase the lymph and venous blood return and improve circulation.
Breathing is the body-mind bridge and offers hope for numerous disorders. Slower diaphragmatic breathing with the corresponding abdomen movement at about six breaths per minute may reduce autonomic dysregulation. It has profound self-healing effects and may increase calmness and relaxation. At the same time, it may reduce heart palpitations, hypertension, asthma, anxiety, and many other symptoms.
DeVault, K.R. & Castell, D.O. (2005). Updated guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of gastroesophageal reflux disease. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 100, 190-200.
Domar, A.D., Seibel, M.M., & Benson, H. (1990). The Mind/Body Program for Infertility: a new behavioral treatment approach for women with infertility. Fertility and sterility, 53(2), 246-249.
Gibney, H.K. & Peper, E. (2003). Taking control: Strategies to reduce hot flashes and premenstrual mood swings. Biofeedback, 31(3), 20-24.
Johnson, L.F. & DeMeester, T.R. (1981). Evaluation of elevation of the head of the bed, bethanechol, and antacid foam tablets on gastroesophageal reflux. Digestive Diseases Sciences, 26, 673-680. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7261830
Melissa. (2015). Why women fainted so much in the 19th century. May 20, 2015. Donloaded October 2, 1018. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/05/women-fainted-much-19th-century/
Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., & Mitose, J. (2016). Abdominal SEMG Feedback for Diaphragmatic Breathing: A Methodological Note. Biofeedback. 44(1), 42-49.
Peper, E., Mason, L., Huey, C. (2017). Healing irritable bowel syndrome with diaphragmatic breathing. Biofeedback. (45-4)
Most of us are aware that thoughts affect our body; however, we often overlook the impact of this effect. To demonstrate the power of visualization, participants are guided through a lemon imagery. In a study with 131 college students, 94% report an increase in salivation which is a parasympathetic nervous system response. The participants now know–not believe–that visualization affects physiology. Once salivation has been experienced, participants may apply other visualization techniques to change their physiology and behavior. Through visualization we communicate with our autonomic nervous system which can provide a matrix for self-healing and enhanced performance. In addition, the guided practice shows that almost everyone holds their breath when asked to tighten their muscles and some people have difficulty relaxing after tightening. Once aware, the person can and continue to breathe and relax the muscles. Enjoy the guided exercise, Mindbody connection: Lemon Imagery.
*I thank Paul Godina, Jung Lee and Lena Stampfli for participating in the videos.
Adapted from Peper, E., Gibney, K.H. & Holt. C. (2002). Make Health Happen: Training Yourself to Create Wellness. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt
“I couldn’t belief it. I thought that I was strong and yet, I could not resist the downward pressure when I recalled a hopeless and helpless memory. Yet a minute later, I could easily resist the downward pressure on my arm when I thought of a positive and empower memory. I now understand how thoughts affect me.”
Thoughts/emotions affect body and body affects thoughts and emotions is the basis of the psychophysiological principle formulated by the biofeedback pioneers Elmer and Alice Green. The language we use, the thoughts we contemplate, the worries and ruminations that preoccupy us may impact our health.
Changing thoughts is the basis of cognitive behavior therapy and practitioners often teach clients to become aware of their negative thoughts and transform the internal language from hopeless, helpless, or powerless to empowered and positive. Think and visualize what you want and not what you do not want. For example, state, “I have studied and I will perform as best as I can” or “I choose to be a non-smoker instead of stating, “I hope I do not fail the exam” or “I want to stop smoking.” The more you imagine what you what in graphic detail, the more likely will it occur.
Most people rationally accept that thoughts may affect their body; however, it is abstract and not a felt experience. Also, some people have less awareness of the mind-body connection unless it causes discomfort. Our attention tends to be captured by visual and auditory stimuli that constantly bombard us so that we are d less aware of the subtle somatic changes.
This guided practice explores what happens when you recall helpless, hopeless, powerless or defeated memories as compared to recalling empowering positive memories. It allows a person to experience–instead of believing—how thoughts impact the body. 98% of participants felt significantly weaker after recalling the helpless, hopeless, powerless or defeated memories. Once the participants have experienced the effect, they realize how thoughts effect their body.
The loss of strength is metaphor of what may happen to our immune system and health. Do you want to be stronger or weaker? The challenge in transforming thoughts is that they occur automatically and we often doubt that we can change them. The key is to become aware of the onset of the thought and transform the thought. Thoughts are habit patterns and the more you practice a habit, the more it becomes automatic. Enjoy the experiential exercise, Mind-body/Bodymind-connection: Muscle testing.
*I thank Paul Godina, Jung Lee and Lena Stampfli for participating in the videos.
The practice was adapted from, Gorter, R. & Peper, E. (2011). Fighting Cancer-A Non Toxic Approach to Treatment. Berkeley: North Atlantic.
“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.