You can tell [my mood] by the way I walk
Ever see a guy walking down the street and know he’s depressed? Or how about someone happy, with a little bounce in their step? The way we walk says a lot and by some estimates roughly 90% of what we are telling people isn’t coming out our mouth, it’s all body language. Our walk says a lot about the kind of mood we are in, but in the question of what came first our mood or our walk, researchers have now shown that it works both ways.
Subjects who were prompted to walk in a more depressed style, with less arm movement and their shoulders rolled forward, experienced worse moods than those who were induced to walk in a happier style at least according to the study.
This building on previous research by the same group, which has shown that depressed people move very differently than happy people.
“It is not surprising that our mood, the way we feel, affects how we walk, but we want to see whether the way we move also affects how we feel,” Nikolaus Troje, co-author says.
The researchers showed subjects a list of positive and negative words, such as “pretty,” “afraid” and “anxious” and then asked them to walk on a treadmill while they measured their gait (or the pattern of movement when walking) and posture. A screen showed the subjects a gauge that moved left or right depending on whether their walking style was more depressed or happier. But the subjects didn’t know what the gauge was measuring. Researchers told some subjects to try and move the gauge left, while others were told to move it right.
“They would learn very quickly to walk the way we wanted them to walk,” Troje says.
Afterward, the subjects had to write down as many words as they could remember from the earlier list of positive and negative words. Those who had been walking in a depressed style remembered many more negative words. The difference in recall suggests that the depressed walking style actually created a more depressed mood.
The study builds on our understanding of how mood can affect memory. Clinically depressed patients are known to remember negative events, particularly those about themselves, much more than positive life events, Troje says. And remembering the bad makes them feel even worse.
“If you can break that self-perpetuating cycle, you might have a strong therapeutic tool to work with depressive patients.”
The study also contributes to the questions asked in CIFAR‘s Neural Computation & Adaptive Perception program, which aims to unlock the mystery of how our brains convert sensory stimuli into information and to recreate human-style learning in computers.
“As social animals we spend so much time watching other people, and we are experts at retrieving information about other people from all sorts of different sources,” Troje says.
Those sources include facial expression, posture and body movement. Developing a better understanding of the biological algorithms in our brains that process stimuli — including information from our own movements — can help researchers develop better artificial intelligence, while learning more about ourselves in the process.
While it might seem comical — to link the way we walk to the way we feel — there has been plenty of research to show that there is more to our moods than just or thoughts or feelings. Although the research might not help the clinically depressed become “magically” happy again, when a person is depressed every little bit helps and if someone can feel just a little better by changing their walk, well then I am all for it.
Michalak J, Rohde K, & Troje NF (2014). How we walk affects what we remember: Gait modifications through biofeedback change negative affective memory bias. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 46C, 121-125 PMID: 25310681