Simple Behavioral Changes and Physiological Functioning

Even the simplest of behavioral changes such as varying our posture serve to alter cognition, emotion, and physiological functioning. For example, when we stand tall, we feel better than if we slump. When we intentionally practice maintaining good posture—this can serve as a mindfulness practice.

Simply contorting the face causes systemic physiological changes.

One reason we feel better standing tall is that proprioceptors throughout the body effect healthy neurochemical changes, many of which are related to the triggering of state-dependent healthy memories from times when we automatically held that posture in the past. Have you ever wondered, for example, why a certain memory popped into your head when you weren’t doing anything related to the memory? Sometimes this can happen simply because you’re holding your head in a particular position.

Another reason standing tall helps is because others are affected. When we practice standing tall and breathing consciously, we send a positive message to people around us, who are then more likely to respond to us in a healthy way. This in turn serves as a feedback mechanism to create further positive changes as well as to reinforce our new behavior.  

Take a Cue from the Acting Profession.

UCLA research psychologist Dr. Ann Futterman performed studies of actors, testing them as they expressed varied mood states. Her results provided further evidence that there is a reversible reaction involving cognition and behavior.

When the actors behaved as if they were happy and energized while they actually felt sad and lethargic, the resulting cognitive dissonance  catalyzed healthy physiological changes. The product of those changes was an up-regulation of affect. Behaving as if sad and lethargic when they actually felt happy and energized produced a down-regulation of affect. The researchers also discovered a positive correlation between down-regulation of affect and immune function. Acting as if one was sad caused sad affect and depressed immune function, and acting as if one was happy caused up-regulation of both affect and immune function. The importance of using trained actors as experimental subjects was that unlike most of us, when the actors pretended to feel a certain way, there were physiological indicators that they were actually able to change their authentic emotion, thereby providing more conclusive evidence of the ability of emotional changes to effect physiological changes.

The psychophysiology of the actors can be understood better when we realize that virtually all thoughts, sensations, and emotions lead to a synthesis of neuropeptides. Every time there is an event in the mind, there is a corresponding event in these protein-like molecules that mediate and modulate neurons.

The Labile Personality

People living with schizophrenia and people living with dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality disorder) have, by some accounts, as much as one-third the amount of cancer of the general population. It has been hypothesized that this could be because the labile (constantly changing) personality is physiologically healthier than a steady, constant, durable personality that happens to be chronically anxious or chronically depressed. Conceivably, the labile personality is inhospitable to the laying down of unhealthy neural pathways because of the constant changes in the brain. These psychotic populations have actually been found to have different physical diseases when they embody different personalities.

Our subjective opinion of our degree of health has physiological ramifications

In studies at multiple academic medical centers, patients were asked to grade their level of health. The sickest patients who thought of themselves as healthy turned out, in the long-term, to have better health outcomes than patients who were not nearly as sick, but who rated their health as poor.