It’s no surprise that our mood is often reflected in how we walk.
Happy? Then we’re bouncing along, head up. Sad? Then we walk much slower with slumped shoulders.
New research shows that the opposite is true as well. Imitating a happy or sad walk actually can affect your mood.
In a new study, people 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 encouraged to walk in a happier style.
“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,” said Nikolaus Troje, Ph.D., of Queen’s University in Canada, a co-author on the paper and a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR).
He and his colleagues 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 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. The subjects didn’t know what the gauge was measuring, the researchers noted. The scientists 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 said.
Afterward, the subjects were asked 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 researchers reported.
The difference in recall suggests that the depressed walking style actually created a more depressed mood, they said.
“The study builds on our understanding of how mood can affect memory, according to Troje. Clinically depressed patients are known to remember negative events, particularly those about themselves, much more than positive life events,” he said. “And remembering the bad makes them feel even worse,” he added.
“If you can break that self-perpetuating cycle, you might have a strong therapeutic tool to work with depressive patients,” he said.
The study also contributes to the questions asked in the Neural Computation & Adaptive Perception program (part of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research), which aims to unlock the mystery of how our brains convert sensory stimuli into information. It also seeks to recreate human-style learning in computers, according to CIFAR officials.
“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 said.
Those sources include facial expression, posture and body movement, he explained. 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, he concluded.
The study was published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.