How we walk affects what we remember…?

Let’s say you tell two friends to bring a list of things from the market. The list contains things they like and things they dislike. When you see them walking back, one is walking with a tall posture, slightly bouncy and a good arm swing, while the other is walking slumped, swaying sideways with minimal arm swing. Which one is more likely to have remembered to buy the things they like and which one is more likely to have remembered to buy the things they don’t like?

A recent paper published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry (Michalak et al 2015) did an interesting experiment to answer a similar question. Of course, their question was slightly more elaborate, and based on the finding that people with depression tend to have a negative affective memory bias, meaning they recall negative information about themselves more often than healthy people do (Mathews & Macleod 2005). Previous work by the same group (Michalak et al 2009) demonstrated that people with depression have a walking style that is different  from that of healthy controls (but similar to the second friend in the first paragraph).

Based on the bidirectional interplay between bodily sensations (e.g. behaviour) and emotional processing (e.g. memory) known as embodiment (Niedenthal 2007), this group investigated if walking style influences affective memory bias. The authors used task to examine affective memory bias that looks at the difference between the number of positive and negative words the person recalls from a set list of words. Unbeknown to the participants, this task was embedded in a feedback-guided gait manipulation experiment.

Thirty-nine university students walked on a treadmill for over 20 minutes. Once their natural walking style was determined by the motion system, visual feedback about their walking style was displayed on a monitor in front of them. They were told their task was to move the vertical bar towards the right side of the scale by changing the way they walked. In order to achieve that, half of the participants had to adopt a walking a style that is characteristic of being happy, and the other half of being depressed (but the participants didn’t know this – they just had to work out how changing their walking style moved the bar). Their walking style was scored in a happy-sad spectrum based on the author’s previous work (Michalak et al 2009 – the link to a cool simulation of both walking styles is available in their 2015 article). At no point participants were aware of the objectives of the study, and what they were trying to achieve by following the feedback. After they had been walking for a little while, the researcher read aloud a list of 40 words of positive and negative valence. To make these words self-referent they asked the participants to think about each word and decide if it described them well. Later, while still walking the students were asked to recall as many words as they could.

At the end of the experiment, participants completed a questionnaire to assess their emotional state. This included questions from the positive and negative affective scale (PANAS) hidden among a number of irrelevant questions. Participants were also asked if they knew what was going on, and none of them had a clue! Interestingly, only a few participants could describe what they actually did to move the feedback bar. This suggests that changes in walking style were entirely related to the intent to achieve a task, and not by consciously trying to mimic a style that denotes a specific emotion.

The results of the study showed the happier the students ‘walked’, the fewer negative words they recalled. Another interesting point is that these findings were not influenced by the participants’ emotional state (as determined by the PANAS). This is pretty cool; because their findings suggest that changing a person’s walking style can modulate what the person remembers!

What is the importance of such findings?  It is early days to discuss the applicability of these findings to a clinical sample, but the authors provide us with some insight. For instance, in the future, if changes in walking style are found to influence cognitive processes in a sample of people with depression; walking as an exercise may be prescribed not only in terms of its intensity, but also in terms of its style. Meaning that, a happier walking pattern may be used to facilitate a positive change in what people with depression remember. Potentially, breaking a negative cognitive-affective cycle.

Meanwhile, if you are after a good (positive) memory, walk tall and swing those arms!

JP Caneiro

João Paulo Caneiro BiMJoão Paulo (JP) is a Specialist Physiotherapist (FACP) consulting at Bodylogic Physiotherapy in Western Australia. JP also lectures in the Clinical Masters in Physiotherapy at Curtin University, where he is currently doing a PhD supervised by Peter O’Sullivan, Anne Smith, Ottmar Lip and Lorimer Moseley. JP’s research is investigating the process of change in people with persistent low back pain and high pain-related fear undergoing a personalized Cognitive Functional Therapy intervention. In his spare time, JP travels to Brazil to visit his family as well as doing a bit of teaching.  He is also one of our Associate Editors on BiM.


Michalak J, Rohde K, Troje N F (2015). How we walk affects what we remember: Gait modifications through biofeedback change negative affective memory bias. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 46:121-125

Mathews A, Macleod C (2005). Cognitive vulnerability to emotional disorders. Annual Review Of Clinical Psychology, 1: 167-195.

Michalak J, Troje N F, Fischer J, Vollmar P, Heidenreich T, & Schulte D. (2009). Embodiment of sadness and depression – gait patterns associated with dysphoric mood. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71: 580-587.

Niedenthal, P. M. (2007). Embodying emotion. Science, 316: 1002-1005.

Editor:  Lorimer Moseley


  1. Great ideas and research. So as our neuromuscular patterns are a representation of internal dialogue that we are usually not aware of, they can change automatically when we reestablish the balance that we were originally wired for. By making someone aware of their ” not so ideal” posture may or may not be a way into this new circuitry. There could be other ways.

    EG Reply:

    Alison, did you think of any ways of implementing this research clinically?

    Milton Erickson always said to observe what the client brings into the room and really build up their problem in the *same* direction. This would mean encouraging [at first] a more negative, more pain-burdened gait, and doing this for as long as is needed. Acceptance is then implied. Acceptance relieves the burden of shame that is the core of chronic pain syndromes.

    Then when acceptance is established, [not just with words but energetically as a ‘felt sense’], maybe a gesture or reminder to try a different way of moving.

    Any thoughts on this?

  2. John Barbis says

    Great piece of work. there is a lot to think about here but I will do it with an upright gait. Just think how positive their memories would be if they skipped?

  3. I see posture as an outward display of internal affect. So extroverts have ‘good’ posture and introverts have ‘poor’ posture. Was this controlled for or addressed. Yes we can Superman pose ourselves to temporary external change but our personalities will out in the long term. Introverts will shrink away from the world. Extroverts walk tall, walk proud – just like Jim Reeves observed so many years ago.

  4. PLease, dumb it down for me! How do we know that the changes were influenced by the walk and not just by the thought of being happy? Could a static happy posture, similar to Amy Cuddy’s work, have produced similar results? Thanks!

    EG Reply:

    Cuddy’s big hit TED video came to mind for me also. ‘Fake it till you make it’, ‘Dress for success’, ‘Walk the walk and talk the talk’. It’s an old theme, but worth investigating properly.

    Implementing this would require a lot of care. If for example you say to someone “hey, walk like this, it will improve your mood”, the statement is LOADED with judgment. To many patients, it will sound like “You walk like a loser, try this instead”. Aside from that, many clients are repressed as hell and the idea of trying on new gaits would freak them right out. But for those willing, maybe something like the follwoing could work:

    1- “Walk up and down here a few times”
    2- “ok, now walk as if your pain is much worse. Play acting, if you will”
    3 – “Now walk as if it’s the worst you can imagine”
    4 – “Now walk as if you hardly feel the pain”

    Maybe a few cycles through these different gaits will allow them to “discover” that a confiedent gait does actually ease the pain. Then it’s *their* thing, not something imposed by a judgmental therapist.

    So I took a big chance
    At the high school dance
    With a lady who was ready to play,
    It wasn’t me she was foolin’
    Cause she knew what was she was doin’
    When she told me how to walk this way…