Does Standing Up Produce Sharper Minds?

Office desks at which you stand are all the rage. Abundant evidence suggests that sitting down for long periods is bad for health, and that working standing up is thus better for you. But is it better for the job? A piece of research just published in Psychological Science by Yaniv Mama of Ariel University, in Israel, and his colleagues, suggests it might be.

Standing takes more effort than sitting does, and might therefore be expected to require more mental attention. The muscles involved have to be monitored and fine-tuned constantly by the brain. Psychological experiments suggest that attention is a finite resource. Standing might thus be expected to reduce the amount of it available to be given elsewhere. Acounter-hypothesis, though, is that standing creates mild stress – and experiments have also shown that, when people are under stress, their cognitive performance improves.

To distinguish between the two, Dr Mama put some volunteers through what is known as the Stroop test while they were standing or sitting. The Stroop test requires participants (in this case 50 university students) to state the printed colour of words that are themselves the names of colours. In some cases, the meaning of the word and the colour in which it is printed are the same. In others, they are different (e.g. the word “blue” printed in yellow ink). Decades of experience have shown that it takes a volunteer longer to state the colour of the ink when it is different from the meaning of the word than it does when they are identical, and that the gap can be increased still further by imposing other mental demands at the same time.

The upshot was that those who were standing when they took the test did significantly better at it than those who were sitting. The gap between the two scores of the standing volunteers was about 100 milliseconds. Between those sitting, it was about 120 milliseconds. The old army order of “stand to attention” thus seems literally, as well as figuratively, true. And office workers who choose to stand may be increasing their output as well as their well-being.

Reference

The Economist (2017) The Virtue of Uprightness: Atten-shun! The Economist. 07 October 2017, pp.76.

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