Walking the talk

Psychology professor shows that gait has an effect on mood

Nikolaus Troje studies perception.
Nikolaus Troje studies perception.
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A recent study from Queen’s professor Nikolaus Troje aims to contribute to the treatment of depression by manipulating mood through movement.

Originally from Germany, Troje set up the BioMotionLab at Ruhr University in 1999, which, according to its website, looks at “questions involving the processing of sensory information, perception, cognition and communication”.

He came to Queen’s as a Canada Research Chair in Vision and Behavioural Sciences in 2003.

Troje’s work focuses on perception and the idea that what people perceive is the end result of a complex machinery, which runs from sensory experience — eyes, ears and touch — to nerve cells and then to the brain, where a direct perception of the sensory experience is formed.

He said facial expression is one means through which people derive information from others.

“We look at people’s faces and we are very aware that we recognize people that way and attribute things like gender and age to people that we do not know,” Troje said.

People are much less aware of how they derive information from movement, he added.

“There’s lots of information in the way people move, and our visual system can retrieve it.”

He noted three features — chiefly posture- and motion-based — that signal whether people are depressed or happy.

Someone who’s depressed will keep their shoulders and head “a little more forward”. The range of arm swing is reduced and there’s less vertical motion.

“If you’re more happy, you bounce much more and there’s much more vertical motion with every step, as compared to if you’re less happy,” Troje said.

Rather than examining how mood affects walking style, however, the study focused on the effect walking style has on someone’s mood.

“It’s not surprising that the way you feel affects the way you walk,” Troje said. “But we were asking whether the way you walk and the way you keep your body can affect the way you feel.”

Study participants, mainly Queen’s students, were instructed to walk on a treadmill. Their walking style was manipulated by researchers so that they’d move more as if they were happy or sad.

Before this, the researchers had showed the subjects a list of 40 words, including both positive and negative words, and asked the subjects to say whether the words described them well.

“But the real reason to present those words was to later, after the experiment, ask them to recall as many as they could,” Troje said.

The study found subjects who were told to walk more sadly remembered more sad words than those induced to walk more happily.

Troje said this finding links back to combating depression.

Depression is “characterized by a vicious cycle, a self-perpetuating mechanism that locks depression in place,” he said, in that depression tends to lead to remembering more negative events, recalling negative events leads to more depression and so on.

“Breaking that cycle, or if there [are] ways to break that cycle, we might have an interesting tool to intervene and break open that vicious cycle that locks depression in place,” Troje said.

“What we need to do now, the next step, is to take the experiment into the clinic and work with people who are really depressed, and see whether we can make a difference.”

Troje compared research funding in Canada to what he received while in Germany, saying that Canada, in comparison to the United States and European countries, emphasizes applied research, which will impact the Canadian economy or wellbeing, more than “basic research.”

“It means that we can’t follow really deep questions anymore, we can’t do the big questions. We have to think much more short-term,” Troje said.

He later added via email that when he first started doing research on perception of biological motion, he was driven by the general question of how brains turn raw sensory data into meaning.

“I had [no] intention to contribute to something that translates into daily life, economic growth, or human well-being,” he said.

“But the insights and the tools that I developed back then now turn out to be used by many other researchers and often in much more applied contexts. The current study that aims to eventually contribute to the treatment of depression is just one example.”

— With files from Chloe Sobel

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