October 2008
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Metaphor to Embodiment

I started thinking about metaphor in the context of effective public speaking – how to say things so that people understood them, had the intended emotional response to them and remembered them. Then I got to thinking about how important metaphor was to language in general – how words were coined or given new meanings. Now I am finding that I see metaphor in concepts themselves.


We only have a certain number of in-built concepts and we have to learn the rest from other people or create them ourselves. There are classic examples of this in the literature on metaphor, such as Lakoff’s papers. Goal directed movement is a sort of primitive and we use that to create the concept of a journey with a mapping of the goal to the end and the movement to travel on a path. We can then add other items like alternate paths, obstacles, and different kinds of journey: by foot, by horse, by boat, by train, by imagination. Then we can view our lives as journeys; we journey through our education, our careers, our marriages, or anything else we choose. This is just one growth from one primitive in-built concept and its huge exploration could fill a book.


Recently it turns out that social rejection and loneliness is actually accompanied by a feeling of cold, the source of many metaphors. Physical washing can make people feel less guilty. Here is part of an interview of Chen-Bo Zhong by Lehrer from the Scientific American website.

“LEHRER: You recently demonstrated that being socially excluded from a group can make people feel colder, so that they believe a room is colder and prefer warm drinks and snacks, such as hot coffee and soup. What made you interested in this line of research?

ZHONG: I came across this popular 1970s song on YouTube called Lonely This Christmas written by Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. It goes, “It’ll be lonely this Christmas, lonely and cold, it’ll be cold so cold, without you to hold.” It just occurred to me that maybe what the song describes is more than a metaphor but a real psychological connection between loneliness and coldness. Indeed, my collaborator Geoffrey Leonardelli … and I found that people not only use coldness-related terms to describe social rejection (for example, “cold shoulder”), but also experience rejection as physical coldness: feeling cold becomes an integral part of our experience of being socially isolated. This research is consistent with recent theories on embodied cognition as well as general research on the connection between mind and body.

LEHRER: What are some other examples of how seemingly abstract thoughts, such as feeling excluded, can have physical manifestations?

ZHONG: Another example would be the relation between morality and physical cleanliness. In my early work “Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing” in collaboration with Katie Liljenquist…, we discussed how metaphors such as “dirty hands” or “clean records” may have a psychological basis such that people make sense of morality through physical cleanliness.

When people’s moral self image is threatened, as when they think about their own unethical past behaviors, people literally experience the need to engage in physical cleansing, as if the moral stain is literally physical dirt. We tested this idea in multiple studies and showed that when reminded of their past moral transgressions, people were more likely to think about cleansing-related words such as “wash” and “soap”, expressed stronger preference for cleansing products (for instance, a soap bar), and were also more likely to accept an antiseptic wipe as a free gift (rather than a pencil with equal value).

Further, physical cleansing may actually be effective in mentally getting rid of moral sins. In another study, in which participants who recalled unethical behaviors were either given a chance to cleanse their hands or not, we found that washing hands not only assuaged moral emotions such as guilt and regret but also reduced participants’ willingness to engage in prosocial behaviors such as volunteering Thus physical washing can actually wash away sins. Perhaps this effect is why most world religions practice some form of washing rituals to purify souls. We should be cautious, however, knowing that if our sins are so easily “washed away” we might not be as motivated to engage in actual compensatory behaviors to make up for our mistakes.”


This (metaphor from sensory and motor primitives) is one aspect of the idea of embodied cognition. Embodiment is the very particular way that an organism’s body and capacities are the basis of it’s interaction with its environmental niche. Cognition is embodied to the extent that it is built on the structure of the body, its capabilities and its interaction with the environment. I assume the extent of embodiment of cognition is enormous.

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