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Sunday, February 21, 2010


Metaphor and Embodiment

Back in 1980, Mark Johnson and I, in Metaphors We Live By, demonstrated the existence of metaphorical thought and argued that metaphor and other aspects of mind were embodied. That book, and our 1987 books, my Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things and Mark's The Body in the Mind, helped to start a cottage industry in the study of embodied cognition.

The experimental results confirming our theories of embodied cognition have been coming in regularly, especially in the area of metaphorical thought. Natalie Angier, on February 1, www.nytimes.com/2010/02/02/science/02angier.html summarized some of the recent research very clearly.

  • A University of Amsterdam study showed that subjects thinking about the future leaned forward, while those thinking about the past leaned backward. This was predicted by the 1980 analysis of common European metaphors in which The Future is Ahead and The Past is Behind. This is not just a matter of language, but of thought, as Johnson and I showed.
  • At Yale, researchers found that subjects holding warm coffee in advance were more likely to evaluate an imaginary individual as warm and friendly than those holding cold coffee. This is predicted by the conceptual metaphor that Affection is Warmth, as in She gave me a warm greeting.
  • At Toronto, subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered being coldly snubbed.
  • Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. The well-known conceptual metaphorMorality is Purity predicts this behavior.
  • Students told that that a particular book was important judged it to be physically heavier than a book that they were told was unimportant. The conceptual metaphor is Important is Heavy.
  • In a parallel study with heavy versus light clipboards, those with the heavy clipboards were more likely like to judge currency to be more valuable and their opinions and their leaders more important.
  • And in doing arithmetic, students who used their hands to group numbers together had an easier time doing problems that required conceptual grouping. This is predicted by the analysis of mathematics in Where Mathematics Comes From by myself and Rafael Núñez where we show how mathematics from the simple to the advanced is based on embodied metaphorical cognition.

These results don't happen by magic. How can these results be explained?

Johnson's and my 1999 book, Philosophy in the Flesh, incorporated a neural theory of how embodied metaphorical thought works. What a child is regularly held affectionately by its parents, two distinct brain areas are activated simultaneously - one for temperature and one for affection. The synapses in both areas are strengthened and activation spreads along existing pathways until the shortest pathway between the areas is found and a circuit is formed. That circuit is the neural realization of what is called a "primary metaphor" that is embodied. Hundreds of such cases are formed unconsciously and automatically in childhood.

My Berkeley colleague, Srini Narayanan has shown what computational properties such circuits must have. In still unpublished work, he has shown that the relative timing of first spikes across a synapse predicts the directionality of elementary metaphors in all known cases. The very idea that such low-level phenomena at the level of neurons can result in the vast range our metaphorical thought is truly remarkable.

A crucial part of the story of embodied cognition comes from the neuroscience of the 1990's, which showed that the same brain regions used in actually moving and perceiving are used in imagining and remembering moving and perceiving. These results led Jerome Feldman to the crucial idea that meaningful thought expressible in language is mental simulation that uses the neural structures of the sensory-motor system to imagine what is embodied, usually below the level of consciousness.

These are experimental findings and theories based on considerable evidence. Taken together they explain the results of the experiments: Primary metaphorical thought arises when a neural circuit is formed linking two brain areas activated when experiences occur together repeatedly. Typically, one of the experiences is physical. In each experiment, each subject has the physical experience activating one of the brain regions and another experience (e.g., emotional or temporal) activating the other brain region for the given metaphor. The activation of both regions activates the metaphorical link. Thus, if the metaphor is Future Is Ahead and Past Is Behind, thinking about the future will activate the brain region for moving forward. If the metaphor is Affection is Warmth, holding warm coffee will activate the brain region for experiencing affection.

Angier did not seek out the theoretical studies that allow these explanations - and led to the performance of the experiments in the first place. That's too much to ask of a NY Times article. But it was nice to see some of the relevant experiments reported on in the NY Times, even if the explanations were left out.

These cases don't have any direct political implications in themselves, but they are indirectly important, as we shall see.

Words and Polls

The past week in the NY Times was also pretty good for me with respect to predictions.

There was a CBS/NYTimes poll that showed support for ending "Don't Ask Don't Tell" varied considerably depending on whether "homosexuals" or "gay men and lesbians" was used in the question. "Gay men and lesbians" gat a lot more support - in the ball park of 15% more, which is a HUGE difference on a poll.

Those of you who've read my Don't Think of an Elephant! and The Political Mind will be familiar with the basic results of frame semantics, developed by my Berkeley colleague Charles Fillmore and others within the cognitive and brain sciences.

    The first basic result: The meaning of every word is characterized in terms of a brain circuit called a "frame." Frames are often characterized in terms of the usual apparatus of mental life: metaphors, images, cultural narratives - and neural links to the emotion centers of the brain. The narrow, literal meaning of a word is only one aspect of its frame-semantic meaning.

    The second basic result is that this is mostly unconscious, like 98% of human thought.

On the inherent link between semantic and emotion, see my discussion in the Political Mind (Chapter 1) and the excellent books by Antonio Damasio (Descartes' Error) and Drew Westen (The Political Brain).

"Homosexual" is simply defined via a different frame than "gay men and lesbians." Professor Geoffrey Stone of the U. of Chicago, writing in the Huffington Post on February 13, describes the difference:

    "Homosexual" conjures up dark visions of filthy bodily acts that arouse deeply-rooted feelings of disgust and ancient fears of Sodom and Gomorrah and hell and damnation. "Gay men and lesbians," on the other hand, increasingly reminds us of people we know -- sons and daughters, cousins and classmates, nieces and nephews, coworkers and neighbors.

In short, there is a big difference in meaning - the framing difference between the thought of gay sex and the idea of the civil rights of people in your community. The consequences are political, as Professor Stone observes:

    When we hear religious leaders or politicians referring to "homosexuals in the military," "homosexual marriage," or "special rights for homosexuals," we must recognize what they are doing. Especially for the 15% of Americans who react so viscerally to the term "homosexual," they are trying to chew their way into the worst parts of our psyches in order to manipulate our beliefs and values and make us worse people than we really are.

I've been writing for years about how effective the right wing has been at framing, and how progressives often use right-wing language, even in polls. I have had numerous discussions with well-known pollsters who did not get the point and could not distinguish commonplace language from commonplace language that activated right-wing frames.

The cognitive science matters here. The CBS/NYTimes poll results were to be expected given our current understanding of how words get their meaning by being neurally linked to frame-circuits.

Blinks, Worms, and Spankers

Nick Kristof, in his February 14 column, discusses three experiments distinguishing conservatives from liberals.

  • In one experiment, the strength of blink reflexes to unexpected noises was measured and correlated with degrees of reactions to external threats. Conservatives reacted considerably more strongly than liberals.
  • Another experiment was based on the fact that disgust reactions create glandular secretions that change skin conductance. Subjects were shown disgusting images (like some eating a handful of worms). Liberals reacted mildly, but conservative reactions went off the charts.
  • A third study showed a strong correlation between attitudes toward spanking and voting patterns: spanking states tend to go Republican. The experimenters correlated spanking preferences with what they called "cognitive styles." As Kristof reports it, "Spankers tend to see the world in stark, black-and-white terms, perceive the social order as vulnerable and under attack, tend to make strong distinctions between "us" and "them," and emphasize order and muscular responses to threats. Parents favoring timeouts feel more comfortable with ambiguities, sense less threat, embrace minority groups - and are less prone to disgust when they see a man eating worms."

All three results follow from a cognitive science study called Moral Politics, which I published in 1996 and was reprinted in 2002. There I observed that conservatives and liberals had opposite moral worldviews structured by metaphor around two profoundly different models of the ideal family, a strict father family for conservatives and a nurturant parent family for liberals. In the ideal strict father family, the world is seen as a dangerous place and the father functions as protector from "others" and the parent who teaches children absolute right from wrong by punishing them physically (painful spanking or worse) when they do wrong. The father is the ultimate authority, children are to obey, and immoral practices are seen as disgusting.

Ideal liberal families are based on nurturance, which breaks down into empathy, responsibility - for both oneself and others, and excellence: doing as well as one can to make oneself better and one's family and community better. Parents are to practice these things and children are to learn them by example.

Because our first experience with being governed in is our families, we all learn a basic metaphor: A Governing Institution Is A Family, where the governing institution can be a church, a school, a team, or a nation. The Nation-as-Family version gives us the idea of founding fathers, Mother India and Mother Russia, the Fatherland, homeland security, etc.

Apply these monolithically to our politics and you get extreme conservative and progressive moral systems, defining what is right and wrong to each side.

There is no moral system of the moderate or the middle. Because of a neural phenomenon called "mutual inhibition," two opposing moral systems can live in brain circuits that inhibit each other and are active in different contexts. For a nonpolitical example, consider Saturday night and Sunday morning moral systems, which coexist in the brains of many Americans. The same is true of "moderates," who are conservative on some issues and progressive on others, though there may be variations from person to person.

Kristof doesn't mention Moral Politics, though he got a copy at a Democratic Senate retreat in 2003, at which we both spoke. If Moral Politics is still on his bookshelf, I suggest he take a look. I also recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the difference between conservative and progressive moral systems.


Excerpt from:

A Good Week For Science — and Insight into Politics

by George Lakoff

Published on Sunday, February 21, 2010 by CommonDreams.org