Darkness, Depth, Dirtiness: Metaphors and the Body

In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson drew attention to the significant and often unnoticed work metaphors perform in our everyday use of language.  Once you start paying attention you realize that metaphors (and figurative language in general) are not merely the ornaments of speech employed by poets and other creative types; they are an indispensable element of our most basic attempts to represent our experience of the world with words.  Lakoff and Johnson also suggested that many of our most basic metaphors (up is good/down is bad; heavy is serious, light is not) are grounded in our embodied experience of reality.  Did we not stand erect, for example, we’d have a very different set of metaphors.

It’s been thirty years since Metaphors We Live By was published, but it has been in the last few that studies have been confirming the link between embodied experience in the world and our metaphorical language.  Many of these studies were helpfully summarized in the January 2010 issue of the Observer, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science.  In a short article titled  “The Body of Knowledge:  Understanding Embodied Cognition,” Barbara Isanski and Catherine West describe a series of experimental studies that establish links between our bodily experience and our metaphorical language.  Here’s a sampling of some of those links:

  • Temperature and social relationships — think “cold shoulder”
  • Cleanness and moral purity — think Lady MacBeth or Pontius Pilate
  • Color and morality — think black is bad
  • Weight and judgment/seriousness — think “a heavy topic” or “deep issue”
  • Movement and progress/achievement — think “forward looking,” “taking a step back”

Most interesting perhaps are the elaborate set ups of the experiments that attempted to get at these connections and the article does nice job of succinctly describing each. For example:

In a recent study by Nils B. Jostmann (University of Amsterdam), Daniël Lakens (Utrecht University), and Thomas W. Schubert (Instituto Superior de Ciências do Trabalho e da Empresa, Lisbon), volunteers holding a heavy clipboard assigned more importance to opinions and greater value to foreign currencies than volunteers holding lighter-weight clipboards did. A lot of physical strength is required to move heavy objects around; these results suggest that in a similar way, important issues may require a lot of cognitive effort to be dealt with.

As always bear in mind the nature of “recent studies,” but it is not too surprising to learn that our embodied experience is at the root of our way of talking and thinking about the world.

4 thoughts on “Darkness, Depth, Dirtiness: Metaphors and the Body

  1. Mike, another aspect of this is the nature of sound, and what sound communicates. This can most pointedly be seen in opera, and most clearly felt in the type casting of the bass and tenor roles.

    Along the lines of “low is bad, high is good”, the bass is cast as either the villain, devil, old guy, or doctor in many baroque, classical, and romantic operatic librettos. The tenor (think “high is good”) is cast as the prince, the hero, the young man, etc.

    Isn’t it interesting that the arts have been reflecting some of these trends since the mid-sixteen hundreds?

    1. That is another fascinating angle on this body/metaphor connection! Thanks for that additional insight.

      Glad to know I can count on my musician friends to compensate for my complete lack of gifting in that area.

  2. The same idea of embodied metaphors also applies to the discipline of visual design. it has taken me almost 30 years to realize that abstract principles of directional placement on a 2 dimensional field are directly related to our common human perception as upright, laterally symmetrical beings. So, those utterly mystified gallery attendees standing dumbfounded in front of a Mark Rothko or an Agnes Martin painting are largely unaware their responses to the images hinge so strongly on those artists knowledge of and exploitation of those very basic embodied principles. These were most definitely not taught to me back in art school 45 years ago, and it is largely to my own questioning that i have come to a realization that this is indeed the case.

    The responder who introduced opera as a case for this made a wonderful insight which shows much of the products of our culture hinge upon appeals to this most basic elemental limitation of being a human being.

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