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.