I’m fascinated by the mind/body connection. This may be, in part, because I’m an architect. I believe that shaping spaces, which our bodies inhabit, can shape the minds inhabiting them, and vice versa. So I often find Drake Bennett’s writing about cognitive and behavioral science in the Ideas Section of the Globe intriguing.
This week Bennett wrote about thinking literally. Bennett reports that cognitive scientists are studying how commonly understood metaphors are the “keys to the structure of thought”. When we describe someone as warm, a situation as heavy, a goal as lofty, or a problem as hard, we are using what scientists call “primary metaphors”. These they believe are more than communication tools but “markers of the roots of thought itself”. Scientists are taking metaphors literally. According to Bennett, "without our body's instinctive sense for temperature -- or position, texture, size, shape, or weight -- abstract concepts like kindness and power, difficulty and purpose, and intimacy and importance would simply not make any sense to us".
To study their theory, scientists are conducting experiments “altering one side of the metaphorical equation to show how it changes the other”. Give folks warm cups of coffee; then ask them to assess a person described to them, and they find that person to be warm. Give some other folks iced coffee; ask them to assess a person described to them, and they find that person to be cold. O.K., it's a little more complicated than that, but, yikes. Are we really that literal and that suggestible? Looks like it. Bennett writes that “metaphors reveal the extent to which we think with our bodies”.
This would suggest that subtle changes in our environments: how soft, hard, dark, light, smooth, or rough they are would influence how soft, hard, dark, light, smooth, or rough we feel. It’s always fun when common sense prevails.