The astonishingly deep effect of primary metaphors in our lives By Jody Radzik | Institute For The Future

Posted on January 21, 2010

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In 1980, cognitive linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson described the notion of the embodied metaphor in their landmark book, Metaphors We Live By, mapping out the brain’s amazing exaptation of its motor functions into the fundamental units of human cognition. In 1999, they wrote another landmark book, Philosophy In The Flesh, in which they further describe the “embodied mind,” the veritable (and largely cross-cultural) syntax and grammar of human reason, and use the notion to incisively critique a good cross-section of Western philosophy. Now, in 2009, these ideas are beginning to surface in more mainstream media, including a recent article written by Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe.

Metaphors aren’t just how we talk and write, they’re how we think. At some level, we actually do seem to understand temperament as a form of temperature, and we expect people’s personalities to behave accordingly. What’s more, 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. Metaphors like this “don’t invite us to see the world in new and different ways,” says Daniel Casasanto, a cognitive scientist and researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. “They enable us to understand the world at all.”

An embodied metaphor, or primary metaphor, is a mental reflection of an action or condition of the physical body. For instance, you “engage” “in” a “heated” conversation with your coworker, until you “cut” him “off,” or “short.” In “essence”, there is no “way” to “avoid” “using” an embodied metaphor “in” “communicating” a notion. All human cognition “rests” “on” them like an ocean “on” its seafloor. (That was an example of a descriptive metaphor.)  Now, these ideas are beginning to bear fruit in experimental psychology, and the implications of what is being discovered have the potential to reach into almost every aspect of human social life. To whit, very simple physical manipulations can have profound effects on our subsequent cognition.

In a paper in the current issue of Psychological Science, researchers in the Netherlands and Portugal describe a series of studies in which subjects were given clipboards on which to fill out questionnaires–in one study subjects were asked to estimate the value of several foreign currencies, in another they were asked to rate the city of Amsterdam and its mayor. The clipboards, however, were two different weights, and the subjects who took the questionnaire on the heavier clipboards tended to ascribe more metaphorical weight to the questions they were asked–they not only judged the foreign currencies to be more valuable, they gave more careful, considered answers to the questions they were asked.

This suggests a whole new approach to understanding human behavior, and by direct extension, all of human culture and society. Perhaps more nefariously, it suggests a set of tools to manipulate behavior (and get people in the mood to buy.) But ultimately, the idea of the primary metaphor will help us to reshape elements of our lives in a way that will enhance our day-to-day experience.

A few psychologists have begun to ponder applications. Ackerman, for example, is looking at the impact of perceptions of hardness on our sense of difficulty. The study is ongoing, but he says he is finding that something as simple as sitting on a hard chair makes people think of a task as harder. If those results hold up, he suggests, it might make sense for future treaty negotiators to take a closer look at everything from the desks to the upholstery of the places where they meet.

IFTF has long recognized the value and importance of the neurocognitive sciences as a reservoir of new ideas and thinking, allowing us to constantly develop and expand the inventory of tools we provide to organizations looking to increase their flexibility in the face of the VUCA world. The emergence of embodied mind theory represents another rich vein from which we may unearth more incisive, elucidating and productive tools and lenses to help our clients enhance both their organizations and the world at large.

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