The Body’s Thoughts

It has been understood for some time that metaphor provides a sensory anchor to abstract ideas.  But, more recently, cognitive psychologists have looked at how active the role of metaphor may be in thinking.  In a recent article on Boston.com, experiments are cited which explore the extent to which metaphor shapes thought.

The article cites studies where subjects were given a cup of hot or cold coffee to hold, without being told that it was part of the study and, a few minutes later, they were asked to characterize a person that was described to them.  The subjects were more likely to find that person to be caring, generous, or good-natured if they were holding a warm coffee than if they were holding an iced one.  In another study, participants were less likely to describe a social situation as having gone smoothly if they had handled some sandpaper covered puzzle pieces.  It all sounds a bit unreasonable, but that may just be because we underestimate the extent to which our thoughts rise out of our bodies.

The article also refers to two books by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson which have metaphor as the very root of thought (instead of what we might otherwise think, which is that the metaphor develops to clarify the thought).  Lakoff uses this idea to do a cognitive study of mathematics in his book Where Mathematics Comes From, where even the most sophisticated mathematical concepts are understood to be grounded in sensation.

It’s difficult to grapple with the notion that the body someow leads in the building of ideas or that we are never fully aware of the source of our thoughts.  But I have long thought it clear that the obscurity of mathematics’ source and its surprising breadth of understanding is a signal that we don’t completely understand how thoughts happen or what they may be accomplishing.  Results in mathematics are often unanticipated and it frequently happens that a concept finds application long after it was developed.  Giving the body its due may help dampen our inclination to be smug about what is known, or correct the complicated conflicts produced by certainties evidenced by social division and injustice.

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