Physical Intelligence and Metaphorical Thinking

Jul 24 2014

Sensation: The new science of physical intelligence by Thalma Lobel connects a number of themes from the Inspector Insight and Doctor Disruption blogs. The focus of the book is on the practical implications of the theory of embodied cognition connecting this idea to ideas of metaphorical thinking and symbolism in the environment, themes explored in Brand esSense and in many previous articles (see Thinking about analogy, Metaphors in thinking, Metaphors in semiotics, Sensory metaphors and Creativity and metaphor). Sensation is the clearest explanation I have read of embodied thinking, linking the results of years of stand-alone research studies to an underlying theory of the relationship between human thinking, sensory perception and the interactions between humans and the environment.

Many books and articles have argued for the importance of metaphor in our thinking (my favourite being Surfaces and Essences by Hofstadter & Sandel), focusing on the role of metaphor in language, and the relationship between the most common metaphors and the physical experience of being in the world. Many other books and articles have looked at the (often strange) impact of the physical environment on our behaviour and decision-making (such as Drunk Tank Pink by Adam Alter and many of Dan Ariely’s behavioural economics experiments). What is great about Thalma Lobel’s book is that she brings these ideas together, to demonstrate how many strange environmental influences are simply the outcomes of the way in which the human mind relates language, concepts and ideas back to physical experience.

At it’s heart Sensation argues that the mind is always linking even the most abstract concepts back to the real world, seeking common patterns to help it make sense. The brain is a hugely sophisticated pattern recognition machine, matching current events back to previous experience. And previous experiences are captured and stored through the senses (although the brain is genetically pre-disposed to favour some kinds of information and arrange mental functions in ways that have been proved to work). An article I read today, showed evidence that although information from different senses is processed in different areas of the brain, at an overall level the brain is not interested in specific sensory data, only in the broader patterns that the information represents (i.e., what is the meaning?).

Sensation shows many different ways in which the brain links physical patterns with mental concepts, ultimately changing the way we behave when even subtle changes are made to the environment.

Temperature has a big effect on our emotional reaction to others. A warm drink can ‘prime’ us to feel more warmly about an interview candidate, while a cold drink has the opposite effect (think of phrases such as “a warm handshake” and “in cold blood”). Our perception of temperature (whether we feel hotter or colder) has been shown to be influenced by out feelings of social inclusion (do we feel excluded or included?). A warm stimulus can also make us be more generous to others, while a cold stimulus has the opposite effect.

Texture also influences how we think about the world – rough and smooth are not only mental concepts for understanding the texture of a surface but also emotional fluency and even gender associations (as do hard and soft). Smoother surfaces make us believe that people are more gentle while rougher surfaces make us think they are more argumentative and difficult.

Weight is very important in judging the quality and solidity of objects but also of more abstract concepts (are you taking this lightly or are you weighing your options?). Job candidates can be treated more seriously because their CV is presented on a heavier clipboard, and we tend to believe that ‘important’ books should weigh more not less. It’s also been shown that backpackers judge a hill to be steeper and distance longer when their backpack is heavier. Perhaps they should have ‘lightened up’?

Red is well known to effect behaviour (see here) in many ways, from its association with superior sporting performance to its dampening effect on students taking IQ tests. Women in red (or with a red background) are rated as more attractive, while men associated with red are considered to have higher status. Waitresses wearing red are often tipped more too!

Distance as a physical concept also translates into the mental concept of space, and there is much work (by Edward Hall and others) to show that physical space is an important concept to humans and animals, and with cultural differences. For example, the feeling of space and crowding has a profound influence on purchase patterns in retail (just consider that Apple stores with their open spaces have higher spend per area than any other brand). Architects know that space influences the atmosphere and therefore behaviour of people (and read more about the semiotics of office design here).

Size and height are strongly associated with power and status – think of the expressions “she thinks very highly of herself”, “climbing the corporate ladder” and “he’s working under her”. These expression point to the fact that we ‘think’ visually, representing the concept of power with images in our minds (after all, that is ¬†how we experience the world). Timed association tests (like the implicit association test and Stroop test) have shown that words associated with power and status are more quickly identified when they appear higher on a computer screen (and concepts of low status when they appear lower). Studies have even shown that we even believe ourselves to be taller (or shorter) when we have been primed to feel more (or less) powerful.

Cleanliness is closely associated with moral behaviour – just think of expressions such as “clean conscience”, “dirty work” and “wash away your sins”. When asked to recall a bad deed, we are far more likely to think of words related to cleaning than when asked to recall a good deed, and studies have also shown that we are more likely to want to ‘clean’ ourselves (choose an antiseptic wipe) when asked to recall the bad deed. More alarmingly, after cleaning our bodies (with a shower) we are more likely to cheat on a test than if we have just come out of a gym workout (other studies have also shown that physical cleansing reduces feelings of guilt).

The senses are our one and only connection to the world, and even the most basic of human senses (taste) is intimately linked with our emotions and social behaviour. Why else do we call our nearest and dearest “sweetheart” and why do we say “that was a sweet thing to do”? And why do we call an experience “bitter” or “sour”? Sweetness has been shown to be associated with positive feelings and even with a more positive attitude (we are more likely to volunteer for charitable work after tasting something sweet). Other studies have shown a very strong impact of scent on buying behaviour in retail environments (as long as the scent is positively perceived, and especially if relevant to the purchase).

Sensation is a great read for anyone interested in the reality of human behaviour and the impact of the physical environment on what people do. It’s also a great read if you are interested in metaphor and language, and would like to understand the evidence for the relationship between language and behaviour. Although the study of metaphors and analogy in language is often conveyed in very abstract terms, this book brings such studies to life, showing the real implications of metaphorical thinking and the fundamental link between the senses and human thinking. Ultimately, our thinking depends on what we experience, and Sensation is a great way to explore how you can use experience to shape behaviour.

REFERENCES
Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence by Thalma Lobel

Brand esSense: Using sense symbol and story to design brand identity by Neil Gains

Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the fuel and fire of thinking by Hofstadter & Sander

Louder Than Words by Benjamin Bergen

Drunk Tank Pink by Adam Alter

Metaphors We Live By by Lakoff & Johnson

The Way We Think by Fauconnier & Turner

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