simone_schnall's picture
Director, Cambridge Embodied Cognition and Emotion Laboratory; Reader in Experimental Social Psychology and Fellow of Jesus College, University of Cambridge

Embodied Metaphors Unify Perception, Cognition and Action

Philosophers and psychologists grappled with a fundamental question for quite some time: How does the brain derive meaning? If thoughts consist of the manipulation of abstract symbols, just like computers are processing 0s and 1s, then how are such abstract symbols translated into meaningful cognitive representations? This so-called "symbol grounding problem" has now been largely overcome because many findings from cognitive science suggest that the brain does not really translate incoming information into abstract symbols in the first place. Instead, sensory and perceptual inputs from every-day experience are taken in their modality-specific form, and they provide the building blocks of thoughts.

British empiricists such as Locke and Berkeley long ago recognized that cognition is inherently perceptual. But following the cognitive revolution in the 1950ies psychology treated the computer as the most appropriate model to study the mind. Now we know that a brain does not work like a computer. Its job is not to store or process information; instead, its job is to drive and control the actions of the brain's large appendage, the body. A new revolution is taking shape, considered by some to bring an end to cognitivism, and giving way to a transformed kind of cognitive science, namely an embodied cognitive science.

The basic claim is thatthe mind thinks in embodied metaphors. Early proponents of this idea were linguists such as George Lakoff, and in recent years social psychologists have been conducting the relevant experiments, providing compelling evidence. But it does not stop here; there is also a reverse pathway: Because thinking is for doing, many bodily processes feed back into the mind to drive action.

Consider the following recent findings that relate to the very basic spatial concept of verticality. Because moving around in space is a common physical experience, concepts such as "up" or "down" are immediately meaningful relative to one's own body. The concrete experience of verticality serves as a perfect scaffold for comprehending abstract concepts, such as morality: Virtue is up, whereas depravity is down: Good people are "high minded" and "upstanding" citizens, whereas bad people are "underhanded" and the "low life" of society. Recent research by Brian Meier, Martin Sellbom and Dustin Wygant illustrated that research participants are faster to categorize moral words when they are presented in an up location, and immoral words when they are presented in a down location. Thus, people intuitively relate the moral domain to verticality; however, Meier and colleagues also found that peoplewho do not recognize moral norms, namely psychopaths, fail to do so, and do not show this effect.

People not only think of all things good and moral as up, but they also think of God as up, and the Devil as down. Further, those in power are conceptualized as being high up relative to those down below over whom they hover and exert control, as shown by Thomas Schubert.All the empirical evidence suggests that there is indeed a conceptual dimension that leads up, both literally and metaphorically. This vertical dimension that pulls the mind up to considering what higher power there might be is deeply rooted in the very basic physical experience of verticality.

However, verticality not only influences people's representation of what is good, moral and divine, but movement through space along the vertical dimension can even change their moral actions. Larry Sanna, Edward Chang, Paul Miceli and Kristjen Lundberg recently demonstrated that manipulating people's location along the vertical dimension can actually turn them into more "high minded" and "upstanding" citizens. They found that people in a shopping mall who had just moved up an escalator were more likely to contribute to a charity donation box than people who had moved down on the escalator. Similarly, research participants who had watched a film depicting a view from high above, namely flying over clouds seen from an airplane window subsequently showed more cooperative behaviour than participants who had watched a more ordinary, and less "elevating" view from a car window. Thus, being physically elevated induced people to act on "higher" moral values.

The growing recognition that embodied metaphors provide one common language of the mind has lead to fundamentally different ways of studying how people think. For example, under the assumption that the mind functions like a computer psychologists hoped to figure out how people think by observing how they play chess, or memorize lists of random words. From an embodied perspective it is evident that such scientific attempts were hopelessly doomed to fail. Instead, it is increasingly clear that cognitive operations of any creature, including humans, have to solve certain adaptive challenges of the physical environment. In the process, embodied metaphors are the building blocks of perception, cognition, and action. It doesn't get much more simple and elegant than that.