Abstract Thoughts Prompt Literal Physical Responses

By | February 5, 2010

The theory of relativity showed us that time and space are intertwined. To which our smarty-pants body might well reply: Tell me something I didn’t already know, Einstein.

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that when people were asked to engage in a bit of mental time travel, and to recall past events or imagine future ones, participants’ bodies subliminally acted out the metaphors embedded in how we commonly conceptualized the flow of time.

As they thought about years gone by, participants leaned slightly backward, while in fantasizing about the future, they listed to the fore. The deviations were not exactly Tower of Pisa leanings, amounting to some two or three millimeters’ shift one way or the other. Nevertheless, the directionality was clear and consistent.

“When we talk about time, we often use spatial metaphors like ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you’ or ‘I’m reflecting back on the past,’ ” said Lynden K. Miles, who conducted the study with his colleagues Louise K. Nind and C. Neil Macrae. “It was pleasing to us that we could take an abstract concept such as time and show that it was manifested in body movements.”

The new study, published in January in the journal Psychological Science, is part of the immensely popular field called embodied cognition, the idea that the brain is not the only part of us with a mind of its own.

“How we process information is related not just to our brains but to our entire body,” said Nils B. Jostmann of the University of Amsterdam. “We use every system available to us to come to a conclusion and make sense of what’s going on.”

Research in embodied cognition has revealed that the body takes language to heart and can be awfully literal-minded.

You say you’re looking forward to the future? Here, Ma, watch me pitch forward! ….

The body embodies abstractions the best way it knows how: physically. What is moral turpitude, an ethical lapse, but a soiling of one’s character? Time for the Lady Macbeth Handi Wipes. One study showed that participants who were asked to dwell on a personal moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth afterward than were those who had been instructed to recall a good deed they had done. …

Participants stood with either a light or heavy clipboard cradled in their arm, filling out surveys. In one, they were asked to estimate the value of six unfamiliar foreign currencies. In another, students indicated how important they thought it was that a university committee take their opinions into account when deciding on the size of foreign study grants. For a third experiment, participants were asked how satisfied they were with (a) the city of Amsterdam and (b) the mayor of Amsterdam. In every study, the results suggested, the clipboard weight had its roundabout say. Students holding the heavier clipboard judged the currencies to be more valuable than did those with the lightweight boards. Participants with weightier clipboards insisted that students be allowed to weigh in on the university’s financial affairs. Those holding the more formidable board even adopted a more rigorous mind-set, and proved more likely to consider the connection between the livability of Amsterdam and the effectiveness of its leader.  …

via Basics – Abstract Thoughts Prompt Literal Physical Responses – NYTimes.com.

Leave a Reply