Excerpt from “Abstract Thoughts? The Body Takes Them Literally,” by Natalie Angier, New York Times (February 1, 2010):
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!
You say a person is warm and likable, as opposed to cold and standoffish? In one recent study at Yale, researchers divided 41 college students into two groups and casually asked the members of Group A to hold a cup of hot coffee, those in Group B to hold iced coffee. The students were then ushered into a testing room and asked to evaluate the personality of an imaginary individual based on a packet of information.
Students who had recently been cradling the warm beverage were far likelier to judge the fictitious character as warm and friendly than were those who had held the iced coffee.