For decades, researchers’ concept of our brain was that it worked like a computer programme and was independent of our body. George Lakoff from the University of California at Berkeley challenges this notion by studying how our body influences our thinking. This seems to be because our brain uses metaphors when processing information.
Metaphors in this sense can be found in all kinds of verbal phrases. We look forward to something that will happen in the future. Something lies heavy on our heart. We warm up to people. We have something under control.
This implies that our thinking is influenced by certain sensations. For example, Lynden Miles, Louise Nind and Neil Macrae from the University of Aberdeen conducted a study on the metaphor that the future is ahead of us, whereas the past is behind us. When thinking about the future, their study participants tended to lean forwards, and when thinking about the past, they rather leaned backwards. Furthermore, in a series of studies, Joshua M. Ackerman from Sloan School of Management, Christopher C. Nocera from Harvard, and John A. Bargh from Yale found tactile sensations to influence social judgments and decisions. For example, one idea was that weight is identified with importance. Thus, when participants reviewed a fictive job applicant’s CV on a heavy vs. light clipboard, those with the heavy clipboard rated the candidate better. The original article was published in the journal Science.
The process of our body influencing our thinking is called embodied thinking. There is a more extensive overview by Sam McNerney on the Scientific American Blog.
The findings reported have a lot of practical implications. For example, sales people make use of them. Packaging influences conceptions about products: water in firm bottles seems to taste better than water in flimsy bottles. Or simply being able to touch something seems to influence our confidence in the product.
Embodied thinking is just one more aspect of our irrationality. Others are for example the use of heuristics (i.e. mental shortcuts), as described in “What intelligence tests miss” and “Why smart people do stupid things”. Furthermore, there are a number of biases we are subject to (see post “Money, money, money...”). We just don’t seem to think as rationally as we think!