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Posts tagged metaphor

from "The trouble with bubbles," by Walter Murch and Lawrence Weschler, Los Angeles Times, 23 May 2010

What if, instead of that playful word bubble, we tried something a bit more accurately descriptive when growth at any cost became the goal. Say, "tumor": "the dot-com tumor," "the subprime tumor," "the derivatives tumor."

Would anyone seriously gainsay the highest possible vigilance over the proper functioning of their own body or doubt the need for strong regulation? Who, facing the prospect of a tumorous outbreak or living with a body demonstrably prone to such outbreaks, would entrust that body to a band of physicians blithely committed to laissez faire regarding these fatal bubbles of flesh?

Words matter. Metaphors frame thought. Pay them heed and tend them well.

from "Metaphors of the Mind: Why Loneliness Feels Cold and Sins Feel Dirty," by Jonah Lehrer, Scientific American, 25 September 2008 :: via Arts & Letters Daily :: first posted here 6 October 2008

LEHRER: What are some other examples of how seemingly abstract thoughts, such as feeling excluded, can have physical manifestations?

ZHONG: Another example would be the relation between morality and physical cleanliness. In my early work “Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing” in collaboration with Katie Liljenquist [a professor of organizational behavior at Brigham Young University], we discussed how metaphors such as “dirty hands” or “clean records” may have a psychological basis such that people make sense of morality through physical cleanliness.

When people’s moral self image is threatened, as when they think about their own unethical past behaviors, people literally experience the need to engage in physical cleansing, as if the moral stain is literally physical dirt. We tested this idea in multiple studies and showed that when reminded of their past moral transgressions, people were more likely to think about cleansing-related words such as “wash” and “soap”, expressed stronger preference for cleansing products (for instance, a soap bar), and were also more likely to accept an antiseptic wipe as a free gift (rather than a pencil with equal value).

Further, physical cleansing may actually be effective in mentally getting rid of moral sins. In another study, in which participants who recalled unethical behaviors were either given a chance to cleanse their hands or not, we found that washing hands not only assuaged moral emotions such as guilt and regret but also reduced participants’ willingness to engage in prosocial behaviors such as volunteering Thus physical washing can actually wash away sins. Perhaps this effect is why most world religions practice some form of washing rituals to purify souls. We should be cautious, however, knowing that if our sins are so easily “washed away” we might not be as motivated to engage in actual compensatory behaviors to make up for our mistakes.


We may disagree about our favorite artists and musicians, but it’s relatively easy to agree that a particular color is blue, or that a particular note is C-sharp. They’re described by wavelengths and frequencies along a clearly defined spectrum. That’s why the technologies of visual and auditory reproduction—photo, video, audio—work so well, relatively speaking.

With taste and smell—the so-called “chemical” senses, which are more complex (humans have about 400 different types of olfactory receptors) and less well understood than the others, we don’t have the luxury of those points of reference. That’s why we so often resort to loose analogies—“tastes like chicken”—and it’s also why reproducing tastes and smells is so difficult (grape soda doesn’t taste much like grapes, and nobody’s yet synthesized a bottle of 1945 Pétrus—an activity that would surely yield tremendous profit).

To challenge this barrier, we resort to analogy. Coffee tastes like nuts and chocolate; Sauvignon Blanc smells like grapefruit and cat pee. In a Sauternes, you might sense the brine of the first green olive you tasted in Italy; in a Pedro Ximénez sherry, the viscous maple syrup that your grandmother once drizzled on your pancakes.

But how carefully are we really choosing these adjectives and analogies? How often do they correspond to real chemical commonalities? Does that matter? Do the analogies more frequently serve a more poetic (or at least suggestive) purpose, forging new neural assemblies that connect relatively arbitrary taste and smell memories with each other—connections that, reinforced over time, turn into sensory reality?