Ways the Body Thinks

Embodiment, part 3

One study gave participants a brief interaction with a person they’d never met before. Participants were then called upon to make a judgment about the trustworthiness of that person they’d just met. The participants who had been holding warm cups of coffee during the interaction were more likely to judge the person trustworthy than those who had been holding a cold beverage. Literal warmth gives us warm feelings.

In another study, participants were asked to remember a time when they were socially accepted, and then asked to estimate the temperature in the room where that happened. Other participants were asked to remember a time when they were socially snubbed, and then estimate the temperature of the room where that happened. On average, the participants who were recalling an experience of acceptance judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer than the participants recalling an experience of being snubbed. Affection is Warmth.

Warmth can make us more trusting, and experiences of acceptance make us think it’s warmer. We “warm up” to people.

We think about time as space – not just when we draw a timeline to represent time spatially. When we think about the future we tend to lean slightly forward. While recollecting the past, we’re more likely to lean slightly backwards.

In another study, participants were shown a picture of a face that was rendered as gender neutral, indeterminate – without any of the cues we usually use to discern a male or female face. Participants were then asked whether they thought the person is the picture was male or female. While they were looking at the picture, some of the participants had been given a soft ball and instructed to squeeze on it. Others were given a hard ball to squeeze. The participants squeezing the soft ball were more likely to guess that the face was female. The participants squeezing the hard ball were more likely to guess the face was male. We associate female with softness.

When people are taking a survey while standing up, and the survey asks them to judge the value of a picture of a pile of money, or judge the importance of a leader, the respondents who were given heavy clipboards judge greater value to the currency and greater importance to the leader than those who were given lighter-weight clipboards. Heavy is important. It’s got gravitas.

Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. We think of morality with some of the same circuitry we think of physical cleanliness.

A different survey asked people about first cousins marrying. Those who were standing next to a smelly trash can gave much harsher judgments against it. Moral disgust is connected with physical disgust.

I am fascinated by these studies, and they don’t surprise me because I’ve gotten used to seeing myself and others as bodies. It can seem all rather disconcerting if you prefer to think of reason as a disembodied, universal process. But one of the effects of getting in touch with our bodies is taking ourselves less seriously. Don’t cling to your own opinions: even if you didn’t form them while standing next to smelly trash can, they emerged from processes equally tangled up, messy, and nonrational. As I like to put it: don’t believe what you think.

The world is taking your body for a ride, and you are not in the driver’s seat – so relax and notice and enjoy all that’s coming past and through you. We don’t have a choice about whether to be embodied – we are.
"He lived at a little distance from his body." (James Joyce, "A Painful Case")
Joyce’s Mr. Duffy does not really live at a little distance from his body -- he only seems to, to himself or to others. We do have a choice about whether to notice all the ways our thoughts and emotions are embodied – manifest in, and through, and from the body. The fictional Mr. Duffy seems to have chosen not to notice. He lives disconnected from himself in the sense that he's unaware of himself, unaware of who and what he really is.

That we are embodied, that we think with our particular bodies rather than with disembodied and universal reason, is a mystery. Our own thought processes are largely inscrutable to us. This is not the kind of mystery that can be solved. We can expand our understanding of our embodiment in various ways -- scientific, poetic, artistic -- yet an underlying mystery will remain that we cannot dispel but only savor.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Embodiment"
See also
Part 1: Mind and Body: Different?
Part 2: Feelings Metaphors Body

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