Why do we look up to those we respect, stoop to the level of those we disdain and think warmly about those we love? Why do we hide dirty secrets or wash our hands of worries? Why do we ponder weighty subjects and feel a load lift after we have made a decision? Why do we look back on the past and forward to the future?…
… A rapidly growing body of research indicates that metaphors joining body and mind reflect a central fact about the way we think: the mind uses the body to make sense of abstract concepts….
The implications seem almost preposterous. Holding a warm cup of coffee will make me view others more warmly as well? Entering a Windex- scented room will bring out the Good Samaritan in me? Holding a heavy clipboard while responding to a survey will give the issues at hand more gravitas? As far-fetched as such sensory non sequiturs may seem, the evidence for “embodied” or “grounded” cognition is persuasive. “The empirical case is becoming increasingly overwhelming,” says psychologist Lawrence Barsalou of Emory University. “Cognition is emerging, to a significant extent, from all these things—like warmth, cleanliness and weight—that we used to think were irrelevant to cognition.” Siri Carpenter, Scientific American Mind (January 2011 edition)

The scientific world is finally catching up with what some of us have known for ages: that we think in metaphor, and that we use our bodies as well as our brains to do our thinking. It’s a very exciting time to be involved in this field.


It might take a while before everyone recovers from the shock of this “preposterous” revelation… starts to realise the full implications of it… and starts to act on their realisation. The fact you’re reading this means you’re way ahead of the curve.


Just a few quick thoughts on the topic:


1. The idea of embodied cognition opens up a huge range of ways to influence people.


Suppose someone comes to your office for a consultation with you. You offer them a hot drink – and immediately, you’re encouraging them to think warmly about you. You offer them a chair: if it’s a hard one, they’ll think certain things are difficult; if it’s a low one, you’ll cause them to look up to you… and so on and so forth. And that’s before you even open your mouth.


Supermarkets and other retailers have been using elements of this kind of thing for many years, because they know it works. I blogged about this recently here.


2. Anyone who believes they can avoid influencing others as they go about their lives is simply mistaken.


It’s not just about “manipulating emotions” in a deliberate way. If something as “simple” as the weight of the clipboard you use when you carry out your research can influence the answers you get, what hope is there for professional neutrality?


I tend to advise coaching clients who want to earn more cash to upgrade the weight of their stationery and the quality of their pens, because the fact that their potential customers get to handle these items gives them a greater influencing power than suits and cars. Does making people aware of this effect make it more, or less, manipulative?


I believe that we should use these powerful “weapons of influence” carefully and with intention – not pretend that we don’t know about them.


3. Look out! Wait till the scientists spot what’s coming next!


Like the metaphors in our language, the metaphors used when our bodies think tend, initially at least, to look similar across a culture. At the moment the researchers are discovering that “everyone” puts the past on their left and the future on their right, for example. But anyone trained in NLP will be giggling by now – they know very well that some individuals have “timelines” that differ wildly from this norm.


(As an aside, check out this quote from the Scientific American Mind piece. “The idea that we process time as flowing from left to right with our ears as well as our eyes is ‘mind-blowing’ Gun Semin [psychology professor at University of Utrecht] says. ‘On the surface, there’s no reason for this to happen.'”)


Facilitators and coaches trained in David Grove’s Clean Language and Clean Space know that there’s a lot more to this than timelines. In fact, once you get below the surface, the metaphors our bodies use when they think are as individual as our fingerprints.
The key is to know how to probe beneath that surface, to discover what’s really going on.
  • Many thanks to Alistair Donnell for drawing my attention to the Scientific American Mind article
  • Would a workshop on this material be of interest? If so, please click here
  • There’s a video clip on the topic, an extract from my new video, here
  • Please feel free to comment (or ask questions) below

    6 replies to "Grasping embodied cognition: how we use our bodies to think"

    • Elizabet Cairns

      Great post Judy,
      It seems that our wonderful world of Science is “catching up” in many areas at the moment and you’re right it’s such an exciting time.
      Thanks for getting the word out there in such a concise and accessible way.
      My warmest

    • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Judy Rees, X-Ray Listening. X-Ray Listening said: New blog post: how we use our bodies to think in metaphor http://ht.ly/3Uxy6 […]

    • Richie

      What do the metaphors mean to the body (subconscious)? Certainly there are different interpretations becasue we are all different.

      Putting our differences aside, it seems to me that there is a collective interpretation of symbols and metaphors that is common for all of us. Perhaps it’s something as simple as the concept that we move toward pleasure and away from pain.


    • Judy

      Thanks Elizabeth. And Richie, I think you’ve hit on an important point – there are indeed some metaphors that are common to all of us. And “us” can have a very broad definition here.
      After all, single-celled organisms move toward “pleasure” and away from “pain”.

    • Elaine

      Take this concept of embodied cognition one step further and we get to bio-cognitive psychology. How the state of our mind and emotions can cause very specific illnesses. Something that traditional medicine using the chakra system and meridian system have charted through the ages. Science is catching up! I like Caroline Myss’ phrase, ‘Our biography becomes our biology’. On the positive side, this is most probably one of the reasons why the placebo effect exists.

    • How to influence the thinking body: gestures

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