Metaphor is beautiful, too

When we first learn about metaphor in elementary school, we learn that it’s a figure of speech that involves referring to one thing as an unrelated thing. A very prototypical example is Juliet is the sun. We acknowledge this phrase because it’s beautiful and creative.

I spend the good part of many days thinking, reading, and talking about metaphor with the hope of better understanding the role it plays in cognition. It seems the more time I devote to this end, the less I think about the creative side of metaphor, and the more I think about the functional side. The topic that I’m most engrossed in right now is how we talk (and think) about time. We almost can’t talk about it without invoking metaphor – specifically, metaphors that express the idea that time is space – we’re looking forward to next week; Christmas is approaching; Go to work before the meeting – these phrases all use spatial metaphors.

Metaphors like the ones we use to talk about time in terms of space are very cool because they’re ubiquitous, yet they so easily go unnoticed. But they’re not to be appreciated at the expense of less subtle, more unique ones. This Ted Ed video by Jane Hirshfield reminds us of just that.

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Battling cancer or…?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we talk about cancer (and illness more generally) over the past few months, one metaphor seems pervasive, almost inevitable: cancer as an enemy that we battle. We say that someone is fighting cancer, and eventually every patient will either beat it or lose his battle to cancer.

Luckily, there’s been some research on the cognitive consequences of using the battle metaphor. This article by Charlie Cooper talks about work by Elena Semino (which I’m having trouble finding). He writes that her work shows negative effects for many cancer patients when their disease is framed as an enemy to battle. It doesn’t seem surprising that this metaphor might encourage people to feel personally responsible if their health worsens. Semino does say that the metaphor isn’t necessarily harmful, though – if a patient introduces it on his own, it might be a motivator. Semino and her colleagues also found that cancer is often talked about as a journey. For example, living with cancer might mean being on the hard road. This metaphor seemed less potentially harmful, instead instilling a sense of companionship among people with cancer. The conclusions about the effects of both metaphors are based on corpus analyses, so it would be very cool to see a lab version that examines the different inferences people make about the disease when it’s framed as a battle versus a journey.

I did find one lab study by Hauser and Schwarz on the war metaphor for cancer, but it examined the effects on healthy people, as opposed to those living with the disease. Specifically, it looked at how framing the disease as an enemy to be fought affects people’s preventative behaviors. A number of behaviors are associated with cancer – unhealthy diet, excess sun exposure, and smoking, for example. The authors distinguished between limitation cancer-associated behaviors (things like limiting unhealthy foods) and engagement cancer-associated behaviors (things like be lean and engage in exercise). The first category contains things we should do less of, and the second contains things we should do more of.

The researchers found that when cancer was framed as an enemy, people could think of fewer limitation behaviors, and in a separate study when given the limitation behaviors, they reported less of an intention to limit these behaviors. They report that these findings are consistent with the metaphor because when we’re fighting an enemy, our priority is on attacking, as opposed to limiting certain behaviors. Thus we might expect that the enemy metaphor increased people’s intentions for engagement behaviors, but this was not the case. Further, they found that when they reworded the limitation behaviors to sound more like engagement behaviors, people were more likely to induce them if they had read that cancer was an enemy, suggesting that they avoided endorsing those same behaviors earlier because they were framed as limitation behaviors, and reading the enemy metaphor did not put people in a limitation mindset. Since referring to cancer as an enemy reduced people’s likeliness of following important limitation behaviors and did not affect their intentions for engagement behaviors, the authors conclude that the metaphor seems to bring more harm than good.

I’m excited by these preliminary results, and I’d love to see more. Are there other metaphors that might be more productive? How do these metaphors affect people with the disease? Do they affect a person’s treatment decisions? We wouldn’t need to test this on cancer patients, necessarily, but could ask healthy participants to imagine they had the disease and reason abut it accordingly. How do the metaphors affect cancer patients’ caregivers? One difficulty in addressing these questions is that whether people are exposed to the enemy metaphor or not in a lab study, they’ve almost definitely been exposed to it many times outside the lab, and those prior experiences will follow them into the lab. Regardless, the general question of the cognitive effects of disease metaphors seems to be an important and addressable question.

In my own conversations, the enemy metaphor didn’t seem appropriate in a lot of contexts – lots of patients go to doctors’ appointments and cope with treatments and side effects, all of which are unpleasant but might not really involve fighting (in fact, minimal fighting seems to be the ideal). Surely, living with cancer requires a lot of mental toughness, but many things require toughness that we don’t talk about as battles (like earning a PhD, for example – I don’t think we’d say that the average person battles grad school). Even the journey metaphor, which Semino’s team found in corpora, seems a little weird. So if we think the battle metaphor is harmful, what’s a better way to talk about the disease?

Ad hoc cognition

I heard about lots of cool research this past weekend at Psychonomics – how taking photos affects our memory (not positively), how we prefer musical meters (i.e. 3/4 or 6/8) that we’ve been exposed to earlier, and how we tend to use the same syntactic structure to talk about things as was used when we learned them (even when we’ve heard other structures between the learning and talking).

But my favorite group of talks was a block on Ad Hoc Cognition – the idea that our mental categories, concepts, and word meanings are not stable, but are constructed each time we use them. Daniel Casasanto presented a great example of this theory. We might consider that everyone has a relatively similar concept of what constitutes furniture, or at least that one person’s mental category for furniture is always the same. It’s probably made up of things like tables, chairs, and couches. But what about when you’re camping and someone says, “We need some furniture for this bonfire. Let’s pull over that log.” Although logs aren’t typically included when we think of furniture, in that moment, it seems appropriate to call a log a piece of furniture. We have no problem constructing our idea of what belongs in the furniture category on the spot (ad hoc), and the larger argument is that we’re constantly doing this.

Jeff Elman also presented some cool evidence demonstrating the same point. He (and others) have measured the electrical activity along people’s scalps (using EEG) that occurs when people read sentences, and have found that people have different expectations for what words should come next depending on the context. For example, in the context of an ice skater who just won a championship, when people read “the crowd roared as she took her place on the podium,” they show no evidence or surprise at the word podium (this would be demonstrated by a spike in activity 400ms after the word podium was presented, also known as the N400 component). When they read that “the crowd roared as she took her place on the medal,” they show a medium N400 response, indicating that they were moderately surprised by the word medal, which doesn’t actually make sense but is an object that would likely be involved in the situation. When they read that the “crowd roared as she took her place on the beach,” which makes no sense and should also not be associated with the situation, they show the largest N400 response, or the most surprise. The fact that the responses to bleach and medal differ even though neither makes logical sense shows that people are constantly constructing expectations based on context.

So if we’re constructing our concepts, categories, and word meanings (CC&Ms) on the spot in a new way for every concept, is it futile to study our mental CC&Ms? Casasanto gave a helpful analogy to show that studying how we think about these things is still fruitful, even if they’re context-dependent and therefore unstable. Just as physicists know that Newtonian physics is not quite accurate and that the theory of general relativity is more scientifically sound, we still rely on Newtonian physics all the time – when we go on a diet, we use a scale to measure our mass, since the Newtonian concept of mass is good enough for what we need). Returning to mental concepts, if a child asks you what a plethora is, it’s probably not a good idea to respond that it’s an ill-formed question, since our idea of plethora is constantly constructed from context. We can come up with a definition of plethora that’s close enough for many purposes, and the kid will not be living a lie if he doesn’t acknowledge that the meaning might differ slightly from one context to the next. However, it’s important for people who research CC&Ms for a living to honor their context-sensitivity and bear it in mind as they go about defining and exploring these nebulous ideas.

A movable academic feast

This weekend I’m at Psychonomics, and except for the fact that there’s no food at the conference, it is very much a movable feast. Just like at many restaurants, before the experience even starts you can go online to get a menu in the form of a 300+ page program. Both menus are broken up in a logical sequence – either by appetizers, mains, and desserts or by morning, afternoon, and evening sessions. Instead of separate sections for meat and fish, though, the conference menu has sections for poster sessions and talks, and subsections for posters and talks that are on related topics.

The menu is only a small part of the experience, though. It’s a guide. The feast starts when you get to the conference center, choose an item off the menu, and seek it out. You float from one conference room to another in many cases, each time getting a small taste of something new. It’s not the Olive Garden with whopping portion sizes and bottomless breadsticks, though by the end you’ll probably feel like you ingested the mental equivalent of a huge bowl of penne alla vodka (which is delicious, but also invokes lethargy, a coma-like feeling). It’s rich and filling, an experience you know you want to have again… but first, a recovery period.


The education escalator

I spend a lot of time thinking about the problems with education and what we might be able to do to fix them. I think about it on a small scale (i.e., how can I better explain this concept to the 50 students sitting in front of me right now?) and on a larger scale (can an innovative online-based college become a competitor for traditional elite colleges?)

For these reasons, I was intrigued by this recent NYT article by Nicholas Kristoff (The American Dream Is Leaving America). The core of the article points out that America used to have unrivaled education. As a result, it was a land of opportunity. Now, other countries have improved their education systems, and the formerly stellar American system has become one that perpetuates inequality. This may all be true (the data he presents certainly suggest so).

However, he bookends the piece with a perplexing metaphor: the education escalator. He starts it by saying: “The best escalator to opportunity in America is education. But a new study underscores that the escalator is broken.” The final lines are similar: “A starting point is to embrace the ethos that was born in America but is now an expatriate: that we owe all children a fair start in life in the form of access to an education escalator. Let’s fix the escalator.”


His point is not lost on me, but I don’t think that the American ethos is that all children should be put on an escalator that will take them to success. Usually talk of an American ethos tends to revolve around the idea of a self-made man. These two ideas are incompatible. Once you step on an escalator, you don’t have to do a single thing. Instead, you get to space out for about 30 seconds and gaze down at the ground as you slowly drift away. The most strenuous part of riding an escalator is stepping off at the right time. A self-made man, on the other hand, has to do a lot to get up to the next level. We assume that everything he does on his way up is more strenuous than stepping off an escalator.

For this reason, I don’t think our goal in America should be to fix an education escalator. Equal opportunities for all children – yes. But stepping on shouldn’t guarantee success. Maybe instead we should work on building a big, sturdy education staircase. It’ll be equipped with a handrail to guide weak and unsteady students, but they have to put in effort in order to progress.

The languages of business and love

I just wrote a fun piece for Virgin on the topic: Does business need a new language of love? It was an interesting topic to write on as someone who thinks about language (all day, every day…), but whose engagement with the world of business is roughly limited to occasional trips to the grocery store. The whole series on this topic is a very cool mix of perspectives.

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Body spills into the brain

This quarter I’m TAing for a class called Distributed Cognition, which explores a bunch of ways that cognition might not be something that happens exclusively in the brain. This week we looked at different flavors of embodiment, the idea that the body is crucial for cognition. For example, we talked about one study showing that people who were unknowingly leaning to the left made numerical estimates that were too small (consistent with the location of smaller numbers on our number line), while those leaning to the right made overestimations (Eerland, Guadalupe, & Zwaan, 2011). The overarching theme was that the state of our body can affect thoughts that we typically attribute only to our brain.

One study that I was reminded about when talking to a student is a study that has gotten a good amount of popular press attention. It’s called Extraneous factors in judicial decisions (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011), but the message that is usually taken is that judges have no mercy when they’re hungry. The authors divided judges’ work days into three chunks, divided by their food breaks. They found that at the beginning of each segment, judges made favorable decisions about 65% of the time, and their favorable decision rate declined steadily, reaching nearly 0%, throughout each segment. As someone whose brain and body shut down without a relatively consistent stream of food, this finding is not too shocking, though the magnitude of the change in favorable decisions is dramatic. I think it’s a great example of “body spills into the brain.”

It’s also an example of what many researchers refer to as “ego depletion,” the idea that we have a limited pool of mental resources, and cognition suffers once they’re used up. We get mentally fatigued, and then make poor decisions or have poor performance on some task as a result. Ego depletion underlies claims that working fewer hours increases productivity. I read this sort of advice often, each time thinking to myself, yes! I should do that. I feel this way especially on days like today, a Saturday morning in which ego depletion is fresh on my mind. I’m in recovery mode. Then, inspired to change my work habits, I’ll open my calendar to decide which work hours I’ll shave off the week, and I just stare at it. My trusty, color-coded calendar feels non-negotiable, so I close it and decide that working fewer hours maybe isn’t that crucial. I convince myself of this by reading reminders that some researchers claim that ego depletion is all in our heads. There’s probably some truth to this too – I often don’t start to feel drained until I acknowledge how busy I’ve been.

I do a lot of meta-cognition about work. By that I mean that I think about my work patterns and other people’s, and I try to evaluate what’s good bad about those patterns. My conclusion, for this morning at least, is that there’s probably not a one-size-fits-all solution to this issue. Some people might suffer from major ego depletion, while others might be more Energizer-bunny-like. Some weeks a person might get tons done while putting in many hours, and other weeks might be more efficient with a leaner schedule. For me, my goal is to work deliberately and mindfully, taking each week, day, or project as it comes, and adapting work habits as necessary. I will probably never discover the secret recipe for 100% efficient work, but that’s ok – it’s kind of fun trying to figure it out anyway.