Butts on fire

English speakers use a lot of butt-on-fire metaphors: we can say someone’s ass is on fire, that he needs to light a fire under his ass, and even the visual of someone flying by the seat of her pants in a chaotic situation conjures an image (for me) of smoking butt. These metaphors all mean different things, but are (appropriately) all descriptions of intense situations (or attempts to intensify a situation, in the case of lighting a fire under someone).

pantsWhat’s up with this fiery butt obsession? Do other languages share it?

Conceptual metaphor theory (CMT) suggests that we actually understand many concepts and experiences in terms of others. For example, our understanding of time relies on an understanding of space, and the way we think about love is often based the the way we think about a journey. Our language can reflect these conceptual metaphors, as in the deadline is approaching, the best is ahead of us, our relationship is rocky, or referring to an anniversary as a milestone. According to proponents of CMT (George Lakoff is probably best known), we also think of anger as heated fluid under pressure. Angry people might blow their top, explode, or have steam coming from their ears. I don’t know whether we really do conceptualize anger as a heated fluid under pressure, but if we do, it’s interesting to think that the heat isn’t confined to escaping from our head – all orifices seem to be fair game.


P.S. I made the mistake of Googling “ass on fire” while writing this. Bad idea.

Present you vs. Future you

Originally posted on NeuWrite San Diego:

It’s almost the end of January. How are your New Year’s Resolutions holding up? If you haven’t stuck to them, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the majority. There are many reasons we don’t meet our well-intentioned goals to go to the gym more, quit smoking, or go to bed earlier at night. One of those reasons is that the future person who those resolutions were designed to help is a different person than who you are today. You might both have the same name, but it can be hard to see other things you have in common. Why should you do things that make life more difficult for you today just to help this future person who you know very little about?

Biologically, our cells continually die and get replaced by new ones, so physically, we’re not made of the same stuff from one day to the…

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Our multiple selves

By and large, we think of ourselves as one person. But below this conscious self conceptualization, we also tend to think of ourselves as being composed of multiple selves. Just a few of my many selves include slow-but-steady runner, ex-harpist, quasi-fluent French speaker, and first born. As I write this, I’m all of those, but a better description of my current state is probably amateur blogger. Traits aside, I’m also present-me. I’m not quite the same person future-me, who I count on to get out of bed tomorrow morning despite the darkness, or even-more-future-me, who will be eligible to withdraw the interest accrued from my Roth IRA at age 59 and a half.

The latter dimension of selves – the ones that inhabit the future – is a fundamental aspect of one of the projects I’m working on right now (present-me is chipping away in hopes that a future-me will learn something valuable). After reading and thinking extensively about how patterns in language might moderate the similarity we perceive between our current and future selves, I found this awesome Atlantic article from 2008: First Person Plural. The article seamlessly pulls together wisdom from diverse lines of research in order to show us why we should care about our multiple selves.

It starts by talking about happiness. Empirical studies of what makes people happy often turn up paradoxes. For example, whether people are happier while working or while on vacation seems to be a no-brainer. But when they actually record their happiness at regular intervals during a given day, it turns out that their moods are better while at work. One difficulty in addressing the question what makes a person happy is articulating what happiness is and how it can be operationalized, but another, less apparent difficulty is defining what exactly is meant by the person. The same action or circumstance might have very different effects on the current person and some future person. If I’m in the market for a new laptop, choosing a less expensive model might bum me out on the day that I’m buying it, but it might make me really happy the next day when I have enough money left over for a printer. Or… saving money on the laptop might make me feel great in the moment that I’m saving, but disappointed in the future when I realize its glacial operating speed. We’re tricky.

The author promotes a view that although our brains do give rise to a sense of self that persists over time, we also have different selves continuously shifting in prominence. Especially when we look farther into the future, our future selves appear progressively less similar to our present selves. fMRI research by Ersner-Hershfield and colleagues has shown that similar brain areas active when we think about other people and when we think about our future selves. There is more overlap between these activity patterns than there is when we think about ourselves today and ourselves in the future, lending support to the idea that we really do perceive of our future selves as other selves.

Even if we don’t necessarily consciously think of our future selves as someone else, we all do seem to know that sometimes we have to do things now in order to restrict the influence our future selves will have over something. A college roommate of mine used to set three alarms for the morning, and made sure that one was all the way across the room – she knew that the only way to assure that her future self got out of bed and made it to class was if she’d need to physically get up to turn off an alarm. Some people disable their social media sites for a pre-specified amount of time while working under a deadline so that even if they try to procrastinate through Facebook, the site just won’t load. Even if we believe we have free will, we don’t necessarily believe that the person we are at this very moment will have free will over the person we are at some future time.


This idea of multiple selves can help explain the paradox of having children. Most people report that their children are a huge source of their happiness. But studies have shown that people are actually less happy while spending time with their kids than they are doing many other activities, like eating or praying. Surveys also show that people’s marital satisfaction decreases once they have kids and increases once those kids leave the house. The author claims that claims that kids make people happy and the reality that many people report less happiness when taking care of kids aren’t incompatible. Instead, the person who loves having kids can just be considered a different person than the one who dislikes actually spending time with them. (Of course, I don’t have kids, so I’m taking other people’s word for all of this).

In general, we don’t look kindly on people whose short-term selves alone control their behavior. We feel that present self should make decisions that benefit future self, such as eating well and saving money. But disregarding the short term selves in favor of benefitting the long term selves can also be dangerous. It can result in missing out on everyday experiences that can enhance life in favor of future ones (that you may never even profit from). The adage “everything in moderation” applies to the power we allocate to our many selves. Each should get a voice in our decisions, but sometimes certain voices should also trump others.

The power of Ngrams

For me, one sign of a really good book is that I learn things I wasn’t expecting to learn. I had that experience while reading almost every chapter of Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture. The book is written by the creators of Google’s Ngram Viewer, which is a tool that shows the frequency of any word or phrase (single words are 1-grams, 2-word phrases are 2-grams…) in the massive and continually growing corpus of books in the Google Books database. The most informative feature of Ngram Viewer is that you can compare frequencies of different phrases to each other and see changes in their use over time (here’s a holiday phrase comparison that I made.).


The book includes many ngram comparisons that are much more informative than mine. It tells the story of the Ngram Viewer’s birth, shows lots of interesting ngram comparisons, and goes more in depth on a variety of uses. Maybe the most surprising use is that ngrams can reflect censorship efforts. By looking at the slopes of the changes in frequency for different people’s names during the Nazi regime, it becomes clear that some names were being censored (those ngrams have negative slopes for that time period) and others were rising in prominence (those have positive slopes). When compared with historical records, the ngram-based conclusions are strikingly accurate.

The book only shows a tiny slice of what the Ngram Viewer can be used to learn. It’s the epitome of cognitive science, piecing together wisdom from many disciplines. Ngram Viewer is a great tool, whether you’re at home on the couch wondering when the phrase “Merry Christmas” became popular, or doing paid research, and this book was a cool way to learn more about it.

I'm partial to this comparison (found on the About page for Ngram Viewer - https://books.google.com/ngrams/info)

I’m partial to this comparison (found on the About page for Ngram Viewer)

Merry Christmas or Happy New Year?

A fun graph of the competition between the phrases “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” (at least in published books that have been incorporated into Google Books) courtesy of Google’s Ngram viewer. More on this enlightening tool to come, inspired by Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture.

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y-axis: of all the bigrams (2-word phrases) contained in Google’s sample of books [written in English and published in the United States], what percentage of them are “Merry Christmas”? Of all the trigrams (3-word phrases), what percentage of them are “Happy New Year”?

PhD Smoothie

I woke up yesterday morning feeling reluctant to tackle the day. The class I TA had a final exam at 11:30, which meant that my office would likely be overflowing all morning with panicked students wanting to cram at the last minute. Then, I’d get to stare at them take a test for 3 hours, followed by a few more hours of fighting with copiers and grading software so I could turn the grades in. At some point during the day, I’d start analyzing a recent experiment that my gut tells me is a heap of noise, and turn in a seminar paper, thinking “if only I had one more day to polish this up…”

Right away, I knew that this day was going to call for a PhD smoothie. Here’s the recipe:

Start with a base of mystery fruit. Pick something that you have no idea what its name is or what it’ll taste like. The important part is that you’re curious about its taste, and you’re going to find out.

Next, add in a generous cup of grits. There are going to be lots of setbacks, and grit is the best predictor of success.

Then add in two handfuls of kale – because it’s good for you!

If the color is brownish, you’re doing it right. This is the time to add a couple tablespoons of Trader Joe’s Soyaki sauce because it’s anything but conventional and keeps things interesting.

Continuing with the ethnic theme, add in some wasabi. You’ll have to titrate the amount to your own threshold. The goal is to have just enough to make you cry a little, but not on every sip – just on a few. After opening your tear ducts, the wasabi will help you feel fresh and ready for the next taste.

Then, add a scoop of protein powder. The importance of physical strength is not to be underestimated, and your gym time will likely be limited.

And for the final touch, three spoonfuls of sugar, because sugar is satisfying. You should know that it’ll make you addicted, though, and may even contribute to high blood pressure (more research is needed).

Put all this in a blender and mix it at high speed – like, as fast as your blender will go. Keep at it for anywhere between 4 and 8 years – you can’t put a timer on masterpieces like this one. When your gut tells you it’s done (there will be no other indicator) or whenever you get too impatient – whichever comes first – gulp it down and head to the lab before you have any second thoughts. Bon appétit!

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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