How should we talk about sex? Ditch the baseball

Whenever we talk about abstract or complex topics (and even when we talk about things that are neither abstract or complex) we can almost guarantee that metaphors will be at the center of the stage. This is especially true when it’s not appropriate to focus on certain aspects of a situation or when we want to lighten a mood: talking about how our neighbor croaked or kicked the bucket is less morbid than saying that he died. Depending on context, we’re more likely to hear that someone lost his lunch instead of what he really did, which was blow chunks. Considering that sex is something that is awkward or inappropriate to talk about in many circumstances (and it would be crazy to suggest that we just avoid the topic in the first place!), it comes as little surprise that sexual discourse is highly metaphorical.

In this Ted talk, Al Vernacchio challenges the predominant American metaphor for sex: baseball. There are lots of ways that baseball talk is used to talk about sex, but the most common might be using the bases to refer to different sexual acts. You have to do them in order, just like you have to run the bases in order in a ball game, and hitting a home run is supposed to be a cause for celebration in both contexts. The metaphor extends beyond the bases, though. You can be a pitcher, a catcher, or a benchwarmer. The game involves a bat, a nappy dugout, and a catcher’s mitt. You can be a switch-hitter or just flat-out play for the other team.

Baseball isn’t a terrible metaphor for sex. Even if you’ve never heard of some of those metaphors (I hadn’t), if you know what generally goes down during a baseball game and you know what generally goes down during sex, you can probably figure out many of the mappings. In fact, that’s part of what makes a metaphor good – there are common relations between the two domains. Their commonalities are highlighted and their differences are ignored. But metaphors, especially ones like this with many mappings between the two topics, aren’t just ways of talking. They’re ways of thinking. Vernacchio argues that if we want to foster better views of sex in our society, maybe we need to ditch the baseball metaphor. He proposes that we use a pizza metaphor instead. Here are the different inferences the two might encourage:

  • You play baseball when it’s baseball season and a game is scheduled. You eat pizza when you’re hungry for pizza. When should you have sex?
  • There is no baseball game if there aren’t opposing teams. When you’re getting a pizza, you (hopefully) ask the others who will enjoy it with you what toppings they want. You’re all on the same pizza-ordering team!
  • Once you start making your way around the bases, there’s only one acceptable way to do it. You can’t stop midway and decide you’re good where you are. There’s no wrong way to eat pizza. You can eat it with a knife and fork, you can fold it in half, and you don’t have to eat it all – I’d bet a third of America doesn’t even eat the crust.
  • When you’re playing baseball, the goal is to defeat the other team. When you’re eating pizza, the goal is to have something you enjoy and that will be satisfying.

I like the pizza metaphor that Vernacchio proposes because it encourages productive inferences that baseball doesn’t. But it’s not perfect. Most pizza is not very good for you – to be consumed only rarely and with a modicum of guilt. Then there’s the problem of Italy – Italians have all the claim to it, and they’re probably still way better at making it than people anywhere else. Plus, what role does the delivery guy play in sex?

These picky ways that pizza and sex aren’t alike aren’t the point. By definition, metaphors align two topics, and there will always be some mappings between them that don’t work. If everything about the two topics were alignable, comparing them would no longer be metaphorical – it would just be talking about two things that are literally the same.

Check your tweets

It’s no secret that the information we share on social media can get us in trouble. You can embarrass yourself, ruin your reputation, and even get arrested using fewer than 140 characters.


Tweets are also reflections of a person’s current state – they shed light on things we find interesting, the events in our lives, and our opinions. In these cases, we’re conscious of the states our tweets reflect. However, our tweets may also be able to predict aspects of our lives that we’re not conscious of at the time of tweet composition, like the rate of heart attacks in the communities we live in.

If you think about it, it’s not that surprising that negative tweets come from places with greater incidences of cardiac events. The authors crucially point out that it was not the tweeters who were dying, though. One person’s angry tweets did not predict that same person’s later risk of heart attack (though to me this doesn’t seem like too far-fetched a possibility). Instead, the counties that the most negative tweets were coming from were the same ones that had the highest incidence of cardiac events. I don’t think anyone would argue that the angry tweets (coming primarily from young people) were causing high rates of heart attack (in primarily old people). Instead, the correlation probably reflects that good physical and mental health are often associated – both in individuals and on a larger geographical level. So what should we do with this knowledge? Is there anything we can do beyond existing efforts to improve heath and wellness in the communities that need it most? What other warning signs are evident in corpora containing millions of tweets and other social media behaviors?

I don’t know. I’m about to go tweet about rainbows and daisies though, just in case.

Music makes me lose control

Nautilus, you’ve done it again: an elegant post on two of my favorite topics: music and time.  Time and music are inseparable – music takes place over time, and both can be very precise and mathematical. But music also reminds us how subjective time is, which is the theme of Jonathan Berger’s post. The post weaves together connections between music and temporal perception. Here are a few highlights:

  • The tempo of music alters our behaviors – slower music encourages us to slow down and buy more drinks at a bar or spend more time in a grocery store, and familiar background music gives shoppers the impression that they spent longer in a store (though they actually spend more when novel music is played).
  • Our musical attention span is about 4 minutes, thanks to Thomas Edison’s cylinder recordings, which maxed out at 4 minutes.  Even when technology progressed to allow for longer songs, the 4-minute standard remained.
  • When we’re deeply engrossed in something perceptual (like listening to music), the prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for introspecting and high-level cognition, becomes less active than usual, while the sensory cortex becomes more active than usual. These activation patterns likely explain the feeling of flow and timelessness that can occur while listening to music.


In the second half of the post, Berger uses Schubert’s String Quintet to illustrate how “music hijacks our perception of time.” He describes the time warp going on in one section at a time, supporting each with a clip of the audio during the part of the piece he’s describing.

This was a fun “audio tour.” I found that I had to close my eyes to be able to experience the time shifts, though. This could be for a number of reasons, but one interesting possibility is that when a sound clip is embedded in a web page, the bottom right corner of the clip counts down the seconds remaining. Maybe some people can ignore the steadily decreasing numbers, but I am just so drawn to anything marking time. Why might this matter? I’d guess that a large proportion of the music-listening that people do today happens through a computer-like device (iPod, phone, computer) that exposes the listener to a ticking clock. Do we experience less of this music-induced timelessness today than in the past as a result? Or maybe songs like Time of Our Lives could be to blame?

Thanks to this song for title inspiration:

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 -

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