Happiness, power, and goodness have two things in common. The first one is the fact that they are abstract concepts. The second one is the notion that the three words can be mapped to the conceptual metaphor of “Up” (Lakoff, 2014). This in turn can be further expanded into the following ideas:
- When you are feeling happy, you are feeling up. The same can be said for its counterpart, when you are sad, you are feeling down.
- When you are part of a hierarchy, if you are up, you hold more power over those who are below you.
- In many religious beliefs, the concept of up is mapped into goodness while the concept of down is mapped into evil. An idea that can be used to explain the judgment that if you are a good person, your soul will go up to heaven; if you are a bad person, your soul will go down to hell.
This idea that abstract concepts, and our language, are embodied into physical words has been an important finding on the field of Embodied Cognitive Linguistics. The notion of embodying abstract thoughts and emotions was first proposed by Mark Johnson and George Lakoff in 1980 in their book Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff, 2012). It is from Lakoff’s 2014 article Mapping the brain’s metaphor circuitry: metaphorical thought in everyday reason from where I gathered the example of up that was mentioned at the beginning of this blog post. Nowadays, many Embodied Cognitive Scientists and Linguists accept Johnson’s and Lakoff’s theory that all concepts, whether abstract or physical, can obtain their meaning through embodied cognition (Lakoff, 2014).
Many different implications and questions arise from the notion that concepts can be defined through embodied metaphors. For example:
The idea of a universal language consisting of a set of metaphors and expressions
As someone who grew up with Spanish as my native language, and who started to learn English at the age of 3 and French at the age of 5, I have noticed that the 3 languages share similarities in the way that abstract concepts and emotions are embodied through metaphors, expressions, and sayings. This is especially true when making reference to the same topic. For example, when someone is having a conversation about sports and they refer to an athlete as a “star” it means that this player performs at an above average efficiency, and they are very likely to be better than the competition. Whether you are speaking French, English, or Spanish, referring to a player as a “star” will always mean the exact same thing. I believe that what this demonstrates, is the fact that learning a new language need not be a burden as heavy as many people make it seem. What I mean by this, is the idea that when one is learning a new language, they more than likely already have an understanding of metaphors and expressions that are universal. So, they are not encoding a new concept, but mapping words from a different language into concepts that they already know.
Johnson’s and Lakoff’s theory of conceptual metaphors and metaphorical thought are of important relevance in our current day and age. With globalization happening at a fast pace, and people immigrating to different regions for both personal and professional opportunities, the theory of metaphorical thought can prove to be a great aid in the adaptability of people in new places. From a social stand point, one does not have to be an expert in a particular language to be able to hold a conversation with someone who speaks a different language. Information can be relayed and delivered through metaphors that are universal. Furthermore, the same can be said when it comes to business. Business deals and transactions made by multinational corporations can be simplified, when the agents of communication have an understanding of the expressions used by others, because they also use them in their native language.
With this in mind, it is important to recognize that there can be many cases in which a conceptual metaphor in a particular language can hold a different meaning in another language. Being mindful of this is of importance to prevent having any miscommunication.
How can embodied metaphors help us improve emotional well-being and mental health?
In recent years, the conversation surrounding mental health and emotional well-being has improved, as now people are encouraged to talk about how they’re feeling without the fear of being stigmatized. Talking about physical health, as well as conceptualizing how someone is feeling physically, is not as difficult as conceptualizing an emotional or mental state. For example, when someone has a broken hand, it can easily be noted given that there is bruising in the area. Given that in many instances, mental health and the way someone is feeling can’t necessarily be seen the same way that physical health is, I believe that one of the best ways to understand the way someone else is feeling is through the use of conceptual metaphors. Using conceptual metaphors to describe feelings and states of happiness, sadness, anxiety, joy, amongst others, can help us recognize what someone else might be going through, and what we can do to offer them the appropriate resources.
Will machines ever be able to communicate in an abstract and emotional way with humans?
A final area of thought that emerged after learning more about Embodied Cognition arising from metaphors, has to do with the future and the expected interactions that humans will have with machines. There are two main areas of thought when it comes to intelligence in computers: The Turing Test and John Searle’s Chinese Room. In brief, the Turing Test is passed when a human is interacting with a computer, and can’t recognize that the interaction they are having is not with another fellow human. Meanwhile, John Searle proposes in his Chinese Room argument that a Computer can’t be able to think, be conscious, and have knowledge. This is because Computers are just manipulating symbols and not necessarily understanding the concepts and thoughts of what it is that they are manipulating. With this in mind, I find it hard to see how computers and other machines will be able to communicate and relate to humans in an emotional way and be able to pass a Turing Test. One of the best ways that I can see a machine having a successful Turing Test is by programming it to understand expressions, by not analyzing them for their logical content. For example, a machine should be programmed to understand that when someone says, “I’m on top of the world” they don’t mean being on top of the world literally, but they are feeling an incredible amount of joy. If machines can be encoded in this particular way, then I can see a fruitful interaction between people and machines in the future.
The applications of Johnson’s and Lakoff’s studies surrounding Embodied Cognition that arises from Conceptual Metaphors, should not be limited only to grammar and linguistics. These types of metaphors that are used to give meaning and body to abstract concepts can be used in a diverse amount of ways as I proposed above. Understanding abstract concepts in terms of metaphors, will not only help us when trying to incorporate knowledge and consciousness into a machine that might be made in the future. Understanding abstract concepts in terms of metaphors will also help us in the way we communicate with one another, in a social, business, and emotional way.
Lakoff, G. (2012). Explaining Embodied Cognition Results. Topics in Cognitive Science, 4, 773-785. doi:http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01222.x/epdf
Lakoff, G. (2014). Mapping the brain’s metaphor circuitry: metaphorical thought of everyday reason. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00958