Embodied metaphor


“…valley of segregation…”

“…path of racial justice…”

“…solid rock of brotherhood…”

Metaphor is unquestionably a powerful tool in speeches. These are just three from Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and the visualisation below shows the frequency of metaphor throughout his historic address (with pink bars representing metaphors and visual words).

Whether it’s ‘I Have a Dream’, Barak Obama claiming that ‘America is a leader on a journey‘ or Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, metaphors are widely understood to present complex ideas simply, stir emotions and chime with latent symbolism in order to persuade the electorate. A 2005 study of American presidential speeches, for example, found that presidents who used more metaphors are regarded as being more charismatic.

But what is interesting is that – according to cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen – hearing metaphors is an embodied experience. “Every time we hear a word, he argues, it brings to mind sights, sounds, feelings and actions, as if we are experiencing them first-hand.” And curiously we take longer to comprehend “I kick” than “I eat”, for example because “the neurons that process sensations from the feet are further from the language centres than those handling the mouth”.

And what is even more interesting is that the relationship seems to go the other way – kinaesthetic information appears to effect metaphorical meaning, for example:

When people review a job candidate’s CV, they will judge her or him to be more serious about the position when they are holding a heavy clipboard than when they are holding a light one. Weight is a metaphor for seriousness.

Participants holding a hot beverage rate an imaginary person as being warmer than those holding something cold. Warmth is a metaphor for affection.

When people were asked to judge the stability of the relationships of celebrity couples, they are more likely to see instability in the relationships if they are sat on wonky furniture (so maybe best not to scrimp on the wedding furniture). They also said that they valued stability in their own relationships more highly. Stability is a metaphor for trustworthiness and reliability.

When people sat on chairs leaning to the left (or to the right), they reported liberal (or conservative) shifts in their political attitudes. Right and left are metaphors for conservative and liberal.

This last one is particularly strange because, although fairly universal now, it is not related to some fundamental bodily state or quality. (The political terms Right and Left  were coined during the French Revolution in reference to where politicians sat in the French parliament).

Anyway, there you have it: even speech content is embodied.


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