Language shapes what we see

Language shapes the way we see the world. For example, the metaphors used to describe a concept like crime can shape the way people reason about it; native speakers of different languages tend to conceptualize time in ways consistent with their language; and when an object (say, a chair) is assigned the feminine grammatical gender in one language and the masculine gender in another, speakers of the former language actually think of that object as more feminine than speakers of the latter.

But new research (here’s the pdf) shows that the language we speak literally affects the way we see the world. By tracking people’s eye movements as they watched scenes unfold, researchers found that speakers tended to fixate more on parts of the scene that their language would require them to encode when communicating, relative to speakers of another language.

The experiment included German and Korean speakers. One way these two languages differ is in how they refer to spatial relationships between objects. In German (as in English), there’s a word for containment (in, which means the same as it does in English), which contrasts with the word used for one object supporting another (in German, auf, analogous to on in English). Preposition use in Korean isn’t dictated by whether one object contains or supports the other; instead, different prepositions are used depending on the tightness of the fit of the relationship. For example, putting a cap on a pen is a tight fit, which Korean describes with the word kkita. This contrasts with putting an apple in a bowl, which is a loose fit, so the preposition netha would be used instead (though the authors note that netha tends to be used for loose containment while notha is used for loose support, the line is a bit more blurred than in English or German).

In German, then, the most relevant part of a spatial relationship (for communication purposes) is whether one object contains or supports the other. In Korean, the most relevant part of a relationship is the tightness of fit. The researchers predicted that German and Korean speakers may habitually pay closer attention to certain parts of a scene — the ones their language requires them to communicate — than others.

In the experiment, participants watched videos of objects coming in contact with each other (screenshots are below), while the researchers tracked their eye movements. Participants always saw a pair (one video followed by a second) and rated how similar the two videos were to each other. Importantly, participants were not told which dimension their similarity ratings should be based on — this was for them to decide on their own.

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Consistent with language practices, Korean speakers based their similarity ratings on tightness of fit — for example, videos from the second and third rows above (both showing tight fits, and therefore typically described using kkita), were seen as more similar than the first and second, or the third and fourth were (both of which would include one kkita video and one netha or notha video). German speakers, on the other hand, based their ratings on containment vs. support. For them, the first and second (both described by auf) or the third and fourth (in) were more similar than the second and third (auf vs. in). Again, it’s especially relevant that participants were not told to use their language practices to determine similarity; they were simply encouraged to determine how similar different pairs were to each other, and their language practices guided them in this task.

The really novel part of this study, though, is in the eye-tracking. The researchers found that German speakers spent more time looking at the base figure (the bowl, block, or tray that the second object would sit on or in) than Korean speakers did, probably because that object contains more information for a person who needs to determine whether the relationship will be a supportive (on) or containment (in) one, which is what Germans habitually have to encode. Instead of looking at that base figure as much, Korean speakers looked more at the one that did the resting on or in, and particularly looked at the area where the objects intersected, which again holds the most information for speakers of a language that requires communicating the tightness of fit.

Even though participants were not watching these videos in order to communicate about them, their viewing patterns still reflected the tendencies of their languages. They have years of experience needing to pay attention to containment vs. support or tightness vs. looseness, so they now approach the world with a predisposition to look for those same characteristics that their language encodes.

This finding may not have huge practical consequences. People’s vision isn’t impaired by what their language encodes or doesn’t. But the study does show that our attention can be influenced by our language. Visual attention is a pretty low-level process, in the sense that it’s constant and so much of it happens without conscious awareness. That, I think, is why this study is so cool — even when people are watching simple videos of objects, their language shapes the way they approach the situation. Just imagine what our language does for us when we actually go out and navigate the world.


Cover photo by MabelAmber. CC.

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Metaphors Trump Tweets By

Metaphors are everywhere — in our classrooms, hospitals, homes… and in Trump’s tweets.

In 1980, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published a book, Metaphors We Live By, that catalyzed extensive research on the relationship between metaphor and thought. That book and much research since has argued that the metaphors we use in language reflect much deeper patterns in thought.

For example, we talk about arguments in terms of war — you can fight, defend, win, and lose both arguments and physical wars, for example. Researchers like Lakoff and Johnson suggest that we’re not merely talking about arguments in terms of wars, but actually thinking of them that way too.

Trump loves these metaphors.

Criticism directed at Schumer is a beating, to Trump. He also invokes the vivid idea of holding hostage to talk about arguing with Democrats during the government shutdown.

Another pervasive metaphor is the idea that good things are up (when you cheer someone up you lift their spirits, and in times of extreme happiness you’re on top of the world, for example). Relatedly, metaphors commonly express the idea that important things are large (like when we have big ideas or grandiose plans). Trump likes to rally his audiences by talking about how big America is(metaphorically), and the ways in which we are on top.

We dream big and reach high. And on the flip side, Trump’s enemies occupy low positions:

Another topic that we almost can’t talk about without invoking metaphors is time. There are many ways we use spatial metaphors to talk about time, but referring to the future as ahead of us and the past as behind is among one of the most common ways. Trump is well aware that forward is the direction of the future and of progress.

Then there’s the thing that, for Trump, is usually literal, but possibly for a small time became understood as metaphorical, which led to Trump’s assertion that it is MOST CERTAINLY LITERAL:

And in case you were wondering, the jury is still out on potential metaphorical underpinnings of covfefe.

Rule-breaking analogies

The defining feature of an analogy is that it compares two different things.

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Those two different things are often relatively different from each other. Differences between the two topics being compared are likely why analogies are illustrative — they help us understand new or complex topics by pointing out ways they’re similar to more familiar or simpler ones. The new or complex topic being explained is often abstract — something we can’t see or touch, while the more familiar or simpler one tends to be concrete.

For example, the “structure of an atom is like a solar system. Nucleus is the sun and electrons are the planets revolving around their sun.”

I’ve recently come across a few exceptions to these definitional rules of analogies. Although the exceptions still make comparisons in order to explain or illustrate something, they compare different features of one single thing — they both use time to explain time.

This might seem like a lazy or misguided way to communicate, but I think it works. Here are two examples.

The next one jumped off the page at me when I was reading The Remains of the Day:

All right, so neither of us are exactly in our first flush of youth, but you’ve got to keep looking forward… You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.
-Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

My final example of a rule-breaking time analogy also jumped out at me, this time for its terrifying nature:

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Screenshot from New York Times, January 25, 2018

I wasn’t aware of this metaphorical clock that has existed for decades. Apparently, the Doomsday Clock is “a potent symbol of scientific concerns about humanity’s possible annihilation.” And, as the headline expresses, it’s now closer to midnight than it has been since the Cold War.

Why are these successful analogies? In each case, they help us to understand more complex, less graspable time concepts by comparing them to more graspable ones. Both cases draw attention to ways that longer time spans (evolutionary history or an individual’s life span or humanity’s existence) are analogous to shorter time spans (one year or one day — in both of the latter examples). For me, the first analogy was definitely informative — it improved my sense of the amount of time between the emergence of different life form. The second analogy I found intellectually satisfying (I actually put the book down and started reflecting on the fact that I don’t love evenings; I love mornings. And then realized that I’m 26 years old and maybe it’s not such a bad thing that I’m not on Team Evening yet). And the final one definitely conveyed a sense of urgency — there are a lot of scientific and political risks that we really need to get under control.

I like these analogies. I like that they helped me learn and to reflect, and that they were rebellious rule-breakers in the process.


Cover photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

If social unrest is like fire, how should we extinguish it?

We’ve seen a lot of social unrest in the past year, a grave fact we were reminded of recently by a deadly white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, VA and subsequent spinoff clashes around the country. How should we talk about these events when people gather in defense of their key beliefs, particularly when such protests devolve into chaos and jeopardize safety?

A recent paper by Christopher Hart points out that we often use fire metaphors to describe civil unrest. I searched for some fire-related words on Twitter, and sure enough, without including anything related to civil disorder in my searches, came up with commentaries related to social unrest:

Do fire metaphors shape the way we think about these instances of social unrest? Do they contribute to a perceived legitimacy of police using a water cannon in response to the unrest?

These are the questions Hart’s experiments set out to address. Participants experienced one of the following conditions:

  • #1: Description of a protest using literal language (like “Protests have overwhelmed the city…”), accompanied by a picture from the protest (like a person damaging a car)
  • #2: Same description as #1, accompanied by a picture from the protest in which fire was present (like someone burning a car)
  • #3: Same description as above, but the description used metaphorical language, comparing protests to fire (instead of “Protests have overwhelmed the city…” it said “Protests have engulfed the city…”). This description was accompanied by the same image is as Condition #1 (no fire in the image).

These conditions allowed the researcher to compare the impact of metaphorical language on beliefs about the protests to the impact of seeing the metaphorical language’s literal counterpart — actual fire — on beliefs. After exposure to one of these three fictional stories about a protest, participants indicated how logical and how justified they believed it was for police to use water canons at the protest.

As predicted, when people saw fires in the image (accompanying the literal description), they found it more logical and justified to use a water cannon at the protest than when the image did not show fire (but had the same description).

The metaphorical fire language did not encourage people to legitimize the use of a water cannon as the image of fire at a protest did. The researcher suspected it may be that the metaphorical language could not shape the way people thought about the protests when it was accompanied by a visual image in which fire was not present — information in the visual modality may have overruled any effects of the linguistic metaphor on how people thought about the situation.

To test this follow-up prediction, the next experiment used the same two text conditions (literal, as in the prior conditions #1 and #2; or metaphorical, as in condition #3), but had no accompanying images.

In the second experiment, people who read the text containing the fire metaphors were more likely to legitimize the use of a water cannon than those who read the text with the literal description. Even though there was nothing about literal fire in those descriptions, people felt that using a water cannon was seen as more legitimate as a result of fire-related metaphorical language.

Together, these experiments show that an image of fire included with information about a protest or metaphorical language that compares the protest to fire can encourage people to view the use of a water cannon as more logical and justified than the same information without fire images or metaphors.

This work is a great reminder that we need to mind our metaphors, even — or especially — when communicating about emotionally charged issues and current events.

Metaphor shapes thought: When, why, and how?

A lot of concepts that are central to the human experience are abstract, things we can’t directly see or touch. For example, relationships, ideas, and time are concepts that we think and talk about a lot. We commonly use concrete language to talk and think about these things — we use metaphors.

A recent review paper I worked on with Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky focuses on the role that metaphors in language play in shaping our thoughts. We summarize numerous studies that show the power of metaphor to guide the way we think, and discuss cases in which metaphors are most influential. Here are some of my favorite takeaway points from the paper.

A lot of studies that show that metaphors shape the way we think

Climate change, illnesses, the stock market, crime… These are all important issues, and are among the many domains that have been investigated in “metaphor framing studies.” In these studies, researchers present information about the topic to their participants. The information usually includes one metaphor that the researchers intend to test. Other participants get identical information about that same issue, but their information includes a different metaphor. The researchers ask everyone the same opinion questions after, and measure differences in belief that can be attributed to the metaphor people read.

This method has been used to reveal that referring to a war against global warming encourages people to feel urgency for reducing emissions than a race against global warming (more on this study here).

Similar results have also revealed that ideas seem more exceptional when they’re referred to as light bulbs than as seeds. And that conflict hurts people’s idea of their relationship more when the relationship is described as a perfect union than as a journey. These studies and many others show that when we encounter a metaphor in natural language, we often reason about that metaphorical idea in ways that are consistent with the literal idea used to describe it.

Metaphors are most influential when people have just the right amount of prior knowledge

In order for the phrase Crime is a beast to shape the way you think about crime, you have to know something about crime already, and you have to know something about beasts. We review studies that show that when people don’t know enough or care enough about one of the topics, metaphors don’t persuade them. For example, students who liked sports were more in favor of a senior thesis requirement when it was framed with sports metaphors than when it wasn’t, but students who didn’t like sports were not affected at all by the sports metaphors.

At the same, metaphors are most persuasive when people don’t have too much knowledge or strong prior beliefs about the topic being described. For example, people who have deep-seated beliefs about crime are not as swayed by crime metaphors as those who don’t. In other work, when an experiment was designed to make people feel unconfident in their economic knowledge (by giving them a hard quiz), they were more likely to reason about an economic situation (a company’s bankruptcy) in metaphor-consistent ways than people who got an easy quiz, which inflated their confidence.

Metaphors are most effective, then, when people have not too much, or not too little knowledge on a topic — their knowledge level has to be just right.

Metaphors shape memory and attention

It’s useful for us to know that metaphor shapes thought, and when metaphor shapes thought, but it’s also important to work to understand how it does so. In many metaphor framing studies, participants receive a passage with a metaphor, and tend to reason in metaphor-consistent ways, but what’s going on in the space between those events? What is the mechanism through which metaphors exert their effects?

It seems that one way metaphors shape thought is by guiding what we pay attention to in a communication, and therefore what we remember about it. For example, an eye-tracking study revealed that people move their eyes in a path-like motion while they process metaphorical sentences, like “The road goes through the desert” (remember, roads don’t “go” anywhere – they stay still!) compared to literal sentences, like “the road is in the desert.” Eye movements are often used as an indicator of what people are paying most attention to, suggesting that metaphors can shape how people pay attention to incoming information.

In addition to reviewing what cognitive science has revealed about the relationship between metaphor and thought, our paper also reviews what we don’t yet know. To me, one of the most important areas for future work is to understand how insights from these theoretically informative and tightly controlled lab studies can be applied to addressing real-world issues. We’re starting with a solid foundation that shows us that metaphor does shape thought, but we still have much to do to figure out how to apply that knowledge.

Do you make decisions with your head or with your heart? Effects of metaphors on moral reasoning

In the novel and movie Sophie’s Choice, a Polish woman, Sophie Zawistowska, is arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Auschwitz death camp. On arrival, she is “honored” for not being a Jew by being allowed a choice: One of her children will be spared the gas chamber if she chooses which one should be killed. If she does not choose, both of them will be killed.

If you were Sophie, what would you do?

Hopefully you’ve never faced a dilemma quite like this one, but undoubtedly you have faced moral dilemmas in the past. Do you follow your head and choose one child so that at least one lives, or do you follow your heart, and forgo making the difficult choice?

Of course we can’t actually follow our head or our heart; these are metaphors for making decisions that are based in either rationality or emotion. Recent work I’ve done with Dr. Paul Thibodeau shows that these metaphors are more than figures of speech — they actually affect the way people make decisions about moral dilemmas. In our experiment, when we advised people to “think with your head, not your heart,” they made more rational decisions than when we advised them the opposite: “think with your heart, not your head.”

We started to wonder about the role that metaphors play in how we make tough decisions because we were intrigued by earlier research. Drs. Adam Fetterman & Michael Robinson had people indicate whether they normally follow their head or their heart to make tough decisions. They found that those who responded that they tend to follow their head behaved more rationally on a variety of measures — they performed better on general knowledge questions, had higher GPAs, reported being more logical and interpersonally cold, and made more rational decisions for dilemmas like Sophie’s choice (at the beginning of this post) — than those who indicated that they follow their heart. Those researchers concluded that head and heart metaphors are useful for understanding individual differences in how people think and approach the world.

Paul and I wondered if the simple act of asking people whether they saw themselves as a head- or heart-follower might prime them: it might get the metaphors in their mind (especially the one they chose as describing themselves) and guide the way they make decisions during the rest of the experiment, either consciously or unconsciously.

To test whether exposure to metaphors can shape the decisions people make, we first had to replicate the work by Fetterman and Robinson to make sure that we could get the same finding — and we did find that people who indicated that they follow their head answered more rationally on dilemmas like (and including) Sophie’s choice than those who indicated they follow their heart.

Then we were able to extend this finding. We presented all our participants with head or heart metaphors. Everyone read a passage that included only one of two alternative wordings (the two wordings are shown in brackets).

In the low salience condition, we included a head or heart metaphor only in the instructions, which told people to read the moral dilemmas and choose how they would behave in each situation. We told them that There are no right or wrong answers to the questions. Just [follow your heart/use your head] to make the judgment that you think is right.

In the medium and high salience conditions, people read passages that advised them to either think with their head or their heart.

Plato said that there are three parts of the soul. The first is our appetites or desires; the second is hot-blooded emotion; and the final is rational, conscious awareness. But these three parts of ourselves do not play equal roles in making us who we are. The [head/heart] is the most crucial for defining who we are. The [head/heart] is where we find our true self.

The main difference between the medium and high salience conditions was that the medium salience passage continued:

If we are to live a long and prosperous life, we must always listen to our [head/heart]. George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and Michelle Obama are just a few of the incredibly successful people who have followed Plato’s advice in never losing sight of the fact that their [head/heart] holds the key to who they truly are.

The end of the high salience passage was similar to the medium, but it didn’t just encourage people to use their head or heart — it explicitly contrasted the two metaphors (for example, we must always listen to our [head/heart], even if it conflicts with our [heart/head]). This encouraged people to mentally contrast the two possibilities, and made the differences between their implications more salient.

We found that metaphors shaped the way people reasoned only in the high salience condition, when we contrasted the two metaphors with each other. In the low and medium salience conditions, when the metaphor was included either only in the instructions, or also in the passage but without contrast to the competing metaphor, people didn’t respond any differently to the emotional dilemmas based on the metaphor they read.

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In this graph, the y-axis shows the proportion of responses that indicated the more rational response. The left bar shows our replication of Fetterman & Robinson, 2013: when people chose whether they followed their head or heart, they tended to respond to the moral dilemmas in consistent ways (more rationally for “head” responders than “heart” responders). The 3 right bars indicate our new experiment that used metaphors to encourage people to reason with their head or heart. Only in the high salience condition, when people contrasted the head and heart metaphors, did we find consistent differences in how people made decisions for the moral dilemmas.

This work suggests to us that metaphors are most likely to shape the way we think about complex issues when we explicitly contrast two possibilities. We’re still not sure why this may be, but we have a few hypotheses to investigate down the road.


For more info, you can check out the poster we presented last week at CogSci 2017, the international meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, which took place in London.

Bonus! Henri Skinner, a stellar undergraduate at UCSD, made this spoken word poem inspired by this work.

Metaphors in the mind become metaphors in the mouth: Documenting new ways of talking about time

My husband Steven and I were planning a summer vacation to hike through New England. Planning this trip felt like putting a puzzle together, searching for the solution that optimized for flight prices, my research timeline, and his vacation time. Finally, we were converging on a solution, which Steven summed up: “So we’ll move our original plan five days to the right.”

As a native English speaker, my first reaction to a phrase like that is hm, that’s an odd way to say it, but I think I get the gist. “Shift to the right” means “move the trip later.”

Who says things like that? Members of the US Military do, according to recent research I’ve collaborated with Tyler Marghetis and Benjamin Bergen on, and they don’t necessarily confine their specialized language to military contexts. Steven, a Captain in the U.S. Army, offers a glimpse into language practices we’ve observed in military members more broadly.

This finding helps us better understand the relationship between how we talk about abstract ideas like time and how we think about them.

Across many languages, people talk about time in similar ways to how they think about it. In English, for example, we say things like good times are ahead of us and looking back on the past, and cognitive psychology work has shown that we actually think of the future as in front of us and the past as behind. There are similar findings for other languages as well. Earlier work shows that linguistic metaphors for describing time can actually shape the way we think about it — saying things like the future is ahead is not just a rhetorical flourish.

But what about the reverse relationship — that our habitual thought about abstract ideas like time might make their way into language? This relationship is hard to document since language changes slowly over time, and people’s conceptualizations of topics like time are elusive. English speakers think about time is that we do often rely on a mental timeline that places earlier events to the left of right ones. But we don’t normally talk about earlier events to the left of later ones. Military members’ use of left-right metaphors provided us a chance to see a shift occurring, where these left-right mental timelines that many English speakers share have begun to seep into speech for a subset of English speakers.

To understand these left-right metaphors, we had military members and civilians read sentences about time and tell us how acceptable they considered each to be on a scale of 1-7. Both groups agreed that sentences like The meeting was moved two days later were very acceptable. However, military members found sentences containing the words left and right to describe rescheduling to be more acceptable than civilians did. In particular, they reported that a dynamic use of these words (move the meeting to the right) was more acceptable than a static use (the meeting on Friday is to the right of Wednesday). This suggests to us that this population uses these metaphors systematically — they don’t simply substitute the word left for earlier and right for later, but instead have specific circumstances when using the metaphors are more typical than others.

We also found that officers were especially accepting of these dynamic left-right metaphors for talking about events in time, more so than enlisted (non-officer) personnel. Why might this be? We can’t be sure from the data we have since there are many ways that officers and enlisted members may differ, but one difference that stood out to us is that officers are the ones who make the plans that enlisted soldiers carry out. Not only are people more likely to talk about events moving left and right if they’re the ones making plans, but the tools that officers use to make those plans also emphasize time as flowing from left to right. Whereas a canonical calendar in the English-speaking world shows seven days from left to right and then begins again on a new row, the Duty Roster — a fundamental military planning tool — doesn’t depict subsequent weeks or months below each other — they just keep going on the same line. Thus, while English speakers do tend to think of time as flowing from left to right, military planning practices an even greater left-right timeline, which was reflected in their speech.

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Documenting the existence of these left-right metaphors for talking about time and the way that military members use them provides us a glimpse into how patterns of thought can become patterns in language. Can these patterns in language in turn shape the way that military members think about time? This work leaves that question open, but it’s one we hope to tackle. Continuing to understand the relationship between language and thought — particularly about abstract and ubiquitous concepts like time — contributes a piece to the huge puzzle of what makes humans the brilliant creatures that we are.


This is work I completed with Drs. Ben Bergen at UCSD and Tyler Marghetis at Indiana University, Bloomington. We’re presenting it this week at the annual Cognitive Science Society meeting in London (CogSci 2017). You can also check out our poster.

What’s going on in our minds when language shapes how we think?

This is the second post in a two-part series on a new paper my advisor Lera Boroditsky and I published that shows that learning a new way to talk about time creates new ways of thinking about it. You can check out the first post here.


A lot of psychology research measures behavior — what people do, often in a lab experiment — as a way of understanding what they’re thinking.

For example, in some of my favorite work by Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky, participants read about a crime problem in a fictional city. The problem was described metaphorically, either as a beast or as a virus. After reading about the problem, participants indicated what the city officials should do to solve the crime problem. Those who had read that crime was a beast were more likely to suggest punitive solutions, as one would likely suggest if a literal beast were ravaging the city, than those who read that crime was a virus. In this experiment, the researchers measured people’s behaviors — their suggestions for dealing with the crime — as a way of understanding how the crime metaphors shaped their thoughts.

Thought is a pretty tricky thing to measure, especially when it’s about high-level topics like crime, and our behaviors give researchers a useful glimpse into the mind. But behavioral evidence still leaves us asking what’s actually going on in people’s minds when metaphors shape the way we think.

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In our recent work, participants learned new ways to talk about time. We then measured their subconscious associations between different parts of space and different aspects of time, and their behavior suggested that they now thought about time in ways that were consistent with how they learned to talk about it.

We wanted to learn more about how this was happening. We call this new way of thinking — associating earlier events with either higher or lower parts of space, depending on the metaphors a person learned — a new representation. We think of this new representation as a new timeline a person has in mind. We wondered whether this new representation that people acquired through the metaphors they learned in our lab was a kind that relied on language while they were using it.

For example, we know that counting items is a kind of representation or cognitive routine that does require a person to engage their language capacities in their mind, even when they’re not talking out loud. Intuitively this makes sense — when you ask yourself what’s going on in your mind when you count an array of objects, it might make sense that you’re actually saying “one, two, three…” in your head as you count. Researchers have indeed been able to show that this is what’s going on in our minds when we count by having people memorize strings of letters (which requires them to rehearse the letters in their head, saying something like “F, J, D, C, P, R” silently to themselves while also trying to count objects. Under this condition, often referred to as verbal interference, people (specifically MIT students) struggle to even count an array of dots accurately. This result is taken as evidence that counting objects relies on our ability to engage in a linguistic routine in our heads, since the verbal interference, which also relies on the ability to engage in a linguistic routine, disrupted counting performance.

When participants learned new metaphors for time in our experiment, we also wanted to find out whether their newly learned mental timelines also required a linguistic routine for the metaphors to exert their effects on mental timelines. To that end, we had participants complete the typical task measuring their subconscious space-time associations while they were mentally rehearsing a string of letters, as the researchers in the counting work did. The mental rehearsal taxed their linguistic working memory, leaving them unable to engage these linguistic cognitive resources for other tasks. If they needed to engage those resources for the new metaphors to shape how they think about time, we should see that they no longer associate the parts of space and time that their metaphors suggested when they undergo verbal interference at the same time.

We found that even under verbal interference, people showed mental timelines that were consistent with the new metaphors they learned in our lab. In other words, learning a new way to talk about time shaped how people thought about it, and it was not just because people were adopting a new routine in their minds, subvocalizing to themselves, “earlier is up, later is down” (or vice versa) while doing the main task. Language can shape non-linguistic thought patterns.

But what is going on in our minds when we learn new metaphors for time that shape how we think about it? Are we imagining earlier events (like breakfast) as being physically above or below later events (dinner)? We’re still not sure, but there’s no shortage of mysteries to work on to better understand how language shapes our thoughts about topics as ubiquitous as time.

Much more than a way of talking: Metaphors in language shape how we think

We gather a lot of knowledge through our physical experiences in the world: what a good steak tastes like, how to get from home to work, or how it feels to be caught in a downpour. But at the same time, many of the topics that are most central to our lives, like the concepts of love, justice, or time, aren’t things we can directly experience, for example by seeing, touching, or tasting them. How, then, do we make sense of them?

One way we develop these concepts in our minds is by thinking about them in terms of concepts we do have direct experiences with. We use metaphors like love is a journey to conceptualize love in terms of a more concrete idea, a journey. Research I conducted with my advisor Lera Boroditsky shows that linguistic metaphors can actually cause us to think about concepts like time in new ways.

In our lab, we taught participants new ways of talking about time that used vertical terms to talk about sequences of events. For example, some people learned that earlier events take place above later ones. They were told things like Tuesday is higher than Wednesday, and When we eat dinner, breakfast is above us. Other people learned the opposite system of metaphors, that earlier events take place below later ones.

After learning these metaphors, participants completed a task that measures how much they subconsciously associate different parts of space with different aspects of time. This task didn’t require language to complete it (people saw pictures and pressed buttons to indicate the order that events happened in), so there was no encouragement for people to even connect this task with the earlier part of the experiment in which they learned new ways to talk about time.

We found that people associated space with time in ways that were consistent with the new metaphors they had just learned. Those who learned that earlier events happen above later ones tended to associate earlier events with higher space than later events and vice versa.

Learning a new way to talk about time creates new ways of thinking about it.

This work is based on a foundation of research pointing to similarities between the way we talk and think about time. Across languages, people often use spatial language to talk about time. For example in English, we can have a long meeting or time can fly by, we look forward to the future and back on the past, and it’s appropriate to say either that we’re approaching a deadline or that the deadline is approaching us. In all of these cases, the metaphors we use to talk about time suggest that passage of time is akin to movement through space.

Using space to talk about time is not specific to English. Many languages include similar metaphors, though different aspects of space can be associated with different aspects of time. For example, the Aymara, a group in South America, refer to the past as ahead of them and the future as behind, a reversal of the English convention. Similarly, speakers of Mandarin Chinese can use vertical language — the same words that mean up and down — when talking about time.

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We don’t just use spatial language to talk about time, but we actually think about time in ways that are consistent with the specific spatial metaphors our language uses. For example, English speakers lean slightly forward when thinking about the future and back when thinking about the past, and demonstrate subconscious associations between space in front of the body and the future and space behind the body and the past on reaction time tasks. These studies suggest that we’re often drawing on our knowledge of space when we think about time.

Does the language we use to talk about time (like the future ahead of us and past behind) cause us to actually think of time in consistent ways, or do we use these spatial metaphors because we naturally think about the future in front of us and the past behind? This is pretty much a textbook chicken-and-egg problem.

Both possibilities could be true, but existing research can’t shed light on causal relationships. Showing that Mandarin speakers think about time vertically (consistent with their metaphors in language) and English speakers do not doesn’t tell us that different metaphors cause differences in thought — there are many ways in which two groups of people who speak different languages will differ, and it’s impossible to know whether any of those factors actually lead to an observed difference in thinking about time between the two groups. In order to make the causal claim — to know whether metaphors in language can actually shape the way people think about time — we needed to randomly assign participants to conditions. By teaching all participants a new way of talking in the lab, that’s exactly what we did — we randomly assigned some to the group that learned that earlier events are above later ones and others to the group that learned that earlier events are below. This way we could be sure that the metaphors participants learned, and not some other uncontrolled difference between the two groups, was the reason the two groups differed in the way they associated vertical space and time.

This work shows that metaphors in language can shape the way people think. In fact, learning a new way of talking about time can foster new ways of thinking about this topic that is central to our everyday lives.


In the second (and final) post in this series, I’ll dive more into what was actually going on in people’s minds when these new metaphors shaped how they think about time.

Here’s the link to the original article

The most informative home video

My family has some home videos. Some are on actual cassettes, and others are on our iPhones or in the cloud. They’re mostly short, and like photographs, they’re somewhat staged. In many cases, they show premeditated or sugar-coated shots of our lives.

But MIT researcher Deb Roy has some home videos that break the mould I just described. Roy and his wife set up video cameras to record every room of their house for about 10 hours a day for the first three years of their son’s life. They have more than 200,000 hours of data. Analyzing it is a mammoth and ongoing task, but it has helped answer some highly-debated and longstanding questions about how humans develop language. For example, one paper describes how this data can be used to predict the “birth” of a spoken word.

What factors facilitate word learning?

Not surprisingly, the child produced shorter words before longer words, as well as words that tended to occur in shorter sentences, and words he had heard often before rarer words. To me, these are intuitive features of words that make them easier to learn.

But there were also some less intuitive features that predicted how early the child would produce certain words. These features were more contextual, taking into account the when and where he heard words in the time leading up to his first production.

One feature that predicted a word’s birth was based on how often the boy heard the word in different rooms throughout the house. Some words were spatially distinct–for example, “breakfast” usually occurred in the kitchen, and others were more spatially dispersed, like the word “toy.” Spatial distinctiveness tended to help him learn words faster.

The researchers also measured temporal distinctiveness, or when during the day the word was likely to be heard by the toddler. Again, “breakfast” was temporally distinct, occurring almost exclusively in the morning, while the word “beautiful” was much more dispersed throughout the day. As with spatially distinct words, the researchers found that more temporally distinct words– those that were most often said at a similar time during the day — were learned sooner than those whose uses were spread out throughout a typical day.

Finally, they looked at the contextual distinctiveness of each word. This is basically the variation in the language that the child tended to hear with the word of interest. The word “fish” was contextually distinct, for example, often occurring with other animal words or words related to stories. “Toy,” on the other hand, occurred with a much greater variety of words and topics, so it was less contextually distinct. As with spatial and temporal distinctiveness, contextual distinctiveness made a word easier to learn.

This TED talk blew my mind.

Why does distinctiveness affect word learning?

Children learn language through conversations that are inseparable from the everyday life contexts they occur in. Those contexts are not just incidental features of word learning, but are actually crucial variables affecting how language is learned. This work is a reminder that language use and development is actually about much more than language, just as thinking is something that requires much more than just a brain. We humans are inseparable from our environments, and those environments play a big role in shaping how we think and navigate the wonderfully messy world we live in.