Metaphors for creativity: using our bodies for problem solving

It can be hard to be creative. Yet so many of our endeavors demand creativity. Creating art or writing a screenplay are obvious examples that demand creativity, but so do less obvious activities like creating a lesson plan for a high school history class, creating ads for a political campaign, or coming up with a bedtime story for your kid. What kinds of advice do we give each other for being creative? And does our advice actually help us come up with clever solutions or novel ideas.

To test whether the “on the one hand… on the other hand” metaphor is embodied, participants were asked to come up with novel uses for a university building complex. In round one, they generated as many ideas as possible while holding out their right hand and keeping their left behind their back. In round two, they were asked to come up with additional novel suggestions for this same question. Some participants kept their right hand out and left behind their backs, while others now put the right behind their back and held their left out. This second group of participants embodied the “on the one hand…on the other hand” metaphor, while the first did not.

Accordingly, those who did use both hands came up with more potential solutions overall, as well as more flexible and original ideas (as rated by independent coders) than those who only used one hand. Enacting this common metaphor for creativity (without actually saying or hearing “on one hand… and on the other hand”) actually fostered more and better solutions.

They also explored the effects of embodying the metaphorical advice to “think outside the box.” For this experiment, the researchers created a box that was 5 feet by 5 feet so that one person could comfortably sit in it (I wish there was an image of this!). They told participants they were studying the effects of different work environments, and while either sitting inside or outside the box, participants did a common creativity task called a Remote Association Task. For that task, participants receive 3 words (like “measure,” “worm,” and “video”), and have to think of a fourth word that can be combined with the previous three to make real words (in the example case, “tape” –> “tape measure,” “tapeworm,” and “video tape”). People who did this task while sitting outside the box came up with more correct answers than those who did it while sitting inside the box.

Literally thinking outside the box helped people figuratively think outside the box.

From this work, you could take away the lessons to hold both your hands out and make sure you’re sitting outside a big box when trying to do creative work. And maybe those strategies would help, but offering them was not the purpose of this paper. Instead, the authors focus on their contribution to the massive undertaking that is understanding the human mind, especially how we engage in such complicated processes as creativity. They point out that our bodies and minds are linked in ways that affect how we generate knowledge. By doing so, they shine light on one of the phenomena that make humans the endlessly fascinating creatures that we are.

Check out the full study to read about follow-up studies, and how different metaphors affect divergent thinking (coming up with many solutions) vs. convergent thinking (using different pieces of knowledge to settle on the one correct answer).

Feature Image: Creative Workspace by MeeshBomb. CC BY

Body spills into the brain

This quarter I’m TAing for a class called Distributed Cognition, which explores a bunch of ways that cognition might not be something that happens exclusively in the brain. This week we looked at different flavors of embodiment, the idea that the body is crucial for cognition. For example, we talked about one study showing that people who were unknowingly leaning to the left made numerical estimates that were too small (consistent with the location of smaller numbers on our number line), while those leaning to the right made overestimations (Eerland, Guadalupe, & Zwaan, 2011). The overarching theme was that the state of our body can affect thoughts that we typically attribute only to our brain.

One study that I was reminded about when talking to a student is a study that has gotten a good amount of popular press attention. It’s called Extraneous factors in judicial decisions (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011), but the message that is usually taken is that judges have no mercy when they’re hungry. The authors divided judges’ work days into three chunks, divided by their food breaks. They found that at the beginning of each segment, judges made favorable decisions about 65% of the time, and their favorable decision rate declined steadily, reaching nearly 0%, throughout each segment. As someone whose brain and body shut down without a relatively consistent stream of food, this finding is not too shocking, though the magnitude of the change in favorable decisions is dramatic. I think it’s a great example of “body spills into the brain.”

It’s also an example of what many researchers refer to as “ego depletion,” the idea that we have a limited pool of mental resources, and cognition suffers once they’re used up. We get mentally fatigued, and then make poor decisions or have poor performance on some task as a result. Ego depletion underlies claims that working fewer hours increases productivity. I read this sort of advice often, each time thinking to myself, yes! I should do that. I feel this way especially on days like today, a Saturday morning in which ego depletion is fresh on my mind. I’m in recovery mode. Then, inspired to change my work habits, I’ll open my calendar to decide which work hours I’ll shave off the week, and I just stare at it. My trusty, color-coded calendar feels non-negotiable, so I close it and decide that working fewer hours maybe isn’t that crucial. I convince myself of this by reading reminders that some researchers claim that ego depletion is all in our heads. There’s probably some truth to this too – I often don’t start to feel drained until I acknowledge how busy I’ve been.

I do a lot of meta-cognition about work. By that I mean that I think about my work patterns and other people’s, and I try to evaluate what’s good bad about those patterns. My conclusion, for this morning at least, is that there’s probably not a one-size-fits-all solution to this issue. Some people might suffer from major ego depletion, while others might be more Energizer-bunny-like. Some weeks a person might get tons done while putting in many hours, and other weeks might be more efficient with a leaner schedule. For me, my goal is to work deliberately and mindfully, taking each week, day, or project as it comes, and adapting work habits as necessary. I will probably never discover the secret recipe for 100% efficient work, but that’s ok – it’s kind of fun trying to figure it out anyway.

Brain + Body + World = Mind

Where does cognition come from? The most common claim is probably that cognition resides in the brain. But that can’t be enough. The idea of a bodiless brain is pretty disturbing – could a brain in a jar produce true cognition? The externalist (embodiment) philosophy maintains that the interaction among brain, body, and world is crucial;  these three components together give rise to the mind, and no one is sufficient on its own.


The brain is the most obvious contributor to cognition. Neuroscience research is based in the idea that a better understanding of the brain will bring about a better understanding of thinking and behavior. Fuster demonstrates his belief in the primacy of the brain by claiming “our memories are networks of interconnected cortical neurons, formed by association, that contain our experiences in their connectional structure” (451). His use of the verb “to be” instead of phrases like “are created by” or “result from” exemplifies his commitment to the preeminence of the brain. Fuster explains complex cognitive phenomena in terms of their underlying brain events. For example, he describes working memory as a temporary activation of a network of perceptual and motor memories, or, more simply, as the product of neural events.

A number of researchers opposed to this brain-centered view advocate for the importance of the body in cognition. After all, every brain is situated in a body. Ballard emphasizes the vitality of the body. Specifically, he points out the central role that they eyes can play in a number of tasks requiring working memory. In one experiment, he showed participants a structure made of a number of different blocks. They had a resource area containing the same blocks they would need to duplicate the model, and were asked to do so in a separate workspace area. As they moved blocks from the resource area to the workspace area, participants looked back at the model much more than they should have if they had stored a representation of the model in working memory. In fact, the most common strategy was to look from the model, to the pick-up area, back to the model, and then to the drop area for each block. Thus, Ballard concludes, subjects used fixation as a deictic pointing device presumably because the computational costs of storing the model in memory (a cognitive task) were greater than the on-line costs of shifting their eyes. In sum, the paper provided a unique example of the connectedness of the physical body and the brain’s processes.

Just as brains are situated in bodies, bodies are situated in the world, so it is unsurprising that the world is likewise crucial for cognition. Spivey uses eye-movement experiments to demonstrate the role of the external visual environment in numerous types of cognition. In one especially persuasive experiment, participants listened to descriptions of spatiotemporally dynamic scenes while facing a large white screen. For example, they might hear a description of events unfolding in a skyscraper. Narration might start talking about an occurrence on a lower floor and continue describing events higher up sequentially. Even though subjects were looking at a blank screen, their eye movements corresponded with the direction of the description (in the case of the example, their eyes would shift upward with the description). Spivey argues that the physical eye movements are an integral part of language processing, and more broadly that physical movements enable many types of cognition.

Kirsh also presents numerous real-world examples of people’s use of their physical environments. Drawing from instances of people cooking, packing groceries at the supermarket, personal workshops and playrooms, and playing Tetris, he shows that the spatial arrangements we create in our own environments help simplify choices, perception, and computation. We simplify choices, for example, when we lay vegetables that need to be washed next to the sink because the proximity of the items makes the desired action (washing) more salient and undesired actions (like chopping) less salient. One way we simplify perception is by symbolically marking an object. He gives the example of a  woman who, after measuring an amount of butter and cutting the stick in two, laid her knife on the measured piece to act as a sort of reminder. Finally, a Tetris game demonstrates our ability to use our environment to simplify computation. Approximately 800 to 1800ms after a zoid enters the screen, people display a burst of rotations, presumably because actually rotating the zoid takes less time than mentally rotating it. Thus, he concludes, humans use a variety of strategies to optimize their environments for cognition in many tasks.

Mind can emerge only when brain, body, and world come together. In this sense, “mind is best measured by its capabilities, not by its capacities” (Spivey, p. 183). Although the brain is undeniably an important contributor to thought and behavior, the physical presence of neurons and their connections does not alone constitute cognition. The bodies in which brains are found and the worlds in which the bodies are found are also crucial components of the human mind and cognition. Evidence from a variety of contexts has shown the importance of embodiment, or as Spivey concisely noted, “it might just be that your mind is bigger than your brain” (p. 162).

Is embodiment behind our love of certain characters?

When Twilight first became popular, I heard many observations (criticisms?) like this one that teen girls are so enraptured by the books because Bella, the main character, is extremely non-descript. She’s an “empty shell,” which makes it so that “any female can slip into it and easily fantasize about being this person.” This makes sense, and it rings true when I think about the books I liked when I was younger: the characters had something in common with me, and I usually chose to disregard the traits we didn’t have in common. Even movies: I loved Matilda, and as I look back on it, I realize that I was (am?) almost as book-obsessed as she, and we even have a pretty strong physical resemblance.

My childhood doppelganger  Image: www.fanpop.com

My childhood doppelganger
Image: http://www.fanpop.com

The acknowledgment that stories are more interesting when we can imagine ourselves in them is not new. But recently as I was thinking about this, I wondered: does this have anything to do with embodiment? If our bodies constitute the foundation through which we experience the world, are we able to experience it more vividly when we can actually imagine our bodies in the story? Embodiment is intimately connected to the idea of simulation – even when we’re not using our bodies, when we’re thinking about something, we mentally simulate that doing that action or seeing whatever object we’re thinking about. Is that what draws us to certain stories and is that why I could never get enough Matilda?!

(These questions aren’t rhetorical, by the way. I actually want answers, though I know they may not exist yet.)

Metaphors We Live By

I recently read Metaphors we Live by, a seminal work in the field of metaphor research. Written by George Lakoff, a linguist, and Mark Johnson, a philosopher, the book incorporates both fields in an argument for metaphor’s importance in our lives. The authors make the case that metaphor allows us to apply our physical and social experiences to make sense of many other subjects. By this definition, metaphors structure our understandings of so many concepts in our lives (from arguments to time perception), and consequently shape our perceptions of and actions regarding those concepts.
While I do subscribe to their thesis, the most what struck me most when reading this work that I have so often read about was the observation that they were talking about embodiment without referring to it as such (probably because the term wasn’t yet in use). In a way, it seems to me, Lakoff and Johnson are hipsters, advocating for embodied cognition before it became trendy.
One example of this is their recurrent discussion of the general metaphor “happy is up,” (as are “good” and “healthy” – and their opposites are down). This is evident in metaphors like:
  • I’m down in the dumps
  • That speech was uplifting
  • Cheer up
  • My spirits rose
Down in the dumps, literally and metaphorically. Image: idiomeanings.com

Down in the dumps, literally and metaphorically.
Image: idiomeanings.com

Crucially, they argue, metaphors are systematic, not arbitrary. So if happy is up, we could never introduce a new metaphor into our language in which something like “he dropped down a level” meant that he got better in any way. Embodiment comes in when we realize that when we’re healthy and happy, we physically stand taller. We hold our heads higher and we look UP. Because in our personal experiences, “good” and “up” really do correlate, our metaphors reflect that. Then the metaphor becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, as our subsequent actions may also be shaped by the metaphors which are first based in experience.
I think that if Lakoff and Johnson, or any of us, want to make the argument that our linguistic practice of equating “good” and “up” is rooted in our physiology, we should look at other languages. Do speakers of other languages have the same systematic metaphors? The presence of metaphors in which “down” and “good” are equated in any language would make me rethink this argument. They write that “not all cultures give the priorities we do to up-down orientation. There are cultures where balance or centrality plays a much more important role than it does in our culture” (p.24). I was eager to read elaboration on this, and maybe some examples… but that was all they wrote.Thus, for now, I’m on board with the idea that our bodies have systematically shaped our metaphors.
Some other interesting tidbits:
  • In addition to “up is good,” we also systematically express the unknown as up (i.e., that’s up in the air; I’d like to raise some questions; let’s bring it up for discussion). When we ask questions, presumably regarding something that’s  unknown to us, our intonation rises – not a coincidence, the authors claim.
  • The authors bring up the idea that in language (not just English), more form equals more content. So when we say “he is very very very tall,” we get the impression of a much taller man than one described as, “he is very tall.” Many languages use reduplication, the repetition of one or two syllables, to evoke more content as well. In some languages, reduplication applied to a singular noun makes it plural, or applied to a verb makes it continuous. These practices demonstrate another metaphor we live by – that a linguistic expression is a container and its meaning is the contents of that container. By adding more language to the container (expression), we add more content.
Some parts of the book were a little tough to get through (for me, that would be the philosophical parts), but overall my experience of reading the book was one dotted with a number of hm-I-never-thought-of-that moments. As a tribute to the importance of metaphor, I’ll close with the final paragraph of the afterword, an apt summary of the whole work:
 But metaphors are not merely things to be seen beyond. In fact, one can see beyond them only by using other metaphors. It is as though the ability to comprehend experience through metaphor were a sense, like seeing or touching or hearing, with metaphors providing the only ways to perceive and experience much of the world. Metaphor is as much a part of our functioning as our sense of touch, and as precious.

Sum ergo cogito

Descartes is famous for saying “Cogito ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am” (though the original phrase was actually in French- “je pense, donc je suis.” This phrase has become a philosophical foundation and an aphorism embraced by many. If we’re ever doubting our existence (not that I think this is a common worry for people), the very fact that we’re about to have such dubious thoughts enforces the fact that we must exist.

I just read an article on embodiment that ends by suggesting maybe a different aphorism is more appropriate in light of growing evidence that our physical bodies play a crucial role in cognition- I am, therefore I think. I think this radical reversal of such a well-known, seemingly-timeless phrase really nicely demonstrates the radical shift in cognitive science that’s being brought about by the embodiment hypothesis. Until recently, thought was assumed to reside solely in the brain. Even though we use our physical bodies to perceive the world, those sensations were considered to be merely signals that were meaningless until the brain made sense of them. But now, evidence  that our bodies are an inseparable part of the thinking process is rapidly growing, and cogito ergo sum seems to miss the mark as a descriptor for the relationship between body and thought.

Reflections on time

I recently finished the book Time Warped, which, according to the subtitle, “unlock[s] the mysteries of time perception.” The author, Claudia Hammond, does present a lot of intriguing studies from psychology, neuroscience, and biology to explain time, but for me, the book may actually have uncovered more mysteries than solving them.

The first intriguing point that the book brought to awareness is that time is not a thing. It’s a concept that we create in our minds, and is therefore intimately connected to our memory, concentration, emotion, and sense that it’s rooted in space. It constantly catches us off guard, for example when we’re doing something we enjoy and then realize a few hours have passed, or when we’re anticipating something and the hours seem to drag endlessly. Further, we will never get used to this phenomenon. We’ll never stop commenting on it or attempting to control and manipulate time’s passing.

Another point that really hit home for me was the possibility that our bodies likely play a part in time perception (Lately I’m wondering if any aspect of cognition is NOT linked to our bodies…). What I like about this explanation is that it leaves room for contributions by a number of brain systems and body parts to our perception of time. In short, Hammond argues that in order to perceive and measure time, we integrate information from neuronal activity in a number of areas in our brains (she makes cases for involvement of the cerebellum, basal ganglia, frontal lobe, and anterior insular cortex) and physiological symptoms of our bodies (such as physical discomfort and gut feelings- those feelings that are psychological but on the verge of physical).

Another link between our physical bodies and our perception of time was uncovered by Mark Price (paper is not yet published), who had time/space synesthetes (people who have vivid mental pictures of time- like the images below, for example) draw a diagram of how they see the months of the year. The participants then sit at a computer that randomly flashes up months on the screen, and they’re instructed to press one button for months early in the year and another for months occurring late in the year. He found that when the position of a person’s spatial representation of a month occurs in the same position as the key they need to press, they do so more quickly. For example, if March is in the left-hand corner of their mental map of the year, they’ll be quicker at hitting the key indicating that March occurs earlier in the year if that key is on the left side of the keyboard, and slower if the key is on the right side.

These are two possibilities of individuals' spatial representations of time. Image: sciencedirect.com

These are two possibilities of individuals’ spatial representations of time.
Image: sciencedirect.com

To me, this is a huge argument for embodied cognition. Time is a concept created by humans and not based in any physical thing, yet our physical body seems to have an inevitable influence over our perception of time. I wonder how much differences in our perceptiveness of bodily feelings affects our conceptualization of time…