Idiomatic and Conventional Expressions

There is a extensive literature demonstrating that conceptual metaphors may play a role in people's understanding of individual phrases and larger textual units (see Gibbs, 1994,1999). Consistent with the claims of cognitive linguists, there is also evidence that people tacitly recognize the embodied nature of many conceptual metaphors. One set of psycholinguistic studies examined how people's intuitions of the bodily experience of containment, and several other image schemas, which serve as the source domains for several important conceptual metaphors, underlie speakers' use and understanding of idioms (e.g., "blow your stack," "spill the beans"). These studies were designed to show that the specific entailments of idioms reflect the source to target domain mappings of their underlying conceptual metaphors (Gibbs, 1992). Most importantly, these metaphorical mappings preserve the cognitive topology of these embodied, image-schematic source domains (e.g., heated fluids in the bodily container onto anger).

Participants in a first study were questioned about their understanding of events corresponding to particular bodily experiences that were viewed as motivating specific source domains for conceptual metaphors (e.g., the experience of one's body as a container filled with fluid). For instance, participants were asked to imagine the embodied experience of a sealed container filled with fluid, and then they were asked something about causation (e.g., "What would cause the container to explode?"), intentionality (e.g., "Does the container explode on purpose or does it explode through no volition of its own?"), and manner (e.g., "Does the explosion of the container occur in a gentle or a violent manner?").

Overall, the participants were remarkably consistent in their responses to the various questions. To give one example, people responded that the cause of a sealed container exploding its contents is the internal pressure caused by the increase in the heat of the fluid inside the container. They also reported that this explosion is unintentional because containers and fluid have no intentional agency, and that the explosion occurs in a violent manner. These brief responses provide a rough, nonlinguistic profile of people's understanding of a particular source domain concept (i.e., heated fluid in the bodily container). These profiles are rough approximations of what cognitive linguistics and others refer to as the "image-schematic structures" of the source domains (Gibbs & Colston, 1995; Lakoff, 1990).

These different image schematic profiles about certain abstract concepts allowed me to predict something about people's understanding of idioms. My idea was that people's intuitions about various source domains map onto their conceptualizations of different target domains in very predictable ways. For instance, people's understanding of anger should partly be structured by their folk concept for heated fluid on the bodily container as described above. Several studies showed this to be true (Gibbs, 1992). Not surprisingly, when people understand anger idioms, such as "blow your stack," "flip your lid," or "hit the ceiling," they inferred that the cause of anger is internal pressure, that the expression of anger is unintentional, and is done is an abrupt violent manner. People do not draw these same inferences about causation, intentionality, and manner when comprehending literal paraphrases of idioms, such as "get very angry."

More interesting, though, is that people's intuitions about various source domains map onto their conceptualizations of different target domains in very predictable ways. For instance, several later experiments showed that people find idioms to be more appropriate and easier to understand when they are seen in discourse contexts that are consistent with the various entailments of these phrases. Thus, people find it easy to process the idiomatic phrase "blow your stack," when this was read in a context that accurately described the cause of the person's anger as being due to internal pressure, where the expression of anger was unintentional and violent (all entailments that are consistent with the entailments of the source to target domain mappings of heated fluid in a container onto anger). However, readers took significantly longer to read "blow your stack" when any of these entailments were contradicted by the preceding story context.

These psycholinguistic findings provide additional evidence that people's metaphorical concepts underlie their understanding of what idioms mean in written texts. Moreover, they provide significant experimental evidence that people's intuitions about their embodied experiences can predict something about their use and understanding of idioms, expressions that are partly motivated by bodily based conceptual metaphors.

A very recent research project on embodiment and metaphorical meaning looked at people's interpretations of metaphorical expressions about human desires (Gibbs, Lima, & Francuzo, 2004). This work also independently examined people's embodied experiences and used this information to make predictions about people's understandings of linguistic meaning. The metaphorical mapping of hunger onto desire is frequently found in talk of various kinds of desires, including lust and the desires for both concrete objects and abstract ideas/events. Thus, American English speakers often talk of abstract desires in terms of hunger.

"He hungers for recognition."

"He hungers for adventure."

"He had a hunger for power."

"He hungers for revenge."

Asserting this metaphorical relationship is not just a conventional or arbitrary way of speaking about desire, because there appears to be rich, systematic correspondences between feeling hunger and feeling different aspects of desire. Gibbs et al. (2004) investigated whether university students in two cultures, the United States and Brazil, metaphorically understand different desires in terms of their embodied experiences of hunger. If hunger and desire are highly correlated, and if people metaphorically make sense of their desires partly in terms of hunger, then these more prominent parts of their hunger experiences should be invariantly mapped onto their different concepts for desire. Thus, people should subsequently view certain ways of talking about desires in terms of specific hunger experiences more acceptable than less prominent aspects of feeling hunger.

A first study presented American and Brazilian college students with three types of symptoms that may possibly result from a person being hungry (these were translated into Brazilian Portuguese for the Brazilian participants). "Local" symptoms referred to specific parts of the body, "general" symptoms referred to whole body experiences, and "behavioral" symptoms referred to various behaviors that may result as a consequence of a person being hungry. Each of these three symptoms included items that we presumed may be closely related to the experience of being hungry, items possibly being related, and items not at all related to hunger. An analysis of these ratings showed that both English and Portuguese speakers gave similar ratings to the different items. For example, the two groups of participants agreed that strong effects of hunger on the human body include the stomach grumbles, thought of food makes one's mouth water, one has a stomachache, and one has a headache (local symptoms); one feels discomfort, becomes weak, becomes dizzy, gets annoyed, and has an appetite (general symptoms); and the person feels out of balance, becomes emotionally fragile, and becomes very anxious (behavior symptoms).

The two groups of participants also agreed on those items that were not related to their hunger experiences. Examples of these items include: the knees swell, the feet hurt, the hands itch, and the fingers snap (local symptoms); one wants to run, doesn't wish to see anyone, becomes talkative, and gets a fever (general symptoms), and one behaves normally, and one can work well (behavior symptoms). Overall, these findings indicate significant regularities in people's embodied experiences of hunger, at least as suggested by speakers from these two different cultures.

A second study examined whether people's folk knowledge about hunger is correlated with their understandings of difference experiences of desire. English and Portuguese speakers were asked to give their intuitions about two types of questions. The first set of questions focused on how people's bodies felt when experiencing three types of desire: love, lust, and the desire for things other than human beings, such as fame, adventure, money, etc. (the "other" category). Participants were asked to read each question and then rate the relevance of various bodily experiences (e.g., becomes dizzy, weak, annoyed, talkative) when that person was in love, lust, or experiencing some other desire.

The second set of questions focused on people's intuitions about the acceptability of different ways of linguistically expressing desire. Similar to the body questions, half of the items were constructed from strongly (or highly) rated bodily experiences for hunger as shown in the first study, with the other half came from weakly (or lowly) rated hunger items. These linguistic questions were posed for three types of desire (i.e., love, lust, and other) as was the case for the body questions. The participants' task was simply to read each statement (e.g., "My whole body aches for you," "I have a strong headache for knowledge," "My hands are itching for you," "My knees ache for information about my ancestry") and rate whether it was an acceptable way of talking in their respective language.

An analysis of the mean ratings showed that the findings for both the Body and Linguistic questions are generally consistent across English and Portuguese for the three types of symptoms for the three types of desire (love, lust, other). For instance, in regard to students' ratings of the acceptability of different linguistic expressions, both the American and Brazilian students viewed "I have a great appetite for money" and "I have a stomach pain for my old way of life" as being reasonable, acceptable ways of talking about different desires. But they also rated expressions such as "I became talkative for adventure" and "My knees swell for information about my ancestry" as being unacceptable ways of talking about desire.

Overall, then, the findings showed how knowing something about people's embodied experiences of hunger allows scholars to empirically predict which aspects of desire will, and will not, be thought of, and talked about, in terms of our complex embodied understandings of hunger. This evidence is generally consistent across two different languages and cultural communities. People use their knowledge of their bodily experiences/actions as the primary source of metaphorical meaning and understanding.

None of the studies described above indicate that people are using their "in-the-moment" felt sense of their bodies when thinking about and understanding the language referring to abstract concepts. The work discussed here only suggests that parts of our abstract concepts are linked to embodied, metaphorical experiences, which motivates people's interpretation of different metaphorical words and phrases.

hypothesis 4: embodiment and immediate language processing

The final hypothesis states that embodiment plays a role in the immediate processing of metaphorical statements. I describe here two very different sets of studies in support of this claim. The first series of experiments demonstrated that people compute or access embodied metaphors during their immediate understanding of idioms like "blew his stack" (Gibbs, Bogdonvich, Sykes, & Barr, 1997). In these studies, participants read stories ending with idioms and then quickly gave lexical decision responses to visually presented letter-strings that reflected either something about the conceptual metaphors underlying these idioms (e.g., "heat" for ANGER IS HEATED FLUID IN A CONTAINER having just read "John blew his stack") or letter-strings that were unrelated to these conceptual metaphors (e.g., "lead").

There were two important findings from this study. First, people were faster to make these lexical decision responses to the related metaphor targets (i.e., "heat") having just read idioms than they were to either literal paraphrases of idioms (e.g., "John got very angry") or control phrases (e.g., phrases still appropriate to the context such as "John saw many dents"). Second, people were faster in recognizing related metaphorical targets than unrelated ones having read idioms, but not literal paraphrases or control phrases. This pattern of results suggests that people are immediately computing or accessing at least something related to the conceptual metaphor ANGER IS HEATED FLUID IN A CONTAINER when they read idioms. In another experiment, participants were faster to make lexical decision responses to metaphor targets (e.g., "heat") having read an idiom motivated by a similar conceptual metaphor (e.g., "John blew his stack") than an idiom with roughly the same figurative meaning but motivated by a different conceptual metaphor (e.g., "John bit her head off," which is motivated by the conceptual metaphor ANGER IS ANIMAL BEHAVIOR). Again, it appears that people compute or access the relevant conceptual metaphor, including embodied source domains, for an idiom during some aspect of their processing of these phrases.

It is important to be careful in interpreting the results of psycholin-guistic studies like those just described. Thus, the Gibbs et al. (1997) data should only be understood as showing that people quickly see a tight association between their understanding of certain idioms and particular conceptual metaphors. These results do not necessarily imply that people actually compute or access conceptual metaphors when they are actively processing the meanings of idioms in real time. Nor do these data tell us whether people must compute or access an idiom's underlying conceptual metaphor in order to interpret what that idiom figuratively means.

Furthermore, the Gibbs et al. (1997) findings do not tell us whether people actively construct metaphoric representations (i.e., the conceptual metaphor) when understanding idioms or are people merely accessing in an associative manner preexisting conceptual metaphors when processing certain idioms. When people read an idiomatic expression like "John blew his stack," they may very well quickly access the conceptual metaphor ANGER IS HEATED FLUID IN A CONTAINER given that this metaphor is so closely tied to the idiom, even if the metaphor is not needed to actually understand what the idiom means in discourse. People may not actually compute a source-(HEATED FLUID IN A CONTAINER) to-target (ANGER) domain mapping, and draw all the complex set of inferences associated with the conceptual metaphor, during ordinary understanding of conventional language.

Finally, the fact that conceptual metaphors may be active during some part of idiom understanding does not mean that people are activating embodied image schemas. Thus, in understanding "John blew his stack," readers do not necessarily activate or re-experience specific image schemas such as CONTAINMENT as part of their interpreting the figurative meaning of the idiom. My personal view is that online language processing is best characterized as a simulation process in which people create embodied scenarios, much as if one were in a flight simulator, appropriate to the discourse situation. Under this view, experiences of containment may indeed shape online production and comprehension of expressions like "John blew his stack." Although the data from Gibbs et al. (1997) are consistent with this idea, these results do not directly confirm it to the exclusion of other theoretical possibilities.

The last line of research I wish to discuss investigated the possible influence of bodily action on people's speeded processing of simple metaphoric phrases, as "stamp out a feeling," "push an issue," "sniff out the truth" and "cough up a secret," each of which denote physical actions upon abstract items. Wilson and Gibbs (2004) hypothesized that if abstract concepts are indeed understood as items that can be acted upon by the body, then performing a related action should facilitate sensibility judgments for a figurative phrase that mentions this action. For example, if participants first move their leg as if to kick something, and then read "kick around the idea," they should verify that this phrase is meaningful faster than when they first performed an unrelated body action.

Participants first learned to perform various specific bodily actions (e.g., throw, stamp, push, swallow, cough, grasp) given different nonlinguistic cues. Following this, participants were individually seated in front of a computer screen. The experiment consisted of a series of trials where an icon flashed on the screen, prompting the participant to perform the appropriate bodily action. After doing this, a string of words appeared on the screen and participants had to judge as quickly as possible whether the word string was "sensible."

Analysis of the speeded sensibility judgments showed that participants responded more quickly to the metaphorical phrases that matched the preceding action (e.g., the motor action kick was followed by "kick around the idea"), than to the phrases that did not match the earlier movement (e.g., the motor action chew was followed by "kick around the idea"). People were also faster in responding to the metaphor phrases having performed a relevant body moment than when they did not move at all. In short, performing an action facilitates understanding of a figurative phrase containing that action word, just as it does for literal phrases. A second study showed that same pattern of bodily priming effects when participants were asked to imagine performing the actions before they made their speeded responses to word strings. This result reveals that real movement is not required to facilitate metaphor comprehension, only that people mentally simulate such action.

Most generally, people do not understand the nonliteral meanings of these figurative phrases as a matter of convention. Instead, people actually understand "toss out a plan," for instance, in terms of physically tossing something (i.e., plan is viewed as a physical object). In this way, processing metaphoric meaning is not just a cognitive act but involves some imaginative understanding of the body's role in structuring abstract concepts.


My main claim in this chapter is that embodied activity is an essential part of the grounding for thought and language. There is significant evidence from both cognitive linguistics and psycholinguistics to support all four major hypotheses on how embodiment serves to create and maintain certain forms of abstract thought and the language people use to describe these metaphorical concepts. Of course, the four hypotheses discussed here are not the only ways that embodied actions influence imaginative thought and language. But distinguishing between these different time-scales is critical to studying the various roles that embodiment plays in grounding human cognition.

The data discussed here offer an important challenge to cognitive science accounts that ignore people's phenomenological bodily experience in theories of higher-order cognition and linguistic meaning. Simply put, people's recurring bodily actions serve as the fundamental grounding for how and why people think and talk in the specific ways that they do. This claim does not imply that there are no language-specific and cultural-specific constraints on thought and language. Yet the extensive literature by cognitive linguistics and psycholinguistics, only some of which is described in this chapter, points to major links between bodily experiences, abstract thought, and metaphorical language. Not all psychologists agree with these conclusion, especially in regard to whether conceptual, embodied metaphors are accessed during ordinary verbal metaphor comprehension (Glucksberg, 2001; Keysar, Shen, Glucksberg, & Horton, 2000). Psychologists sometimes defend their neglect of embodied, conventional metaphors by arguing that some cognitive linguistic analyses are contrary to their own intuitions. Thus, psychologists voice skepticism about the intuitive, introspectionist methods of cognitive linguistics, but then justify their neglect of conventional metaphors because of their own intuitions! It would be far better, in my view, for psychologists and others, to study explicitly embodied metaphors for abstract concepts, according to accepted empirical methods, make decisions about cognitive linguistic claims based on these studies, and to not simply dismiss this work out of hand.

My work directly establishes the importance of full-scale tactile-kinesthetic activity, and not just purely visual/perceptual processes, in theories of symbol grounding. An important aspect of this research is my attempt to systematically explore, even if crudely, people's intuitions about their bodies and actual human movement, in motivating aspects of human imagination. Thus, I employ cognitive linguistic analyses to generate possible bodily correlates for higher-order thought, but then investigate people's subjective bodily experiences independent of language to form empirical predictions about people's understandings of different forms of language. I urge others to adopt this research strategy when conducting experimental studies on the embodied grounding of thought and language.

The work described in this chapter does not distinguish between the possibility that sensorimotor activity is actively recruited in metaphor comprehension and the idea that functionally-independent conceptual representations are activated when metaphors referring to abstract concepts are understood. Even if these conceptual representations for abstract concepts are independent of immediate bodily action, they still maybe partly formed via sensorimotor processes and retain something about their embodied origins. Under this latter possibility, people's bodily experiences of handling physical objects may be used in creating, and maintaining elaborate conceptual representations for many abstract concepts. But these "embodied" concepts need not be continually tied, and immediately influenced, by ongoing body activity. Future empirical research must clarify which of these different possibilities best describe various aspects of linguistic understanding.

Most generally, the present findings are consistent with the idea that many aspects of linguistic processing are tied to what the body is doing at any one moment. People may, for instance, be creating embodied simulations of speakers' messages that involve moment-by-moment "what must it be like" processes that make use of ongoing tactile-kinesthetic experiences. These simulations processes operate even when people encounter language that is abstract, or refers to actions that are physically impossible to perform. This interpretation of the evidence describe in this chapter is also congruent with a body of emerging evidence in cognitive science showing intimate connections between perceptual/sensorimotor experience and language understanding (Barsalou, 1999; Glenberg & Roberston, 2000; Glenberg & Kaschak, 2002; Richardson, Spivey, Barsalou, & McRae, 2003; Zwaan, Stanfield, & Yaxley, 2002). One possibility to consider is that embodied metaphors may not be explicitly represented as enduring structures in long-term memory, as often assumed by many cognitive linguists. They may, however, be created on-the-fly as imaginative simulations given very specific constraints within the particular brain, body, world interactions that hold at any moment in time. Under this view, people conceptualize specific situations, including those in which language is involved, by simulating themselves as full-bodied participants in these events. Image schemas and embodied metaphors may regularly arise from these imaginative simulation processes, and need not be static entities in long-term memory waiting to get accessed or activated.


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