Touching meanings

“To touch is to experience, but to feel is to live.”  – Loren Klein

“For all you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be.”  – Pink Floyd

It’s not just words which are important in shaping our futures: any mental symbol or idea can have a powerful influence in framing how we interpret external perceptions and shape our behaviour.

The Neurophilosophy blog describes some interesting recent experiments measuring the impact of touch on our decisions and behaviour. In six different studies (I will briefly mention three of them), conducted at MIT, Yale and Harvard, weight, texture and hardness of stimuli were varied to understand their impact on the decisions of subjects.  For example, in one experiment interviews were conducted with CVs (resumes) provided on different weights of clipboard (the CVs were exactly the same).  Those who were given the CVs on heavier clipboards rated the candidate as more “serious” than other candidates although other traits were rated the same.  In another experiment, subjects rated a situation more “confrontational” and “competitive” after completing a jigsaw with sandpaper finished sides than when they were give a smooth version of the jigsaw.  And in a third, subjects were more likely to evaluate another person as “kind” after being handed a blanket which was presented as part of the experiment (and less likely to evaluate them as kind after being handed a wooden block).

The experiments present a fascinating insight into how ideas and symbols shape our perceptions and actions, whether those symbols are words, sensations, images or any other representation of an underlying metaphor used by our brain to understand, interpret and categorise the world.  Metaphors and symbols are indeed powerful in communicating universally understood ideas about the world, and are an integral part (and arguably the key) of the feedback system used by our brain to help us navigate the world and optimise it’s own predictive power.


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