Embodied cognition: how fart spray can affect your moral reasoning

March 13, 2016

Scientists have long been grappling with mind-body problem. And in recent years a new theory has emerged. A recent podcast on Radio National Australia looked at embodied cognition. One of the participants, Guy Claxton, gave a nice summary:

Your body is your brain. The brain isn’t just the lump of rather unimpressive-looking porridge that sits between your two ears. The intelligent organ is all the information that is streaming around your body, up to your brain and down from your brain and from your heart to your liver and from your muscles to your skin. When we look at the true way in which intelligence functions, we have to look at ourselves as being this vast conglomerate of almost like a maelstrom of information currents, all of which need to talk to each other and somehow or other have to be resolved in real time into a concerted course of action.

Last year I read a book about this subject, Sensation by Thalma Lobel. She describes how an experience on a holiday in Guatemala set her on a new research path. She awoke in a jungle cottage to absolute silence and pitch-black darkness. It was this disconcerting experience of sensory deprivation that made her want to look at the association between body and mind and the theory of embodied cognition. She summarises her perspective like this:

Our thoughts, our behaviours, our decisions and our emotions are influenced by our physical sensations, by the things we touch, the texture of the things we touch, the temperature of the things we touch, the colours, the smells. All these, without our awareness, influence our behaviours and thoughts and emotions.”

The book is in the style of many popular psychology books written today, such as Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely and Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, both of which have been featured in this blog. Lobel argues that the mind can’t work separately from the physical world; that the senses provide a link to both our unconscious and our conscious thought processes. She wants to show the influence that physical sensations exert over our mental states and behaviour. What I most enjoyed were the fascinating experiments. We learn that people prefer a job applicant when their CV is attached to a heavy clipboard; they seemed to perceive the candidate as having a more serious interest in the job. And sitting in a soft chair makes you a softer negotiator. Here are four of the experiments featured in the book:

  1. In 2008 Yale University students were asked to attend a fourth floor laboratory. The experiment really began in the lift, where a research assistant would ask subjects if they could hold her cup of coffee while she took their names. Half of them were handed a hot coffee, while the other half were given an iced coffee. Once she had written down their names, the research assistant took back the coffee and they all went on to the lab, where the participants were asked to judge an unknown person according to a description of their character. The expression a warm person is a typical metaphor we use. But is there something more to it? What we can say is that the subjects who had held the hot cup of coffee in the lift judged the unknown person as being kinder and friendlier. They would have denied this if they had been asked, but that is what the results show.
  2. Researchers prepared two nearly identical videos of football plays (gridiron, I presume) with the only difference being that in one version the players wore white strips and in the other, black. The videos were then played to two groups: students who were college football fans and professional football referees. Both groups were asked how likely they would be to penalise the teams and how aggressively each team was playing. Both the college students and the professional referees said that they would penalize the team in black more often than the one wearing white. The game sequences were more or less identical; the only thing that changed was the colours the teams were playing in. The black kit influenced the referees, leading them to perceive those teams as more aggressive.
  3. In a 2011 study experimenters gave subjects a bit of chocolate, a cracker, or no food. They were then asked to fill out an unrelated questionnaire, after which the participants were told that another professor from the psychology department had just popped in and was looking for volunteers for another, unrelated study Who was more likely to volunteer? The chocolate eaters.
  4. Disgust evoked by physical factors can influence the severity with which we judge moral transgressions, such as stealing library books, offering a bribe, and shoplifting, or moral dilemmas including marriage between first cousins or a scenario in which a man eats his own dead dog. In one study the experimenters sprayed a disgusting smell, a fart spray not far from the participants, while they were answering a questionnaire. In another study participants were given. The results clearly demonstrated that those who were physically disgusted were harsher in their moral judgments compared with those who hadn’t experienced the bad odours or who had drunk sweet or neutral drinks. In other words, the same behaviour was judged as more morally wrong if the person who made the judgment was subjected to unpleasant odours or a disgusting drink. Physical disgust influenced moral disgust. This ties in with studies that show that disgust, which began as a way of protecting us from evolutionary dangers, has become co-opted into other areas. If you are interested in this area check out my post, Ice cream cones, frozen chickens and the meaning of disgust.

I loved all these quirky studies, but I do want to add a word of caution. In a post in January of this year, Brian Nosek and his shades of grey, I looked at the problem of replicability in scientific studies. Indeed the experiments which Nosek studied were in the field of psychology. In his Reproducibility Project he and his colleagues repeated 100 published psychological experiments. Just 36% of the replications reached statistical significance. So you do have to wonder whether the experiments presented by Lobel have been replicated elsewhere. Nevertheless I think I will be following the research in embodied cognition. It has the potential to provide us with some fascinating insights into the relationship between mind and body. I am particularly interested in the area of language. Metaphors are not just figures of speech – they reflect physical realities. But that will have to be a subject for another day.

Naked Language Lessons Stimulating Learners

March 13, 2016

Talking of sensory experiences, is this embodied cognition? I don’t think my students would appreciate it if I followed the example of one online English academy here in Spain. But if it will improve results…

Once a pun a time in the west

March 6, 2016

A pun is the lowest form of humour, unless you thought of it yourself.  Doug Larson

A pun does not commonly justify a blow in return. But if a blow were given for such cause, and death ensued, the jury would be judges both of the facts and of the pun, and might, if the latter were of an aggravated character, return a verdict of justifiable homicide. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

A pun is to wordplay what dominatrix sex is to foreplay – a stinging whip that elicits groans of guilty pleasure. William Safire


Puns have played an important role in the history of human writing. Both Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs were originally based on punning systems, and the Roman loved their puns and word games. I have been reading John Pollock’s The Pun also Rises and he emphasises the significance of punning in alphabets, writing, and even human civilization itself. The Bible is full of puns although a knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek would be helpful. Jesus’s proclamation that “upon this rock I will build my church” famously played on the way Peter’s name echoed the Ancient Greek word for rock, “petra”.

Its technical name paronomasia, which in Greek means equal word, sounds rather like a serious medical condition, so I’ll stick with the English word. Pun itself appears to have come into English in the mid-seventeenth century. There is no definitive agreement among lexicographers as to its origins. One theory claims that it is comes from the Italian puntiglio, which means an equivocation, a trivial objection. It may well have been one of these such as mob, nob and snob, which were fashionable slang terms during or after the Restoration.

A Typology

There seem to be many different ways of categorising puns and there seems to be some overlap. This is not a definitive list, but here are four of the most important:

Homophonic puns

A homophone is a word that sounds the same as another word but has a different meaning and/or spelling. A typical example is Flower and flour. Here are a few examples homophonic puns:

Atheism is a non-prophet institution.

Last night, I kept dreaming that I had written Lord of the Rings. The wife said I’d been Tolkien in my sleep.

You are stuck with your debt if you can’t budge it.

If Donald Trump gets elected, there’ll be hell toupee.

Homographic pun

A homograph is word that is spelled the same but has a different meaning and is pronounced differently. These puns are often written rather than spoken, as they briefly trick the reader into reading the “wrong” sound. Here are a few examples of homographic puns:

You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless you play bass.

The Who Live In Leeds.

Homonymic pun

A homonym is a word that is said or spelled the same way as another word but has a different meaning. “Write” and “right” is a good example of a pair of homonyms. Here are some examples of homonymic puns:

I saw a documentary on how ships are kept together. Riveting!

Two silk worms had a race and ended in a tie.

I decided to sell my vacuum cleaner. It was gathering dust

Transpositional pun 

A transpositional pun involves transposing the words in a well-known phrase or saying to produce a humorous effect. Here are some examples of transpositional puns:

Dieting: A waist is a terrible thing to mind.

Hangover: The wrath of grapes.

The Oboe: An ill wind nobody blows good.

Feudalism: It’s your count that votes!

A hard man is good to find.—Mae West

Until I started researching this post I had no idea how much hatred puns inspired. For most of Western history, puns were a sign of high intellect. I have already mentioned the Romans’ love of punning and Shakespeare was a punster too. But in English puns have come into serious disrepute. Pollack argues that as printing gradually transformed what had been an oral culture into a written one, punsters were forced to commit to a single spelling before the type was set. According to Catherine Bates in her paper “The Point of Puns”, the negative attitude to the pun is a consequence of the Enlightenment attempts to correct and stabilize the language. Punning does not logically fit into a preconceived ideal of how language should be; the use of it might suggest a lack of intelligence, creativity, or dignity. One of the chief haters was Samuel Johnson. Given that it took him more than eight years to put more 40,000 definitions into his dictionary, it is understandable that he might take umbrage when people messed with the rules he had taken so long to create:

To trifle with the vocabulary which is the vehicle of social intercourse is to tamper with the currency of human intelligence.”

Despite this disdain puns remain beloved in comedy, business movies and among tabloid editors. For instance we have puns in company names. I found this Behold: The Ultimate Crowdsourced Map of Punny Businesses in America. Here is a selection of them

Hannah and Her Scissors (A hair salon in Miami)

Fidler on the Tooth – (Dr. Vicki Fidler is a dentist in Seattle)

Edifice Wrecks (A demolition company in Watertown, Massachusetts)

Kitsch-22 (a selection of recycled trendy, edgy and bohemian fashion)

Vinyl Resting Place (a vintage record store in Portland, Oregon)

Once Upon A Crime (a mystery bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota)

Citizen Canine (Dog Boarding and Doggie Daycare in Oakland)

The Lone Arranger (a Flower Shop in Ingleside, Texas)

Wish You Were Beer (a craft-only beer store in Alabama)

Sure Lock Homes (A locksmith in Port Orchard, State of Washington)

Dirty Hoe (A landscaping company in Asheville, North Carolina)

Porn movies make a creative use of punning. Here a few I found online. As far as I can tell they have actually been made:

Shaving Ryan’s Privates

Night of the Giving Head

Good Will Humping

Missionary Position Impossible 2

Laid in Manhattan

Saturday Night Beaver


Pulp Friction

Honey I Blew Everybody

Raiders of the Lost Arse

Gangbangs of New York

Flesh Gordon (I think I may have seen this one)

I have to disagree with Dr. Johnson – language should be played with. I shall remain a fan of the pun. Catherine Bates says they the ‘bastards, immigrants, barbarians, extra-terrestrials. I think we all need to support this linguistic anarchist. To all the naysayers, I say, long live the pun!

To all the puns I’ve loved before

March 6, 2016

Here is a selection of puns I found while researching this post. Some are old friends, others are new.

Mae West

A hard man… is good to find

Good sex is like good Bridge… If you don’t have a good partner, you’d better have a good hand

I’m the lady who works at Paramount all day… and Fox all night.

I used to be Snow White… but I drifted

Dorothy Parker

What’s the difference between an enzyme and a hormone? You can’t hear an enzyme.

You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me  than a frontal lobotomy.

Benjamin Franklin

We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.

A Night at the Opera

Chico: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?

Groucho: Oh, that? Oh, that’s the usual clause that’s in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.

Chico: Well, I don’t know…

Groucho: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.

Chico: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Santy Claus.

Oscar Wilde

Immanuel doesn’t pun; he Kant.

The Bellamy Brothers

If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?

Jon Stewart

I don’t approve of political jokes; I have seen too many of them get elected.

Carry on Cleo

Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!


My battery had an alkaline problem, so it went to AA meetings

I thought I saw an eye doctor on an Alaskan island, but it turned out to be an optical Aleutian.

Being in politics is like playing golf: you’re trapped in one bad lie after another.

The soldier who survived mustard gas and pepper spray is now a seasoned veteran.

When you’ve seen one shopping center, you’ve seen a mall.

I brought some cocaine from Limerick, but I was annoyed that the third and fourth lines were shorter than the others.

Bakers, eh? They’re so kneady!