High and low

The Boston Globe has a summary of recent psychological research indicating that some metaphors are so fundamental that our minds conflate their literal and metaphorical senses, such that manipulating the one can influence how people think about the other.

Researchers have sought to determine whether the temperature of an object in someone’s hands determines how “warm” or “cold” he considers a person he meets, whether the heft of a held object affects how “weighty” people consider topics they are presented with, or whether people think of the powerful as physically more elevated than the less powerful. What they have found is that, in fact, we do.

The article discusses the following metaphors:

  • Warm/cold: People holding a cup of hot coffee rate a person as happier and friendlier than those holding a cup of iced coffee. When people recall an episode of social ostracism, the room feels physically colder to them,
  • Weighty/light: People answer questions more carefully (as if judging them to be weightier) when writing on a heavier clipboard.
  • High/low: People unconsciously look up when they think about power. People who tell a story while moving marbles to a higher position tell happier stories than those who are moving them to a lower position.
  • Rough/smooth: Handling sandpaper makes people less likely to think a social situation went smoothly.
  • Clean/dirty: Guilt makes people feel physically dirty. Washing their hands makes them feel less guilty.
  • Hard/soft: Sitting on a hard chair makes people think of tasks as harder.

One fundamental metaphor that the article doesn’t mention is the use of “high” and “low” to describe the frequency of sounds — a metaphor that is used in every language and culture with which I am familiar. It seems a strange one to me, given the general rule that large objects produce “lower” sounds than small ones. What makes it natural for us to think of the voice of a grown man or a buffalo as “low” and that of a child or a mouse as “high”? The only explanation I can think of is that you lower something in your throat in order to speak or sing in a “low” voice and raise it for a “high” one.

In any case, the acoustic sense of “high” doesn’t seem to mesh well with the other metaphorical meanings of that word. We may unconsciously look upwards when we think of power, but we certainly don’t associate power with a high-pitched voice. And the expectation that the Most High God have a most deep voice is so automatic that giving him a high-pitched one (as in this video) seems blasphemous. It seems that we expect everything about God to be high (“God is in heaven and thou art on earth”) except his voice.

So why is it that we so universally describe acoustic pitch in terms that clash with our other habitual metaphors? “High,” like “white” (as so exhaustively detailed by Melville), seems to be a concept in conflict with itself.

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Filed under Language, Perception, Psychology

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