The online journal Quartz recently published a fascinating article about metaphor, or humans’ capacity for understanding and reacting to new things in comparison to things people have already experienced. You probably already know its first point: people’s opinions of things change based on how those things are framed in language. For example:

In a recent Stanford study, participants were presented with brief passages about crime in a hypothetical city named Addison. For half of the participants, a few words were subtly changed to describe crime as a ‘virus infecting’ the city. For the other half, crime was described as a ‘beast preying’ on the city. Otherwise, the passages remained exactly the same…

When asked to come up with solutions for crime, those who read the passage with the ‘beast’ metaphor thought that crime should be dealt with by using more punitive solutions, such as longer jail time. Those who read the passage with the ‘virus’ metaphor thought crime should be dealt with using more reformative measures that addressed the root causes of crime. And the metaphor alone caused an even bigger difference in opinion than pre-existing differences between Republicans and Democrats.

But, as the Cat in the Hat says, that is not all. Researchers are also finding that our physical experiences affect how we think. Our physical experiences, after all, form the bases of metaphor itself. To literally or metaphorically understand She’s as cold as ice requires knowing what ice feels like, what it even is.

Quartz notes a Yale study in which participants were given either a cup of hot or iced coffee and then asked to rate a person’s social warmth. The people holding hot cups of coffee gave higher warmth ratings. “University of Cambridge psychologist Simone Schnall found that evoking a sense of physical disgust by exposing people to a bad smell caused people to make more severe moral judgements. Schnall also found that evoking a sense of cleanliness by having people wash their hands caused individuals’ moral judgements to become more lenient.”

This implies, the article says:

Cognitive scientists suggest that many of the metaphors we use to understand reality are based on our experience of having a body in the physical world. Mental thought is built on physical thought, and we use physical metaphors to understand abstract concepts. This causes certain ideas, like social warmth and physical warmth, to be intertwined in our minds to a point where experiencing physical warmth can activate ideas of social warmth.

This tendency for the physical environment to affect our reasoning can have dramatic consequences for how we form important opinions, including moral judgements. While we may like to think that our concept of morality is rational, based on careful reasoning, psychology research has shown that much of it is based on intuitive emotions, such as disgust. And, like physical and social warmth, physical and moral disgust are also linked in our minds…

In other words, you become what you do. The famous Catholic theologian and cardinal John Henry Newman, a convert from Anglicanism, had many thoughts on this subject. He said that people who found it difficult to believe in God should go through the motions as if they did. Why? Since God has made people as embodied souls, what we do with our bodies affects our souls. Therefore, acting as if one was reverent, and with respect towards God’s word, even if one didn’t feel it fully, would tend to help increase that reverence and respect.

Scripture backs this concept up. For example, the third commandment says “Remember the sabbath day, by keeping it holy.” The small catechism explains this means Christians should “not despise preaching and [God’s]Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” Hebrews 10:25 says Christians should “not neglect[] to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Obviously God knows humans, as sinners, don’t always gladly hear his word. Yet we are commanded to do so anyway. Perhaps one reason is that he knows, since he made us, that what we do with our bodies helps form our souls.

This has all kinds of implications for Christian life and the education of children, among other things. It suggests that the way in which we live, the atmosphere children are in and the habits they develop, are important. Atmosphere, daily routines, habits, and environments all shape who we are. This is why, for example, our school day starts with prayer, psalms, Bible reading, and singing, and why we consider daily disciplines such as math practice and memory work so important to the human formation we help parents with on behalf of their children.

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