Sunday, April 03, 2011

Aliyah on an escalator

 Updated 4/4, below the jump

Writing in Scientific American, David Schroeder (hat tip to Sullivan) flags research indicating that we humans are literally elevated -- morally -- when we look up or step up.:

Building on research showing the power of metaphors to shape our thinking, Sanna and his colleagues noted that height is often used as a metaphor for virtue: moral high ground, God on high, looking up to good people, etc. If people were primed to think about height, they wondered, might people be more virtuous?

In a series of four different studies, the authors found consistent support for their predictions. In the first study they found that twice as many mall shoppers who had just ridden an up escalator contributed to the Salvation Army than shoppers who had just ridden the down escalator. In a second study, participants who had been taken up a short flight of stairs to an auditorium stage to complete a series of questionnaires volunteered more than 50 percent more of their time than participants who had been led down to the orchestra pit [referenced study here].

If that's true, cathedrals, and the world view that produced them, may really have given medieval Europeans a moral boost.  Here's C.S. Lewis inviting his reader to view the night sky with medieval eyes:

As a modern, you located the stars at a great distance. For distance you [as a medieval] must now substitute that very special, and far less abstract, sort of distance which we call height:  height, which speaks immediately to our muscles and nerves. The Medieval Model is look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one in a trackless forest--trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building (The Discarded Image, 98-99).
I will lift up mine eyes to the hills,/from whence cometh my help. Self-help, that is.

Update 4/4: Of course, the medievals were not alone in exalting height. In Metaphors We Live By, linguists George Lakoff (since turned message "framing guru" for the Democrats) and Mark Johnson map out the ways in which human language is structured by metaphor (e.g., my verb choice in this sentence casts language as a building. My use of the verb "cast" suggests that thought is a mold.)  One key category is orientation metaphors, of which the first discussed are the myriad variants of good is up/bad is down.  A brief sampling below; the whole catalog is available online here.

He's at the peak of health. Lazarus rose from the dead. He's in top shape.As to his health, he's way up there. He fell ill. He's sinking fast. He came down with the flu. His health is declining. He dropped dead.

Physical basis: Serious illness forces us to lie down physically. When you're dead, you are physically down.


I have control over her. I am on top of the situation. He's in a superior position. He's at the height of his power. He's in the high command. He's in the upper echelon. His power rose. He ranks above me in strength. He is under my control. He fell from power. His Power is on the decline. He is my social interior. He is low man on the totem pole.

Physical basis- Physical size typically correlates with physical strength, and the victor in a fight is typically on top.


The number of books printed each year keeps going up. His draft number is high. My income rose last year. The amount of artistic activity in this state has gone down in the past year. The number of errors he made is incredibly low. His income fell last year. He is underage. If you're 100 hot, turn the heat down.

Physical basis: If you add more of a substance or of physical objects to a container or pile, the level goes up.
My reading of Lakos and Johnson years ago has led me to reflect periodically ever since,  not only that every noun, adjective, and verb is metaphorical (every word groups disparate items in a category, and so forms an extended analogy among them), but that every abstraction boils down to the most basic physical realities. I suspect that for English speakers, this fact may be less obvious than for speakers of other languages. That's because most of our abstractions (from L. abstractus "drawn away," pp. of abstrahere "to drag away; detach divert," from ab(s)- "away" (see ab-) + trahere "draw") have Latin roots, and while Latinate words make up half the words in an English dictionary, most of them are late imports and tend to convey (get across) relative linguistic luxuries, and so in most everyday speech they make up far less than half the words used.

Hence we English speakers often have no intuitive linguistic tie to a "big word" when we first hear it. If you're taught about "transportation" in second grade, you don't get that it basically means "carrying across."  When World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker responded to a fan letter I wrote when I was seven, and signed off "Again in appreciation and with my best wishes," I recall that I didn't recognize the word on paper, but when my grandfather read it out loud I realized it was familiar. I most certainly did not know, however, that it derived from L.L. appretiatus, pp. of appretiare "to set a [high] price to." Would a French or Spanish boy have picked up the connection with price?  In any case, my own memory suggests that we native English speakers pick up abstraction at a remove, and so think that it's more abstract than it is.

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