The Power of Touch

Touch imagery has always been a useful storytelling tool. Even when we're not putting together a lyrical masterpiece, it sneaks into our language. We talk about warm smiles, slippery personalities, getting caught between a rock and a hard place.

As it turns out, touch imagery might be more than just a product of an overactive metaphor engine. It may have something to do with the underlying way our brain structures our thoughts. Psychologists sometimes call it the scaffolded mind hypothesis. It's the idea that sensory and motor experiences provide a type of scaffold for us to conceptualize more abstract ideas. For example, the physical warmth associated with affectionate touch later becomes a way to think about interpersonal warmth.

Several clever experiments demonstrate this. There is evidence that the same brain region (the insula) is used to process both physical and psychological warmth. There's also evidence that mere exposure to warmer objects will affect our judgment.

In one study done by Lawrence Williams and John Bargh from the University of Colorado, participants were casually asked to hold either a warm cup of coffee or an iced coffee. After that, they were given a profile of a hypothetical Person A and asked to rate his personality on several traits. People holding the warm cup of coffee rated person A as having warmer personality traits.

In a second study, participants were either given a hot or cold pack. Those given the hot pack were more likely to choose a gift certificate for a friend over a Snapple beverage for themselves as payment for the study.

The scaffolding hypothesis applies more to just warmth. A study by Ackerman and colleagues from MIT found similar results along other dimensions. Among their findings:

1. Study participants holding heavier clipboards rated job candidates as better overall and displaying more serious interest in the position. However, participants didn’t rate the job candidates as socially more likable (presumably because likeability is not associated with hardness).

2. Study participants with heavier clipboards allocated more money to social issues when considering government funding. (Interestingly, only men showed this effect. Women funded social issues to close to the maximum amount for both clipboard conditions.)

3. Participants who completed a puzzle with sandpaper-covered pieces rated a social interaction as more adversarial than participants who completed a puzzle with smooth pieces.

4. People who sat in hard chairs were tougher negotiators when pretending to bargain for a car than those who sat in soft chairs.

Pretty cool huh? Are you taking advantage of these associations in your writing? What kind of touch imagery can you invoke for a more atmospheric story, stronger characters, or more intense emotion?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

Williams, L., & Bargh, J. (2008). Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth Science, 322 (5901), 606-607 DOI: 10.1126/science.1162548

Ackerman, J., Nocera, C., & Bargh, J. (2010). Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions Science, 328 (5986), 1712-1715 DOI: 10.1126/science.1189993


  1. There is lots to think about here. And yes, definitely writing associations to be made. Thx.

  2. That is such cool information! It's amazing how we react to physical stimuli. Definitely something to think about. Thanks :)

  3. This is the boston globe article I was talking about that discussed these studies:

    I think the most interesting thing is how these "tired cliches" actually speak to how we see the world.

  4. These are fascinating studies.

  5. I write fiction, and I'm a fan of ScienceBlogs. A link from SB brought me here, and I'm delighted by your post. Your last paragraph has me hooked: "Are you taking advantage of these associations in your writing? What kind of touch imagery can you invoke for a more atmospheric story, stronger characters, or more intense emotion?" I will be!

    I'm glad to have found your blog ~

    - emc

  6. If I saw two people - real or in a film - one holding a hot coffee and the other holding a cold I think my brain would make the same associations. Amazing. I tried it out in a few different scenarios - if they or I hold hot I see them as more appealing, cool!

  7. Interesting results. I don't make conscious associations when I'm writing, but I'm sure these subconscious effects feed into my imagining of scenes.

  8. Gosh, I don't even know what to think about all of this....but I am less cranky now that I have a softer chair at my computer.....


  9. I think those associations would also be very helpful for con artists and salesman to know! Time for the second hand salesman to have really soft, comfy chairs for the customer and hard ones for themselves.

  10. In many ways I've always used tactile imagery and associations in my writing. Based on this article, it seems equally important to use tactile associations in life! Maybe there is something scientific and measureable to that saying, "setting the right mood."

  11. So. I sit at a hard chair when I'm writing at the dining room table. Need to change that.

    The brain is so very fascinating!

  12. What region of my brain do I use when I don't want to work, nor want to sleep, nor want any more coffee, yet I want to sleep and also want more coffee, yet I need food, or do I?

  13. Touch, taste, and smell are all senses sadly often neglected in writing -- writing tends to focus on sight, and (to a secondary extent) sound, since sight and sound are most people's dominant sense.

    On a slightly different track, synesthesia -- mixed senses -- is something I've "seen" many writers do well :) In moments of intense emotion or intense experience, sight, sound, taste, touch and hearing all can blend together. This approach is used very well, for example, in the prose of this nature writing:

    "Stand at a bird smuggler’s stall and record the noise, visit an urban park and do the same, take your dictaphone to the cages at a zoo and tape the sounds, play them all together, no that is not the sound of Bandhavgarh. The leaves know the language of the ancients here, the breeze is the tongue, the birds are the songs, the butterflies the poems, the eyes are also the ears here. I heard the blue of the neelkanth, the brown of the deer, the shine of the peacock. I was no longer sure if I was seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling. I drowned in the forest, I lost consciousness." - quote from Aditi Das, @