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?
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