Gesture, Language and Washing Dishes

by Translation Guy on February 2, 2011
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“Why do we look up to those we respect, stoop to the level of those we disdain, and think warmly about those we love? Why do we hide dirty secrets or wash our hands of worries? Why do we ponder weighty subjects and feel a load lift after we have made a decision? Why do we look back on the past, and forward to the future?” asks Siri Carpenter in this month’s edition of Scientific American Mind.

In her article, “Body of Thought,” Carpenter reports that turns of phrase turn on touch and gesture too, and that metaphors joining the body and mind reflect a central fact about the way we think: “The mind uses the body to make sense of abstract concepts. So the most commonplace of unconsidered actions, a casual gesture, a certain expression, even the texture or weight of an object held can drive the higher faculties we associate with free will, social judgment, language comprehension, and reasoning and logic itself.”

In an earlier post, we reported on the importance of gesture for communication, but the body’s role in shaping thought and expression is more than just a matter of finger-pointing. Psychologist Paula Niedenthal says that “emotional states are associated with a tendency to action.” That is certainly how we experience emotion, if language offers any clues-we jump for joy, get spitting mad, have sinking hearts and flipping stomachs…. Niedenthal believes that we can’t even think about emotion without reenacting it or stimulating that feeling. In a study last year, she and colleagues measured facial muscle activity. They found that reading emotional words caused readers to experience emotions. Discussing words like “vomit” caused curled upper lips, while angry words like “murder” caused furrowed brows, proof that emotion and muscle movement were inextricably linked.

I confirmed this in my own scientific research, back when I was a dishwasher at Friendly’s Ice Cream. One night I was in a bad mood, probably something to do with Eileen Brown, that 16-yr old waitress/minx I used to bus for. Anyway, every time I’d pass my boss, Mike, he would insist that I smile for him. He kept me at it until, in spite of myself, I got in a good mood. And now in my mind’s eye I see Eileen heading back on to the floor, her gray Friendly’s uniform darkened with my wet dish-boy hand prints. She was a good friend to me, and I miss her. I’d give anything to run one more load of dishes back there at Doylestown Shopping Center.

Which is not as off-topic as it may sound, since thinking is reliving. I can not think about that summer night so long ago without recruiting some of the neural structure involved at the time.  And as I write these words, more comes to mind, the clangor and steam of a rack of ice cream glasses pulled from the dishwasher, or how Eileen felt in my hands, so memorably nice that my heart skips a beat in the telling.

I smile at the memory of Mike and Eileen. And in the smiling remember well.

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