According to linguist and big picture thinker George Lakoff, people generally misunderstand the nature of metaphor. Commonly thought of as simply something we do with language (e.g., “It is a diamond in the rough,”) Lakoff has demonstrated that many metaphors have become invisible to us because they are deeply embedded in our conceptual system. Thought itself is essentially metaphorical, in his view.
What if our metaphors related to personality are rooted in physiological processes in ways that we barely understand? In an article on BPS Digest today, Christian Jarrett summarizes research on “sweetness” recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He writes:
Brian Meier and his team had dozens of students rate the agreeableness, extraversion and neuroticism of 100 people, based on pictures of their faces and a strap-line identifying each person’s preference for a particular food, such as “I like grapefruit”. People who said they liked a sweet food were judged by the students as more agreeable, suggesting that we implicitly recognise that a taste for sweet things is grounded in a sweet personality.
Are people right to make this implicit assumption? Further studies suggested so. Students who rated their own personality as more agreeable also tended to have a stronger preference (than their less agreeable peers) for sweet foods and drinks. Among a different set of students, a stronger preference for sweet foods correlated positively with their willingness to volunteer their time, unpaid, for a separate unrelated study – considered by the researchers as a sign of prosocial behaviour.
So, we assume that people who like sweet foods are nice people, and it turns out they are. Can this link be exploited? What if you give someone a sweet food to eat – will they feel more agreeable? Will they actually become more helpful? In two further studies, students given chocolate to eat (either a Hershey’s Kiss or a piece of Dove Silky Smooth chocolate), rated themselves as more agreeable and actually volunteered more of their time to help an unknown researcher, as compared with students given a sour sweet or a water cracker.
Researchers are only now waking up to the correlations between ordinary language and the organic. Jarrett also speculates that there could be correlations between spicy foods and spicy personalities. What we don’t know is more than we do.
A mysticism of taste
Take it a step further and you can see more room for speculation:
- Fruits and fruityness (lightness, mellow, deep, rich)
- Vegetables and dullness, spiritlessness, mental impairment
- Meats and “meat-heads” or meatiness (fullness)
- Grains and granularity, fineness, pickiness
Overall, I suggest that the connection between language and hidden phenomena of nature and psyche is only beginning to be explored. So long have misunderstandings that language reveals reality in itself dominated scientific thought that the metaphorical links between the mysteries of nature and the mysteries of language are only now coming into the light.
The new research on “sweetness” is a glimpse at how important these connections might turn out to be. A common belief is that preferences, say, between chocolate and vanilla ice cream are purely arbitrary and of no great significance. At an interior level, it doesn’t seem so. One wants what one wants in a non-trivial way, and the desire usually arises in a pre-rational way, out of the psychic underworld so to speak. But if we take these preferences as our body itself talking, and if we own these tastes as part of the self, we experience a deeper self more integrated with nature.
And when we see the expressions of our self through our tastes as not merely individual expessions, but linked fundamentally to language — the lower-left hand quadrant in Integral Theory’s map of human nature — we can begin to see that what is actually speaking through our preference for vanilla ice cream is a unity of Mind (language) and Nature (body).
As I see it, it becomes possible to see our individual preference for vanilla ice cream as an expression of a desire for ordinary existence, plainness, and simplicity … an expression arising not merely from the separate self, but from the self of the world, arising for instance in the taste of a vanilla bean. With sprinkles on top.
The return of magical thinking in the post-conventional self
In the psychological work of Susanne Cook-Grueter among others, the post-conventional self in some of its expressions is described as becoming occupied with the limitations of rational thought and taken with a desire to learn “how to live within the paradox of language.” She sometimes calls this stage of ego-development the “Magican.”
At construct-aware structures of development, the theory goes, one makes friends with non-rational sources of knowledge, desiring a vivid and playful relationship to language, basking in its subtleties and ability to reveal heretofore hidden aspects of existence. It’s with this complexity of thought that previously highly rational or linear or evolutionary or developmental models of human nature become more fluid and alive with an almost magical malleability.
Living with a playful lightness (a sort of “fruitness”) of language is not an end to itself, not a mere immersion in crossword puzzle-like wordplay. It’s in a sense a shift in the structure of the self, immersion in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way of expression arising from consciousness. The self/mind is separate and distinct, but the interior life flows with a fruitful (pun/literalness intended) relationship to the Logos residing in ordinary speech and gesture.
According to Wikipedia, cognitive scientists sometimes define magical thinking as “cases in which people act as if they erroneously believe that their action influences the outcome, even though they do not really hold that belief.” But what if it becomes not at all clear what outcomes are really produced by what influences, and what actions may cause what influences?
Who would have thought that offering a friend a piece of chocolate (action) might actually have induced bio-chemical reactions (influences) which generate a tendency towards agreeableness (outcome)? Who would have thought that an inner liking of sweet foods might be an indicator of a sweetness of personality, and that this esoteric connection is actually revealed in the metaphors we live by?
Magic returns, I think, in a new way to the post-conventional self. There is an openness to discovering that association-based, similarity-based, and thematically-linked items may indeed be cut from the same cloth in a manner not recognized by any sort of scientific reasoning heretofore explored. There is a desire to investigate the esoteric connections in new ways, substantiated by empirical evidence instead of mere tradition … and a willingness to follow the signs wherever they may lead, no matter how unexpected.
Taste as a metaphor for Enlightenment is common in Integral spirituality (think of Ken Wilber’s discussion of One Taste or the third station of “sweetness” as culmination of the Three Stations of Love). Why taste and sweetness and not sourness? Why not touch and coarseness or sight and dimness or hearing and screeching? What is it about the intake of nourishment and the body’s response of pleasure or repulsion that provides a distinctly valuable metaphor for spiritual realization? Contemplating this question, I suggest, can help us to tap into the wisdom of Nature, repairing the Mind/Body split, even if that contemplation comes in a spoon.