Brrrr. It's Lonely Out There
Thursday, August 28, 2008
By Wray Herbert
Sylvia Plath was only 24-years-old when she penned her brooding poem “Winter landscape, with rocks,” which ends this way: “Last summer’s reeds are all engraved in ice, as is your image in my eye; dry frost glazes the window of my hurt; what solace can be struck from rock to make heart’s waste grow green again? Who’d walk in this bleak place?” It would be six years before the young artist’s depression would drive her to suicide, but the pain of her isolation was already apparent in the cold, wintry metaphors of this poem.
But why cold and wintry? What made this troubled young woman think of ice and frost when she wanted to depict the emotional bleakness of her life, her desperate sense of disconnection? Why not searing heat and punishing sunshine? What does loneliness have to do with the temperature?
If this seems like a silly question, it’s because we all make the same connection in our minds all the time, and it’s seemingly automatic. Just think of the clichés: the cold shoulder, a chilly reception, an icy stare. The idea of being alone—including social disconnection and rejection—appears to be inextricably tied to the sub-zero end of the thermometer.
Psychologists are curious about this metaphor, and others. Some believe that metaphors are much more than literary conventions, indeed that they are constellations of ancient and recent experience that we use to help us comprehend the complexity of our emotional lives. According to this view, metaphors are readily available because they are deep-wired into our neurons.
But how did they get there? Two psychologists at the University of Toronto decided to explore this question in the laboratory. Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli wanted to see if our use of metaphor in thinking and judgment might be influenced by our most basic perceptions of the world—the information that enters the brain through the senses. Our ancient ancestors probably linked warmth and togetherness by necessity, as do infants still; bodily warmth often means comfort and survival. Might cold and isolation be similarly linked in the mind?
Here’s how the psychologists tested the idea. They divided a group of volunteers in two, and had half of them recall a personal experience in which they had been socially excluded—rejection from a club, for example. This was meant to “prime” their unconscious feelings of isolation and loneliness. The others recalled a happier experience, one in which they had been accepted into a group.
Then they had all the volunteers estimate the temperature in the room, on the pretense that the building’s maintenance staff wanted that information. The estimates ranged widely, from about 54 degrees F to a whopping 104 degrees F. That’s surprising in itself, but here’s the interesting part: Those who had been primed to feel isolated and rejected gave consistently lower estimates of the temperature, by almost five degrees. In other words, the recalled memories of being ostracized actually made people experience the world as colder.
The psychologists decided to double-check these findings a slightly different way. In another experiment, instead of relying on volunteers’ memories, the researchers actually triggered feelings of exclusion. They had the volunteers play a computer-simulated ball tossing game, but the game was actually rigged. Some of the volunteers tossed the ball around in a normal friendly way, but others were left out, just as an unpopular kid might be left out by other kids at the playground.
Afterwards, all the volunteers rated the desirability of certain drinks and foods: hot coffee, crackers, an ice-cold Coke, an apple, and hot soup. The findings were striking. As reported in the September issue of the journal Psychological Science, the “unpopular” volunteers who had been ostracized on the virtual “playground” were much more likely than the others to want either hot soup or coffee. Their preference for warmth, for “comfort food,” presumably resulted from actually feeling the cold in the cold shoulder.
It appears that physical sensations and abstract psychological experience are tightly intertwined, and that intertwining may explain the power and appeal of metaphor. But it may also illuminate the relationship between our very real moods and our perceptions of the world around us. Experiencing cold may actually act as a catalyst in mood disorders, the psychologists suggest, exacerbating feelings of isolation and loneliness
So it’s literally a cold, cruel world for some, which makes one wonder about Sylvia Plath’s suicide: The poet killed herself in London in February of 1963, in the middle of England’s coldest winter in hundreds of years.
For more insights into human nature, visit “We’re Only Human” weblog at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman. Selections from Wray Herbert’s blog also appear in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at http://www.sciam.com/.
posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:17 AM