Hans and Umbach: The Role of Metaphor in Embodied Interaction

Through their research, Hans and Umbach have discovered that there is no shortage of brilliant work summarizing the primary concepts of embodied interaction. From Antle to Schiphorst, from Dourish to Hornecker, from Robertson to Sharlin to Lowgren to Fernaeus to Djajadiningrat to Fishkin, everyone seems to be reading the right stuff. Everyone is talking about Heidegger and his hermeneutical phenomenology, a philosophical approach to understanding the way the world is manifest in consciousness, how we interpret our experience with the world, and ultimately how we form meanings with it.

Everyone is channeling Dourish, and his work unifying social computing and tangible computing under the banner of embodied interaction. Many authors are channeling Lakoff and Johnson, and their profound work studying linguistics, metaphors and embodied cognition. Indeed, any text that discusses embodied interaction, without reference to Lakoff and Johnson, is immediately suspect in the boys’ book.

Lakoff and Johnson, and the role of metaphor in human thinking.

Lakoff and Johnson posit that much of our language, and thus much of our thinking, is dependent on our use of metaphors to describe the world. These metaphors are so ingrained in our thinking that we are rarely conscious of their use. For example, we describe time using spatial metaphors, or even material metaphors. Things that are in the future are “ahead” of us, and things in the past are “behind” us. We talk about the speed at which we perceive time passing, and we describe time as though it is water, a continually flowing substance. Time slips through our fingers, we don’t have enough of it, and we frequently run out of it.

Lakoff and Johnson argue that metaphors are not just convenient linguistic tricks we use that allow us to communicate more efficiently with one another, but that our brains are hard-wired to categorize and associate in such a way that we can’t help but think in metaphor. Hans and Umbach have definitely experienced that in the last few months, as they’ve been learning electronics. As they work with circuits and components, trying to build things that work and debug things that don’t, they’re constantly using spatial and material metaphors as a foundation to their thinking. We talk about electricity “flowing” from negative to positive, as though it is water. We talk about resistors resisting (or constricting) the flow of electricity. We talk about capacitors “filling up”, or buttons “closing” a circuit, or transistors “waiting” for a signal.

If we pause just for a moment, none of these thoughts regarding electricity make any sense at all. We can’t see it, so it’s meaningless to “know” or even to “think” that it acts like water, even while this particular mental model sets us up for success when creating a functional circuit. I close things in my environment all the time, such as doors, windows and notebooks, but to say that a pressed button “closes” a circuit is nonsense. Worst of all, how can a transistor “wait”? For something to wait implies that it perceives time, that it can anticipate the future, that it will respond in some manner when the appropriate stimuli presents itself.

Animals wait. Humans wait. Transistors do not wait, and yet this metaphor, that of the transistor as an organism that can anticipate and respond, tells us how to work with them. This, then, is where Lakoff and Johnson’s work gets particularly juicy. Humans are biological creatures with particular sensory capacities. We see light across a particular spectrum, can sense heat across a particular range at varying degrees of sensitivity, and have bodies with arms, fingers and hands that grant us certain abilities for interacting with the world.

Cognition is situated in the the body, and the body influences cognition.

J.J. Gibson’s work in ecological psychology argues that action and cognition are radically situated in the environment and inseparable from it, such that you can make no predictions about an organism’s behavior without knowing about the environment in which it is situated. Lakoff and Johnson extend Gibson’s work by channeling the concept of embodied cognition, which similarly claims that cognition is radically situated in the body.

Indeed, according to embodied cognition, the reason we perceive the world the way we do is not necessarily because the world possesses certain perceptible qualities, but rather because our bodies perceive and make sense of the world in a certain way. We perceive time in a certain way because we are hard-wired to experience it in that way. We organize the physical world in time because it is impossible for us to organize it independent of time. The more we learn about quantum mechanics, too, the more we learn that there is little in the world that objectively reflects the common sense human experience of time.

This is not to say that the objective world does not exist, but rather that we need to deliberately consider the way our minds make sense of the world. Since our minds are situated in our bodies, and our bodies have certain capabilities that pre-filter our access to the world, the importance of considering subjective experience as a phenomenon independent of the objective world cannot be understated.

“I can’t get my body out of my mind.”

The notion of embodied cognition has profound implications, and we can see some of them manifested in the way we talk about, and orient ourselves towards, the physical world. Our bodies are basically symmetrical from left to right, but strongly asymmetrical from front to back. We can see things when they are in front of us, but not when they are behind us. Our limbs are oriented in such a way that we walk in a forward vector, towards our line of sight.

Thus, things that we encounter “in the future” we typically encounter as we walk towards them, and things that we encountered “in the past” are things that are behind us. This asymmetry from front to back gives rise not only to the way we orient ourselves spatially, but also influences how we perceive the world. In this way our bodies’ unique configuration determines our understanding of time, spatially situating our temporal metaphors.

The richer notions of embodiment that Hans and Umbach have discovered over the course of our project consider these notions of metaphor as a fundamental part of how we interpret the world and make meaning of it. These metaphors arise out of the unique qualities and perceptual capabilities of our bodies, such that the way we make sense of and interact with the world is necessarily shaped by our own physical characteristics.


  1. Tim
    April 19, 2010 – 10:41 am

    Also check out Lakoff & Nuñez’s book, Where Mathematics Comes From, for an application of these ideas to mathematics. Bottom line: the standard Platonic view of mathematics that most mathematicians (and nonmathematicians) hold is bunk.

  2. April 19, 2010 – 12:23 pm

    Thanks for the tip, Tim! It sounds like that summarizes the next step from here, which is that rationality is something we subjectively ascribe to the physical world, rather than an objective structure that we discover through logical processes (such as mathematics or the scientific method).

    Our embodied cognition gives rise to our perceived order of the world, yet there is not necessarily any order that exists independent of human consciousness. To say that we “discover” theories that hold true in most (if not all) cases is just a clever linguistic hack, again harkening back to our use of metaphor to structure our understanding of the world.

    Every time I try to wrap my head around these concepts at that level of depth, though, my brain gets stuck in a painful hermeneutic circle. It’s like The Matrix on steroids.

    Which is, like, a bunch of metaphors wrapped into one.

    And the idea of metaphors being material, such that they can be “wrapped” into each other, is yet another metaphor.

    Not to mention that a “bunch” of metaphors implies they’re sticks or plants of some sort.