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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Calm down and cheer up

Why our emotions have directions

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Have you ever wondered why we say that we 'feel up' when we feel happy, but when we are sad we 'feel down'? Why can't we calm sideways rather than down? In fact, why do insist that our emotions move around in space as though they are an object that exists outside of ourselves?

These questions are among many metaphorical mysteries that are posed in the book Metaphors We Live By. The authors, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, argue that we didn't invent these curious ways of expressing ourselves by accident. Rather, there are very logical reasons why most common metaphors have come into existence, relating to our physical and cultural experiences.

Consider, for example, orientational metaphors such as 'feeling up', 'sinking spirits', 'feeling depressed' or 'getting a lift'. Clearly there is no direct relationship between emotions and actually moving around in space. Sure, some people feel happier when they are on top of a mountain–but others will feel scared or bored.

Conversely, delving deep into a cave is the epitome of bliss for some, but is others' worse nightmare. Yet regardless of our personal preferences, we talk as though 'up' is good, while 'down' is bad. We don't even notice that we are speaking metaphorically.

Lakoff and Johnson point out that there is a strong correlation between our physical actions and the means we use to express our emotional states of being. When we are sad or depressed, our bodies physically slump, whereas when we are happy, we are more likely to stand up straight.

One might argue that this is primarily a body language that we have invented in order to communicate our feelings–that it is a cultural invention–but it also has a basis in physical necessity. Consider the following extract:

" He's at the peak of health. Lazarus rose from the dead. He's in top shape. As to his health, he's way up there. He fell ill. He's sinking fast. He came down with the flu. His health is declining. He dropped dead." [1]

As Lakoff and Johnson explain, we also talk about health and illness in directional terms, and for a very good reason, as being sick forces us to lie down. Illness also makes us unhappy, and so we borrow the physical state of being unwell and having to lie down to explain our emotional state in terms of 'feeling down', even when we are in perfect health.

We are, quite possibly, also borrowing from another physical necessity: that us humans lie down to sleep. Unconsciousness is therefore down (he sank into a coma), while consciousness is up (wake up). Unconscious can be a pleasant state of being (such as while dreaming), but it can also be an indicator of illness.

Our physical bodies also influence how we think about our relationships in spatial terms. Why, for example, should a person be at the height of their power, or someone be the social superior of another person? Lakoff and Johnson point to a very clear correlation with physical dominance, given that winning a fight generally involves being physically on top of the loser.

This also plays out in larger battles, where taking the high ground is a strategic advantage. In our everyday lives, our physical dominance others has little to do with our power over other people, yet we retain the idea of this spatial orientation.

Lakoff and Johnson point out that while we have a pretty coherent system for using our metaphors, it isn't fool-proof. First, the rules aren't particularly consistent across cultures: for example, some societies talk about the future as though it is in front of them, whereas for others it is behind (metaphorically they go back to the future). Second, being highly communicative creatures, we love to invent new ways to explain ourselves, constantly mixing our metaphors and breaking our own rules.

One common exception to the rules of orientational metaphors is that we locate uncertainty upwards (up in the air), whereas certainty is down (that's settled then). Perhaps it is a case of not wanting to be tied down to one system, and so we insist on screwing it up?

We talk as though 'up' is good, while 'down' is bad. We don't even notice that we are speaking metaphorically.

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I've got that sinking feeling© Bonita Clark
I've got that sinking feeling© Bonita Clark