Dolphin in poolThe 2011 Scientific American article A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain has a lot to consider when we contemplate the difficulty we’re likely to have in communicating with aliens… or, for that matter, with certain of our own terrestrial co-species.

Put simply (in deference to Kent), the article discusses how our thoughts are defined and guided by metaphors, many of which are dictated by physical experiences based around human physiology.

We understand control as being UP and being subject to control as being DOWN: We say, “I have control over him,” “I am on top of the situation,” “He’s at the height of his power,” and, “He ranks above me in strength,” “He is under my control,” and “His power is on the decline.” Similarly, we describe love as being a physical force: “I could feel the electricity between us,” “There were sparks,” and “They gravitated to each other immediately.” Some of their examples reflected embodied experience. For example, Happy is Up and Sad is Down, as in “I’m feeling up today,” and “I’m feel down in the dumps.” These metaphors are based on the physiology of emotions, which researchers such as Paul Eckman have discovered. It’s no surprise, then, that around the world, people who are happy tend to smile and perk up while people who are sad tend to droop.

Many of these metaphors are directly related to how the human organism responds to specific stimuli:

• Thinking about the future caused participants to lean slightly forward while thinking about the past caused participants to lean slightly backwards. Future is Ahead

• Squeezing a soft ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as female while squeezing a hard ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as male. Female is Soft

• Those who held heavier clipboards judged currencies to be more valuable and their opinions and leaders to be more important. Important is Heavy.

• Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. Morality is Purity

What’s significant here is that an alien visitor to our planet may not share the same physiological form as humans, and therefore these metaphors might make no intrinsic sense to them… at least, not without extensive study of our physiological form and our psychological and social makeup to be able to recognize these metaphors and their significance.  Similarly, without thoroughly understanding their physiology, psychology and social makeup, we would have as much trouble understanding them. We describe anger as making us “hot”; but if an alien responds to anger by becoming “flat” or “clean”, how do we communicate these feelings to each other?

Chimp smiling
He’s so happy to see me–YOWTCH!

Here’s some purely terrestrial examples.  A smile, something humans use to indicate friendship, is used by Chimpanzees to indicate fright or nervousness… think of the consequences of misinterpreting that in a delicate situation.  And, of course, many animals’ faces suggest to us permanent smiles (or frowns), causing humans to interpret dolphins, for example, as “happy creatures,” or Koalas as “sad,”  and consequently (and, apparently, often) make the wrong assumptions about their physical or mental state in an encounter.

This is more fodder for the argument that, if we have this much trouble understanding creatures on our own planet that at least have some similarities to humans, how can we expect to be able to communicate with aliens?  Sure, we may manage to cobble together a common form of language through mathematics, but will we understand the significance of a statement like “There are an awful lot of you humans”?  Are they complimenting us, or suggesting that we begin culling ourselves?  Will they understand when we bend closer to examine their appearance?  Are we curious, lazy, hard of hearing, or hungry?