Warmth, metaphorical and otherwise

By Marshall Scott

There is a certain flow, a certain dependable rhythm, to my bread baking. While no single step takes long, there is enough separation between steps that the whole process takes 24 hours, more or less. Even with some variation from session to session, the result is the largely the same. Sometime in the evening, not long before I retire, the baking ends and the bread comes out of the oven.

I have come especially to enjoy the warm air that comes out of the oven when I remove the loaves. This oven is mounted high, almost at my eye level, and the warm air rushing out pours over my arms and shoulders. Even in the heat of summer, when we’ve been grilling outside or eating salads to avoid heating the kitchen and the house, I find I enjoy that moment. Even late in the evening, when I’m ready to end the day after this one last task, I find that moment pleasant, and even energizing.

I’ve been reading the recent study about the relationship between a sense of social isolation and perception of temperature. You may have seen some recent news reports about it. I have the benefit of a medical library ready to hand, and so have been able to read the article.

If you haven’t heard of this, let me give you a summary. The article, titled “Cold and Lonely: Does Social Exclusion Literally Feel Cold?” was authored by researchers Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey J. Leonardelli, both of the University of Toronto. It was published in the September, 2008, edition of the journal, Psychological Science (Volume 19 Issue 9, Pages 838 – 842). They performed two experiments with undergraduates. In the first, the students were divided randomly into two groups. One group was asked to remember an event in which participants felt socially excluded, while the other was asked to remember an event of feeling socially included. They were then asked, without any apparent connection to the exercise in memory, to assist lab maintenance staff by estimating the temperature of the room. Those who had remembered being socially excluded estimated a lower temperature than those who had remembered being socially included. Indeed, the difference between the mean estimate of the “excluded” group and that of the “included” group was 2.58 degrees Celsius (4.64 degrees Fahrenheit).

In the second experiment students were asked to play a computer game that they thought had them tossing a virtual ball with other students on other computers. In fact they were playing with the computer, which divided them randomly into two groups. One group experienced roughly equal participation with the other “players” (the control group). The other group had roughly equal play at first, but then experienced the other “players” excluding them, refusing to pass them the virtual ball. Afterward, participants were asked to complete a “marketing survey” by ranking on a 7-point scale their desire for one of five foods: hot coffee, hot soup, an apple, crackers, or a soda. Those who had been in the “excluded” group had about the same level of desire for an apple, crackers, or soda as participants in the control group. However, they expressed a significantly higher level of desire for the food and drink specified “hot” than those in the control group.

The authors felt that this demonstrated in both cases that the feeling of being socially excluded precipitated not simply a metaphorical but a sensory perception of being physically cold. As they put it,

In two experiments we found that people literally felt cold (Experiment 1) or preferred warm food (Experiment 2) when being socially excluded, regardless of whether such experience was induced through a recall of past experience or virtual interaction. These findings are consistent with theories of embodied cognition and suggest that our social experience is not independent of physical and somatic perception (Barsalou, 1999; Varela et al, 1991). They also highlight that metaphors are not just language that we use to communicate; they are fundamental vessels through which we understand and experience the world around us (Bargh, 2006; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Not only does physical experience aid our understanding of more abstract, complex phenomena, but also that domains of different experiences merge and intertwine such that the activation of one is automatically accompanied by another (e.g., Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006); the subjective feeling of coldness may be an integral part of our experience of social rejection.

Now, the authors are careful to say that, while this suggests that feeling socially isolated can make one feel cold, it would take further research to demonstrate that feeling cold can make one feel socially isolated. At the same time, they have suggested that there is more than metaphor to the interaction between our social perception and our physical perception. When I think of the warmth of the oven as the bread comes out, or of the pleasure I’ve taken by a warm fireplace, or in that first cup of coffee on a cool morning, I have my own empirical sense that the connection works both ways. That sense of warmth, of comfort and safety, contributes to my own experience that “all’s right with the world,” including my own place in it.

I wonder what that might mean for our congregations. After all, we have all heard the comment that “when we visited, that congregation just felt so cold.” I fear we’ve all heard it even about a congregation dear to our hearts. We’ve known that the comment expressed social isolation, a sense of not being welcomed. I wonder what it might mean if we were to create a sense of physical warmth to supplement the social and emotional warmth that we all intend to convey.

How might we do that? In these “green” days, it might not seem right to turn up the thermostat; and yet for the sake of the community it might be worth considering. Or perhaps we might consider offering shawls for services when there’s a nip in the nave. Could we consider a coffee hour that offered soup as well as plates of cookies, and maybe even warm rolls? Could we greet newcomers, not only with a handshake, but with a cup of warm coffee or cider, already filled and radiating?

We know that we are called to express the warmth and compassion of the one who created the sun on our faces, the fire in our hearths. We’ve made too often that old joke about being “God’s frozen people” (a joke told wryly, let me assure you, by many Christians, and not just Episcopalians). Perhaps we can take this research to heart and do our own empirical trial to see if it works both ways, if a sense of physical warmth can convey welcome when our words sometimes fail. It might not need a whole new program. Indeed, it might be as simple as offering in hand a hot cup of coffee.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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