(about peeling wallpaper, satisfaction, removing, metaphors, and ice cream)
I was surprised and a little embarrassed recently when I realized that I was enjoying peeling off old wallpaper more than I probably should. I was getting our hallway ready for some plaster and drywall patching, and one wall was still covered with several layers of old curling wallpaper that needed to be removed.
As I self-consciously enjoyed my peeling task, I realized, oddly, that this particular experience reminded me of some other things.
Some of the other strangely enjoyable activities that sprang to mind were other tasks that are common to those of us who renovate in Victorian Village, like prying slabs of old loose plaster off a brick wall with a utility bar, or using a heat gun and a putty knife to soften and scrape thick, lumpy layers of ancient paint from wood trim. It also made me think of more personal examples, including gingerly pulling a sheet of blistered skin from a patch of sunburn, separating a scab from the pink skin underneath, and picking one’s nose.
Who isn’t tempted by the dry edge of a scab, or by a loose flap of sunburned flesh? Who can say that they never pick their nose? These are broadly shared experiences, and they have one quality in common. They all involve removing something, and in every case, the item is something that “doesn’t belong”. Interestingly, this compulsion to “remove something that doesn’t belong” is so universal that it became the central theme of a recurring Sesame Street song/game (“Can you tell me which thing is not like the others; can you tell me which thing doesn’t belong?”).
Like many childhood games, Sesame Street’s “doesn’t belong” game reinforces innate tendencies and contributes to the development of skills that are important for effectiveness and survival throughout life, including removing ticks, recognizing that the cat poop is not a toy in the sandbox, and sorting reds from whites in the laundry. This ability (to identify and then remove what doesn’t belong) starts very early (around 18 months), and it’s a good thing, too, since “pattern recognition” is largely responsible for our species’ success in avoiding becoming someone else’s lunch long enough for us to dominate the planet.
In addition to the apparently obvious physical similarity (removing something that doesn’t belong), I believe that there is a similarity in the feeling that accompanies the experiences. There is a quality that mysteriously “feels the same” in every one of them, something that feels oddly “satisfying”. This same familiar satisfying feeling accompanies an even broader range of “removal” actions, including pulling a weed from the garden and snapping off an especially long icicle from a roofline.
A clue to the origin of this similar feeling can be found in the vast array of shared experiences from early in our lives that link particular physical experiences with particular emotional experiences. The well-known linguist George Lakoff has demonstrated that a linking or “pairing” of any physical behavior or experience (like, for instance, being held by a warm parent)
with an emotion (like affection) creates a metaphorical link that evokes the same emotional reaction later on when a similar physical behavior is initiated (like when I feel the warmth of affection through a cup of coffee).
In his book “Philosophy in the Flesh,” Lakoff shows how this works. “When a child is held affectionately by its parents, two distinct brain areas are activated simultaneously – one for temperature and one for affection. The synapses in both areas are strengthened, and activation spreads until a circuit is formed. That circuit is the neural realization of a “primary metaphor” that is embodied.” In other words, the affection/temperature metaphor is programmed into our bodies. Lakoff concludes, “If the metaphor is affection is warmth, holding warm coffee will activate the brain region for experiencing affection.” So the warmth of the parental hugs formed the primary metaphorical link, but later a warm cup of coffee also triggers the “affection response”.
This type of pairing leads to many other emotional-physical metaphorical links (and thus, potential triggers), such as “Importance is Big”, “Happy is Up”, and “Difficulties are Burdens”.
The analogous metaphor in my wallpaper example might be “Satisfaction is Removing What Doesn’t Belong”. Linking “removal” with “satisfaction” likely started a long time ago, when our ancestors removed poisonous plants that didn’t belong in a pile of healthy greens, and removed the flawed flints that didn’t belong in a stack of hunting stones. These days we live with a different range of environments, groups, and sets of things, but we still immediately understand when something is out of place, and are rewarded when we remove what doesn’t fit. The pairing of our broad range of “removal” actions with emotional satisfaction has broadened the range of the metaphor, eventually developing in us an inexplicable urge to tug at loose wallpaper.
There is even more, of course. In one final example (admittedly risking the ruination of everyone’s otherwise perfectly fine Dairy Queen experience), this metaphorical connection has even led to a preference for dipped chocolate shell coatings on soft serve ice cream. The hard chocolate shell “doesn’t belong” on the creamy, soft ice cream. And as with wallpaper, peeling and removing the “not-like-the-ice-cream” coating triggers a deeply seated metaphorical response.
Maybe it’s not just the taste of the chocolate that we find so satisfying.
The Sesquipedalian Dumpster Diver