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Metaphors And Your Brain

“Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.” — Orson Scott Card

Metaphors are wonderful for helping us express ideas in vivid and highly memorable pictures, so that we understand and internalise concepts more creatively and effectively. But what actually happens in the brain when we process a metaphor? 

Feeling Your Metaphors

Metaphors don’t just help you understand. They make your brain touchy feely. In fMRI experiments, neuroscientists have found that expressions such as “wet behind the ears” and “hairy situation” light up the brain regions (e.g. the parietal operculum, somatosensory cortex) involved with touch and feeling textures, whereas literal statements such as “naïve” or “precarious situation” do not. When presented with action-related metaphors like “the patient kicked the bucket,” the motor cortex is activated as well. This shows how metaphors are largely connected to our immediate bodily experience. So if you’re having a rough day, have a hot bath and maybe you'll feel better.

Metaphors as a Necessity of Language

Metaphors are grounded in our very ability to perceive and capture meaning through language. Consider these examples:

  • Take the seemingly literal statement “out of sight” – it is actually making a metaphor of the visual field as a container that holds things.
  • We like to say “stocks rising” instead of “stocks getting more expensive,” because we’ve made “going up” a metaphor for the concept of increase.
  • In the concept of time, the future is commonly regarded as being “ahead” of us, and the past “behind.” How is that metaphoric, you may ask? In Bolivia and Chile, people who speak the language Aymara see time differently – they refer to the past as being in front of them, because the past is thought of as visible whereas the future is not.
    In both cases, space is being used as a metaphor for time, though in different ways.

So metaphors, though different across cultures, are so deeply ingrained in our ordinary conceptual system that they aren’t often recognised for what they are. But without them, we wouldn’t even be able agree on fundamental concepts like time.

Metaphor in Psychology

Metaphors derive their power from how confused we are as human beings. Our brains have evolved to confuse the literal and the symbolic by cramming viscerally similar functions in the same brain areas. For example:

  • The insula processes both physical and moral disgust. It activates when you are biting into a maggot-infested apple, and also when you hear about child slavery in the chocolate industry.
  • The anterior cingulate activates when you are poked with a needle (physical pain) and also when you watch a loved one being poked (psychic pain).
  • Here’s a weighty situation. Volunteers were asked to evaluate the resumes of job applicants, which were attached to clipboards of different weights. Those holding the heavier clipboards tended to judge the applicant as more serious.
  • The brain has trouble distinguishing between being a dirty scoundrel and being in need of a bath. In an experiment, volunteers were asked to think about immoral acts they’d done in the past, then offered the choice of a pencil or antiseptic wipes as a gift after. They were more likely to choose the wipes.

These findings have interesting implications for the theory of consciousness. Can robots be given bodies with sensors, actuators and neural pathways that can simulate physical sensation, and allow them to form metaphors to understand the world? Scientists are working to find out.

Brains are fascinating. Read on to find out Why We Dream or, even stranger, find out about the Bizarre Brains of the Animal Kingdom

*feature image courtesy of David Blackwell