September 29, 2021

Words of the Month - Metaphors in the Brain

         In neurolinguistic circles there is a great deal of curiosity and debate as to how the brain interprets and understands metaphors.  Metaphors, of course, involve comparison between objects and concepts, but they do so by treating the primary object as if it is the object of comparison.  She’s a little mouse.  Love is a roller-coaster.  His job is a train wreck.  I’ve got a boatload of work.
        The first question is often to debate how literally the brain interprets these metaphors.  Do we simply memorize their meanings like idioms, or do we interpret them anew each time?  A number of recent studies have shown that when someone hears a metaphor involving a physical action (He tends to bend the rules) the parts of the brain involved in the physical action do get involved, just as when hearing a literal sentence with the same word (He tends to bend the wires) — but not the same as hearing a sentence with the literal meaning instead of the metaphor (He tends to alter the rules.)  Similarly, a metaphor involving a sensory concept (She’s so sweet) activates areas of the brain involved in literal sensory sentences (The cupcake is so sweet), but not the same as the literal meaning (She’s so loving.)
        We use metaphors so ubiquitously that we often don’t even notice much of our own figurative language.  I’ve got a bright future ahead of me.  The future is here given both the visual metaphor of light and the spatial metaphor of being physically in front of a physical human.  The temperature’s falling.  We have mapped temperature onto a spatial framework: hotter temperatures call for larger numbers, and larger numbers are described as being physically higher in space.  We simply cannot understand or communicate our world without metaphor.  On the other hand, if we aren’t even aware of the figurative nature of language, is our brain still processing that language the same way, or has the once-figurative simply acquired a new meaning?  I haven’t seen any studies specifically on this.  That said, there are studies showing that the brain is most active in processing novel, meaningful metaphors, and that by the time a metaphor is so well known that it becomes a cliché or idiom, the brain uses less and less time, less effort, and less varied areas to process it.
        The areas of the brain used in making up new metaphors are all those same areas involved in all kinds of creativity: the areas that allow unusual combinations of ideas to jumble up together, as well as the areas that oversee which of those unusual combinations are actually meaningful.  In some sense metaphors are creativity and creativity is metaphors.  So, our brains are brimming over with metaphors - we can hardly think any nuanced thoughts at all without them, and to me this is absolutely beautiful.  I love the idea that our brains are looking for those connections all the time.  It’s also true that our brains love a meaty metaphor, which probably explains some of the magic of poetry, art, and speculative fiction: all media that often ask us to consider old things in new ways.  It turns out that a good, fresh metaphor literally makes your brain metaphorically light up!

“A noble metaphor, when it is placed to an advantage, casts a kind of glory round it, and darts a luster through a whole sentence.” (Joseph Addison, The Spectator, 1712)

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

“Cover the walls with mirrors of metaphor --

Silver and glass unmixed in space but fused in time.” (Anne E.G. Nydam)

On the other hand, apparently not everyone loves metaphors - "Had we but an Act of Parliament to abridge Preachers the use of fulsom and luscious Metaphors, it might perhaps be an effectual Cure of all our present Distempers." (Samuel Parker, 1671 - see a little more here)

[Pictures: Detail from an illustration by AEGN for Periodic Table of Alien Species by Miguel O. Mitchell, 2021.]


Pax said...

Let's commend time spent cooking up luscious metaphors to tempt our hungry brains. Thanks for an enjoyable and informative post.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

=) Indeed, Pax!