Writers, prosetitues, poets and punners got some stimulating news yesterday. Neurologist Krish Sathianand and his research team at Emory University just published a study in Brain & Language which suggests that the brain’s understanding of metaphors is rooted in perception.
In their study, test subjects listened to both figurative and non-figurative language. While both groups’ language centers were stimulated, only those exposed to figurative language (i.e. metaphors and similes) experienced an activation in the parietal operculum (a region of the brain involved perceiving textures).
What exactly does all this mean? Let me explain with a metaphor:
Metaphors light up your mind like a flickering neon sign.
Metaphors, commonly used in poetry and prose, are often used to convey an inner state to the reader by relating a feeling, thought or emotion with something physical. In other words, it’s a way of externalizing the internal experience.
Maybe that’s why we find metaphors so handy in conveying inner states to others. When you tell someone “your words cut like a knife,” the brain relates the inner feeling with the physical feeling of being cut: pain. We get it, the words were painful to hear. Inner state successfully externalized.
This same mechanism can be used to describe a person or object. For instance, when Will Shakespeare famously asked “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?” — we get an image of a summer’s day. Visually, we know that Summer is a sunny time of the year and our sense of touch might also by activated. Summer days are warm, maybe even hot. So, the subject of this poem (some lucky lady) is brightly attractive… and, most definitely, a sizzling hot Renaissance babe.
You know, with a metaphor like that, you get the picture.
To learn more about the details of the study, read Science NOW’s coverage.