Manipulated By Metaphors

by Dish Staff

Figurative language may warp your perception of reality. Britt Peterson explains:

Lera Boroditsky, an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California at San Diego, has written a series of papers on the effect of figurative language, particularly metaphors of space and time, on reasoning. One paper, written with Paul Thibodeau, an assistant professor of psychology at Oberlin College, showed that substituting just one word in a text about a crime wave ravaging an imaginary town – comparing crime to a “beast” instead of a “virus” – completely changed how readers responded to the problem. People who read that crime was a beast were far more likely to advocate putting more police on the streets or locking up criminals; people who read “virus” were far more likely to push for education and social reforms. And yet, when people cited the factors behind their decisions, no one mentioned the metaphor. “People love to think that they’re being rational, and all of us love to think that we’re basing our opinion entirely on facts,” Boroditsky told me. “But in fact it was the metaphor that people overlooked.”

Meanwhile, Michael Chorost looks at what happens in our brains when we interpret metaphors:

Neuroscientists agree on what happens with literal sentences like “The player kicked the ball.” The brain reacts as if it were carrying out the described actions. This is called “simulation.” Take the sentence “Harry picked up the glass.” “If you can’t imagine picking up a glass or seeing someone picking up a glass,” [linguist George] Lakoff wrote in a paper with Vittorio Gallese, a professor of human physiology at the University of Parma, in Italy, “then you can’t understand that sentence.” Lakoff argues that the brain understands sentences not just by analyzing syntax and looking up neural dictionaries, but also by igniting its memories of kicking and picking up.

But what about metaphorical sentences like “The patient kicked the habit”? An addiction can’t literally be struck with a foot. Does the brain simulate the action of kicking anyway? Or does it somehow automatically substitute a more literal verb, such as “stopped”? This is where functional MRI can help, because it can watch to see if the brain’s motor cortex lights up in areas related to the leg and foot.

The evidence says it does. “When you read action-related metaphors,” says Valentina Cuccio, a philosophy postdoc at the University of Palermo, in Italy, “you have activation of the motor area of the brain.” In a 2011 paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Rutvik Desai, an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, and his colleagues presented fMRI evidence that brains do in fact simulate metaphorical sentences that use action verbs. When reading both literal and metaphorical sentences, their subjects’ brains activated areas associated with control of action. “The understanding of sensory-motor metaphors is not abstracted away from their sensory-motor origins,” the researchers concluded.