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Science Explains How Our Brains Process Metaphors

Turns out were all taking metaphors a little too literally

Metaphors play an important role in fiction. They help us visualize concepts, and they make language more beautiful by invoking striking comparisons. But, as the Wall Street Journal points out, science indicates that our brains see metaphors as more than just a literary device.

You probably remember from high school that a metaphor is a literary device that equates one thing with another in a figurative way. A simile is the one that uses a comparison word (like “as” or “like”), and a metaphor is the one that just dives right in and says one thing “is” another. For example, when Shakespeare tells us that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” that is a metaphor. 

The world isn't really a stage

Of course, when we hear Jacques say that in As You Like It, we don’t go looking to get into wardrobe. We know that Shakespeare isn’t saying that the world is literally a stage. But, according to the Wall Street Journal piece, our brains sometimes react literally to figurative language:

Scientists have been exploring the various ways that we process metaphors. We don’t literally feel someone’s pain, for example, yet neuroimaging studies show that when we empathize with a pain sufferer, we activate the same brain regions as we do when we cut our finger. Research subjects who have been chilled or warmed become more likely to rate someone as having a cold or warm personality, respectively. And people subliminally primed to think about infectious pathogens become more hostile to immigration; thoughts of disease provoke dis-ease with outsiders.

The brain doesn’t handle metaphors and figurative language in quite the way we’d expect, and the effect spills over into physical confusions. Among other things, humans sometimes confuse physical revulsion for moral revulsion, and guilt for physical dirt. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth sought to be rid of the “spot” of her guilt, and so do real people: in a so-called “Macbeth affect,” humans show a tendency to wash themselves after telling stories about their sins.

The full article is up on the Wall Street Journal’s website, and it’s well worth your time. These findings, at least, you can take literally!