Being Human 2012

The Science of Human Experience

Palace of Fine Arts / San Francisco, CA March 24, 2012 9am - 5:30pm

Your Brain Can Feel Metaphors

Posted on Monday, February 13, 2012 at 3:57PM

Metaphors enrich language; just think, would you rather listen to a singer with a "silky voice" or just a "pleasant voice"? In evoking the smooth feeling of silk, the phrase associates a physical texture with something that has none. Because of this, scientists have speculated for some time whether the ability to understand a metaphor is rooted in the sensory parts of the brain, rather than simply the cognitive portion. Now, researchers have evidence confirming this speculation, showing that a sensory region of the brain lights up when dealing with even the most common textural metaphors.

The parietal operculum is the part of the brain responsible for sensing texture through touch. Using fMRI, researchers from Emory University discovered that this region is activated when someone listens to a sentence containing a textural metaphor, but that it isn't activated when listening to a similar sentence expressing the same intention minus the metaphor.

“We see that metaphors are engaging the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in sensory responses even though the metaphors are quite familiar,” said senior author Krish Sathian, M.D., Ph.D. “This result illustrates how we draw upon sensory experiences to achieve understanding of metaphorical language...This also demonstrates how complex processes involving symbols, such as appreciating a painting or understanding a metaphor, do not depend just on evolutionarily new parts of the brain, but also on adaptations of older parts of the brain.”

Metaphors are abstract treats for the conceptual mind, but they also engage ancient, sensory parts of our brains. No wonder we litter our literature, speech, and song with them.

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