Your brain on metaphors

Michael Chorost writes:

The player kicked the ball.
The patient kicked the habit.
The villain kicked the bucket.

The verbs are the same. The syntax is identical. Does the brain notice, or care, that the first is literal, the second
metaphorical, the third idiomatic?

It sounds like a question that only a linguist could love. But neuroscientists have been trying to answer it using exotic brain-scanning technologies. Their findings have varied wildly, in some cases contradicting one another. If they make progress, the payoff will be big. Their findings will enrich a theory that aims to explain how wet masses of neurons can understand anything at all. And they may drive a stake into the widespread assumption that computers will inevitably become conscious in a humanlike way.

The hypothesis driving their work is that metaphor is central to language. Metaphor used to be thought of as merely poetic ornamentation, aesthetically pretty but otherwise irrelevant. “Love is a rose, but you better not pick it,” sang Neil Young in 1977, riffing on the timeworn comparison between a sexual partner and a pollinating perennial. For centuries, metaphor was just the place where poets went to show off.

But in their 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By, the linguist George Lakoff (at the University of California at Berkeley) and the philosopher Mark Johnson (now at the University of Oregon) revolutionized linguistics by showing that metaphor is actually a fundamental constituent of language. For example, they showed that in the seemingly literal statement “He’s out of sight,” the visual field is metaphorized as a container that holds things. The visual field isn’t really a container, of course; one simply sees objects or not. But the container metaphor is so ubiquitous that it wasn’t even recognized as a metaphor until Lakoff and Johnson pointed it out.

From such examples they argued that ordinary language is saturated with metaphors. Our eyes point to where we’re going, so we tend to speak of future time as being “ahead” of us. When things increase, they tend to go up relative to us, so we tend to speak of stocks “rising” instead of getting more expensive. “Our ordinary conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical in nature,” they wrote. [Continue reading…]

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