November 27, 2010

This Is Your Brain on Metaphors

"This Is Your Brain on Metaphors" is an essay by Robert Sapolsky that I read on The New York Times’s website. Sapolsky is a professor of Biology, Neurology and Neurosurgery at Stanford University, and is a research associate at the Institute of Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya.

It doesn't sound like the CV for someone to discuss metaphors.

He starts by talking about why humans beat out gophers and fruit flies even though
under a microscope they look the same. Neurons are the same basic building blocks in both species.

So where’s the difference? It’s numbers — humans have roughly one million neurons for each one in a fly. And out of a human’s 100 billion neurons emerge some pretty remarkable things. With enough quantity, you generate quality.




So, we can understand symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech and all the stuff of poetry.

We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.

He cites a number of studies. I like this example of how the brain links the literal and the metaphorical. It was a study by Lawrence Williams and John Bargh where volunteers would meet one of the experimenters, believing that they would be starting the experiment shortly. Actually, the meeting was the experiment. They asked the volunteer to briefly hold their coffee cup - a cup that was hot or iced. The subjects then read a description of some individual, and those who had held the warmer cup tended to rate the individual as having a warmer personality, with no change in ratings of other attributes.

I'm not sure how all this science will help you finish that poem that you last started, but maybe...

Books by Robert Sapolsky

1 comment:

  1. This article was a very popular tweet. It got a lot of attention.

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