Your Brain on Metaphor: Confused

Could "neural confusion" between what's real and what's not contribute to acts as grand as peacemaking and as mundane as handwashing? Former IdeaFestival presenter Robert Sapolsky editorializes about how the mind processes fact and metaphor in the same region of the brain in a piece posted at the New York Times blog "The Stone," "This is Your Brain on Metaphors."

Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. 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.

But why do we understand them? Sapolsky's thinking picks up where author and prodigious savant Daniel Tammet left off in September at the IdeaFestival.

In addition to the five senses with which we're familiar, Daniel argued that over time the mind has developed innate number and and word senses. We intuit the relative magnitude of some numbers, or associate the "gl" sound with things similar to light, like "glass," "gleam" and "glint," for example. Because of his synesthesia, he also encounters numbers as color, textures and shapes - the number "9" looms large in his mind, he said. His neural circuitry is cross-wired. Growing up in social isolation until the age of eight, numbers were, for him, much more than an abstraction good for measuring or comparing things. They were, in his own words, "his friends."

When we think in analogies, metaphors and parables, we're thinking "not unlike a savant," and that to the extent that these ways of thinking are essentially creative, they are available to everyone, the average person and autistic alike. 

So whereas he links "neural confusion" to his astounding facility with language and math, Sapolsky, ever the biologist, extends the point in "This is Your Brain on Metaphors," linking it to historic examples in peacemaking, to its hold on our emotional faculties, or, in the following quote, to residual examples of its presence in our everyday lives.

In a remarkable study, Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist of Northwestern University demonstrated how the brain has trouble distinguishing between being a dirty scoundrel and being in need of a bath. Volunteers were asked to recall either a moral or immoral act in their past. Afterward, as a token of appreciation, Zhong and Liljenquist offered the volunteers a choice between the gift of a pencil or of a package of antiseptic wipes. And the folks who had just wallowed in their ethical failures were more likely to go for the wipes. In the next study, volunteers were told to recall an immoral act of theirs. Afterward, subjects either did or did not have the opportunity to clean their hands. Those who were able to wash were less likely to respond to a request for help (that the experimenters had set up) that came shortly afterward. Apparently, Lady Macbeth and Pontius Pilate weren’t the only ones to metaphorically absolve their sins by washing their hands.

Having heard from both, what struck me is that the answer to the question "Why do metaphors have power?" might be traced to the mind's initial confusion when confronted with the world. From it springs our humanity.