Language continually expresses one thing in terms of another. What's more, science can demonstrate that far from mere expression, language and metaphor color our physical experience of the world. Remorse, for example, affects how individuals judge the relative light inside a room.
The evolutionary biologist Robert Sapolsky makes that point in a piece from 2010, "This is Your Brain on Metaphors," putting it this way:
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.
Authors of course have been using this knowledge for centuries, skillfully connecting with readers through the use and arrangement of symbols on a page to produce various emotional states. And in a wider sense, the arts draw on the psychic, emotional and material to make subjective statements about the human condition, deducing what it can from incomplete information.
At the Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer turns the tables, interviewing novelist and psychologist Charles Fernyhough, author of Box of Birds, on the use of neruoscience in his work. It's a deeply informed back and forth about a growing and fruitful exchange between the arts and science, as well as its limits. Check it out. What can novelists learn from neuroscience?