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Day 15/09/2014

This is your brain on metaphors.

 

Hello rethinkED..* !!! I’m back from my annual summer hiatus and excited to keep this blog in motion while Elsa explores the universe. I can’t wait to share the exciting new breakthroughs in my research, ideas from the courses I’m taking this semester, and stories from the trips I took this summer.

Today I’d like to talk about this interesting article a colleague sent me: Your Brain on Metaphors. The article provides some neurological evidence for embodied cognition – a hot new topic that we’ve mentioned HERE and HERE.  As a reminder, embodiment is the idea that our thoughts are integrally connected to our bodies and their movement and experiences in space.

The article discusses studies where people read sentences that are either literal, metaphorical, or idiomatic in an fMRI machine and researches see whether the motor cortex is activated. Research has shown that metaphor deeply affects the way we think. For literal phrases, such as “The player kicked the ball”, the brain reacts as if it were carrying out the described action, igniting memories of kicking.  For metaphorical phrases, such as “The patient kicked the habit”,  the brain’s motor cortex similarly lights up, giving evidence that metaphor is not abstracted from our sensory-motor brain regions.

Idioms are “dead metaphors” or phrases that are so commonplace as to become cliches. For these, such as “The villain kicked the bucket”, researchers have found that the more idiomatic a phrase, the less the motor system became involved, suggesting that how familiar one is with the metaphor can affect how the motor neurons fire.

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Beyond providing interesting evidence for embodied cognition, I love what this says about reading and metaphor. When we include metaphors in our writing, we are activating all sorts of parts of our readers’ brains. I told you I would keep this blog in “motion” earlier and according to this research, your brain activated the actual idea of motion. This research could support how a good metaphor can really provide depth and substance to one’s writing, and why certain types of sentences evoke such passionate emotions from a reader.

It also can explain how metaphor increases learning, by connecting an unknown or unexperienced fact to something one has experience and memory of seeing or doing. If I tell you that getting back into reading research articles this semester feels  “like riding a bike,” you can infer that its a skill that you never really lose and can pick up again quickly.

RoadNotTaken

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite classic poems, which uses the long-standing metaphor of roads representing choices in life:

The Road Not Taken

BY ROBERT FROST

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

 

 

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