Metaphorically Speaking

Our most sophisticated thinking relies on bodily experience.

In over your head.

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Have you ever deburred a dog? I have, and that distinctive experience (the dog in question was a black hound mix, and the burrs were like brownish green stars in his fur) was responsible for some regrettable lines of poetry I wrote while in college: “When the alarm went off, / dawn was picking out the stars/ like an old woman deburring her dog.” 

The image doesn’t come off as natural (or as whatever awful combination of virtuosic and world-weary I was probably going for)—but I mention it because that childhood memory, so visual and tactile, made the analogy weirdly intuitive. Though we often regard metaphors and similes as inspired instances of abstract thought, sometimes they are more like repackaged sense memories.

That’s one finding of a field of study called embodied cognition, which posits that we essentially understand everything through metaphors about the physical world. There are lots of everyday examples of embodied cognition—like how people equate affection with warmth, value with heaviness, or metaphysical impotence with needing to pee.

But let me back up. (That’s a physical metaphor; I haven’t moved.) What exactly is a metaphor? In school, you learn that it’s a direct comparison, a statement of similarity masquerading as a statement of identity. Similes, which usually contain the words like or as, isolate one out of many possible resemblances, while a metaphor implies the overlapping of two broader domains. Take Sir Walter Scott’s famous lines: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive!” If Scott had written that metaphor (lies equal a web) as a simile, and decided not to rhyme, and was also a terrible poet, he might have said: “Our deceptions tend to get tangled up like a web.” We would have understood that deceits are intricate and convoluted (“tangled”). But the simile doesn’t necessarily ask us to imagine other similarities between its two terms—that both webs and lies are dangerous, for instance, or hard to see, or designed to entrap.

So metaphors have a comprehensive sweep only dreamed of by other figures of speech. (Like personification: That guy is seriously bitter.) They seem conceptual rather than linguistic, a way of reasoning as opposed to a way of speaking. Embodied cognition takes this idea and runs with it: The theory defines metaphor as the loose mapping of one conceptual field onto another and says we think in constant metaphors, importing the physical and experiential into our understanding of the pure and abstract.

According to linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By, “[T]he very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment. … To understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanism of neural binding.” They mean not just that physical reality helps us think, but that mental functioning depends on corporeal experience. With their book, Lakoff and Johnson staked out a leading role for metaphor as a cognitive aid: Metaphor is that which ferries our attention between the knowable enclave of things and the veiled world of the intellect (or between the hot stove in your kitchen and your dangerously sexy new co-worker).

A rat-a-tat of surprising results over the past few years has supported this radical empiricism and done a lot to challenge traditional dualist philosophy. Plato, Descartes, and others viewed the individual as an uneasy compromise between two irreconcilables: matter and spirit. Spirit was perfectly rational, transcendent, and universal. The body was its dumb slave. But for exponents of embodied cognition, matter is spirit’s tutor, albeit in a sneaky, Karate Kid wax-on, wax-off sort of way. (I’m thinking of how Mr. Miyagi overlapped the domains of car buffing and karate, and Daniel didn’t even realize it until the hand gestures were already intuitive.)

In one study, people squeezing a ball that was soft were more likely to judge gender-neutral faces as female, while those squeezing a hard ball more often perceived the faces as male. Tender pliability equals femaleness, toughness equals masculinity. In another study, subjects duped into holding a cup of hot coffee while conversing with an experimenter later deemed the experimenter charismatic and trustworthy, while volunteers who ended up holding a cold drink reported that the experimenter was standoffish. Warmth equals positive social emotions, coolness equals negative ones. Imagining the future makes us lean forward, whereas remembering the past impels us to dip back, because we kinetic creatures can only grasp time by dressing it up as space. And reflecting on our moral failings causes us to feel physically dirty: Subjects who had recently recalled an ethical transgression more frequently requested sanitary wipes than those who basked in the glow of remembered good deeds. But don’t hold out hope for a reformed Pontius Pilate or Lady Macbeth: Having the opportunity to wash your hands after thinking of something bad you did makes you less likely to respond to a subsequent plea for help. (Some related studies in this field have been called into question because other researchers haven’t been able to replicate them, but the overall evidence that physical experiences affect abstract thinking remains strong.)

Why does this happen? Researchers suggest that we evolved the capacity to reason abstractly as old brain regions began to multitask. The same neural equipment started processing both our physical disgust at a morsel of rotting food and our spiritual disgust at a piece of rotten advertising. “Evolution,” explained biologist Robert Sapolsky in the New York Times, “is a tinkerer and not an inventor,” duct-taping “metaphors and symbols to whichever pre-existing brain areas provide the closest fit.” (In this respect, evolution itself prefers metaphor to simile: Rather than devising a cortical unit like the insula to do higher-order revulsion, it tapped the actual insula.) That’s one reason poetic language can seem so vivid, Sapolsky argues. On a neural level, saying you’re in “over your head” can conjure up actual imagined feelings of drowning. You may want to throw embodied cognition papers at anyone who maligns you for misusing the word literally.

The poet and critic Howard Nemerov claims that good metaphors have an uncanny quality—they find a sweet spot right between surprising us and being utterly inevitable and correct. Yet even in that narrow space, some figures draw attention to themselves (Nemerov is delighted when a birding book describes purple finches as “sparrows dipped in raspberry juice”), and some evade notice. According to a 2000 study, we use four metaphors a minute, one for every 25 words or so. Of these, most whir by unheeded: “The day got away from me,” “that’s out of my hands.” Often with such sleepers the difference between the thing and the expression of the thing is like the difference between snow and rain—one melts into the other. Language, said the critic Owen Barfield, hitting the nail on the head (ahem), is “an unconscionable tissue of dead or petrified metaphors,” which at times “arise from the grave and walk in our sentences.”

How do our brains distinguish between literal constructs and figurative ones? Rutvik Desai, a psychology professor at the University of South Carolina, and his colleagues recruited 27 volunteers to undergo fMRI scans while reading a series of sentences. Some statements were literal (“The craftsman lifted the pebble from the ground”); others were metaphorical (“The discovery lifted this nation out of poverty”), idiomatic (“The country lifted the veil on its nuclear program”), or abstract (“The country wanted a plan for the nuclear program”). To obscure their methods from the subjects, the researchers also threw in 80 nonsense lines. I wish I could republish them all here for MFA candidates to steal, but only one appears in the paper: “The speech strangled the snow.”

Going in, Desai expected that the literal language would excite relevant tracts of sensory-motor cortex. Studies have shown that a brain presented with a straightforward description of an action simulates that action. What was less clear was whether metaphors and their clichéd cousins would also activate those pathways. Is picking out a burr the same as picking out a star the same as picking out a movie?

“We found that the sensory-motor cortex’s involvement in sentence comprehension decreased as the level of abstraction increased,” Desai told me. Both metaphors and idioms aroused the part of the brain that actually does let you lift a pebble from the ground, but nonidiomatic metaphors provoked a stronger response than idioms, and neither generated as big a reaction as literal statements. That meant, for one thing, that a metaphor’s power was correlated with how insistently it called upon people’s perceptual faculties. The words in idioms, which Desai describes as “frozen chunks of language,” aren’t processed that deeply. Desai’s real insight was, in his words, that “the way we represent meaning in the brain is very context dependent. We’re not computers with fixed representations of concepts in our memories that we pull out and activate as needed. Our representations are flexible, and how much we use”—how deep we go into an idea’s sensory-motor roots—“varies sentence by sentence.” 

Desai didn’t seem too bothered by the idea of zombie associations lurching to life in our language, shaping our thoughts. But once you know to look for metaphors, you spy them everywhere. By my count, this piece contains 63 of them. (And now 64. It’s an article, not a container.) I’m sure I missed a few. If you find more, or did not enjoy your reading experience, please direct complaints to my fleshy carapace. It is clearly running the show (66).