Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Language works: This is your brain on metaphors

Do you use metaphors when you speak or present? If so, you--and your brain, and the brains of your audience members--are participating in a complex and elegant dance for which you know and can assume most of the steps.

In "This is your brain on metaphors," Stanford University professor Robert Sapolsky describes the biology and neuroscience behind metaphors, how we (and those we're speaking to) understand them, and where our brains find it tough to discern between the literal and the metaphoric in our language.  Here's a sweeping paragraph that sums up the ease with which humans grasp metaphor:

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. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.
This is a long read, and a fascinating peek at what's really happening when you use a metaphor...great food for thought as you plan your next eloquent presentation or speech.

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