• Kimberly Burnham, PhD (Integrative Medicine)

Metaphors and The Brain


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Cognition research suggests the ability to speak and use language relies on the sensory and motor areas of the brain. Felt sensations and body movements [motor] engage the brain so that what comes out of the mouth makes sense. In other words, we have to be able to feel and move as we process information in order to respond well to the world around us. It might be the other way around also, the conscious appreciation of language, particularly action verb and metaphors influence how we move and feel.

Sensing Movement

In a recent study, participants read sentences that describe the temporal extent of events with motion verbs—the hours crawled until the release of the news. Comparison conditions were fictive motion—the trail crawled until the end of the hills and literal motion—the caterpillar crawled towards the top of the tree. These motion based metaphors activated several parts of the brain including, the left insula, right claustrum, and bilateral posterior superior temporal sulci. Fictive (the trail crawling) and literal (the caterpillar crawling) motion contrasts did not show a difference in the brain. "These data suggest that language of time is at least partially grounded in experiential time [what we experience in our body]." Lai, V. T. and R. H. Desai (2016). "The grounding of temporal metaphors." Cortex (2016).

Notice for a moment what you see with your mind's eye or feel in your body when you hear, "the hours crawled." The vividness of the verbal image or metaphor matters and can significantly influence brain activity and creativity.

Comprehension of Space, Time and Symbols

Thirty years ago, psychotherapists and writers understood the value of enhancing right brain activity saying, "Learning how to stimulate right hemisphere activity can be of great benefit to high achievers in fields that require one to be internally focused, to be sensitive to the intonations of voice and body-language, to comprehend symbols and metaphors, to think visually and holistically, to work constructively with affect, or to enhance imaginative thinking." Psychiatric Clinics of North America (1988). And who doesn't need all of these skills to navigate life?

During the vivid and imaginative imagery session, four writers and six psychotherapists reported that mental imagery exercises produced a significant increase in the flow of creative ideas and enabled them to gain insights into important personal and professional issues. Other benefits included the ability to solve a major problem regarding a book's central character and feelings of intense joy, even liberation, during the session.

Metaphors are widely used to convey abstract concepts and emotions in the arts and everyday life. The comprehension of metaphors and symbols is a right brain activity that can be enhanced by paying conscious attention to their use.

How we describe space, time, and number is also fundamental to how we act within and reason about the world, said researchers noting, "magnitudes and metaphors are both needed to understand our neural and cognitive web of space, time and number." Winter, B., T. Marghetis, et al. (2015). "Of magnitudes and metaphors: explaining cognitive interactions between space, time, and number." Cortex 64: 209-224.

Goal Orientation

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain in 2017, researchers explored the whole brain functional connectivity during the use of unique metaphor. They found a cooperative role of large-scale networks in creative cognition, a potential switching mechanism underlying default (precuneus and left angular gyrus), executive (right intraparietal sulcus), and salience (right anterior insula) network interaction, and "suggest that metaphor production involves similar brain network dynamics as other forms of goal-directed, self-generated cognition." Brain and Cognition (2017).

So what does this mean to the business owner who wants to find unique market opportunities or the writer who wants to birth a creative and engaging book?

Using metaphors and vivid imagery enhances the creativity of the person writing the marketing copy or the novel as well as the reader. Take one of your favorite books from the bookcase and randomly open to a page. Read the page. Are there any metaphors? Are there any phrases that create a vivid image in your mind's eye?

If the answer is no, think about how you would rewrite the page to include metaphors or more vivid imagery.

Jump—Jumping to Conclusions

Have you ever jumped too quickly to the wrong conclusion? A study on schizophrenia found that people with schizophrenia relied too heavily on course word processing which happens in the right hemisphere and under relied on the more fine-word processing of the left hemisphere.

Researchers described the difference between the right and left brain in this way, left brain: fine, processes conventional metaphor, literal, and unrelated expressions while the coarse right brain processes novel metaphor. Results in people with schizophrenia showed greater activation of the right hemisphere for novel metaphors and greater bilateral activation for unrelated expressions. "We conclude that schizophrenics are over-reliant on early-stage coarse semantic processing. As a result, they jump too quickly to remote conclusions, with limited control over the meanings they form. This may explain one of the core symptoms of the disorder-loose associations." Zeev-Wolf, M., M. Faust, et al. (2015). "Magnetoencephalographic evidence of early right hemisphere overactivation during metaphor comprehension in schizophrenia." Psychophysiology 52(6): 770-781.

Conscious Creative Metaphors

What if thinking about metaphors, consciously trying to understand and play with language could make us think clearly and move more easily? What if activating both the right and left side of the brain and balancing the two hemispheres could make it less likely that we would jump to conclusions and more likely that we would see the opportunities to accomplish our goals?

Think about action verbs and what metaphors you know that involve: crawls, flies, drags, creeps, slides, runs, marches, freezes, and all the ways we can swim in an ocean of time.

How do you feel when space shrinks or explodes and numbers grow or multiply or ...

About the Author

Kimberly Burnham, PhD

A busy Integrative Medicine practitioner finding solutions for people with Parkinson’s, eyesight issues, diabetes and more, Kimberly Burnham, PhD is The Nerve Whisperer. She is the award winning author of a messenger mini-book,Our Fractal Nature, a Journey of Self-Discovery and Connection as well as, The Eyes Observing Your World, a featured chapter in Christine Kloser’s Pebbles in the Pond, Transforming the World One Person at a Time. Her goal is to change the face of brain health, foster hope, and help you experiences this incredible world. Read More About Kimberly.

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