This Is Your Brain on Metaphors

This Is Your Brain on Metaphors… and no I’m not trying to be sneaky and use metephors as some figurative meaning for drugs. Instead…

Sapolsky has done it again folks! Somehow this man seems to spring up everywhere. I shouldn’t be at all surprised though. No doubt, this mas has certainly made a name for himself!

He talks about everything! Seriously! I’m not lying, well, maybe it’s a bit of a stretch, but he mentions a ton of relevant and intriguing behaviors, emotions, and brain regions all responsible for how our brains link the literal and the metaphorical.

He first starts us out by mentioning that our highly complex brains may not be as fancy as we think. He compares it to the nervous system of a fruit fly. Humans and fruit flies are both made up of cells, all playing  playing particularly important roles in the ways in which we function. You may hypothesize that the human neuron is more spectacular and that the two differ dramatically, but ook under a microscope and they are as close to identical without being identical. They have the “same electrical properties, many of the same neurotransmitters, the same protein channels that allow ions to flow in and out, as well as a remarkably high number of genes in common.” Remember, neurons are the basic building blocks!

C’mon though, there has to be a difference…somewhere!

“It’s numbers — humans have roughly one million neurons for each one in a fly. And out of a human’s 100 billion neurons emerge some pretty remarkable things. With enough quantity, you generate quality.”

There’s a structural basis for many of our qualities. Humans have unique skills — language, that is uniquely human (Broca’s area),  fine motor control (extrapyramidal system), and things like emotional regulation, gratification postponement, executive decision-making, long-term planning (frontal cortex). But there’s one more thing. Humans can understand symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, and figures of speech. “So where did this facility with symbolism come from? It strikes [Sapolsky] that the human brain has evolved a necessary shortcut for doing so, and with some major implications.”

I’m not going to summarize the entire article because I actually want you all to read it! There are some really interesting (and easy) studies that he mentions.

But I will say that there are ways to manipulate behavior by exploiting the brain’s literal-metaphorical confusions about nearly anything. For instance, have you ever been handed a hot or cold drink, then spoken to someone briefly and found yourself acting cheerful or abrasive? Well it could just be that piping hot or bone chilling drink you have in your hand (Bargh, 2008).

This brilliant man raises a few pertinent  questions:

What are we to make of the brain processing literal and metaphorical versions of a concept in the same brain region?

Or that our neural circuitry doesn’t cleanly differentiate between the real and the symbolic?

What are the consequences of the fact that evolution is a tinkerer and not an inventor, and has duct-taped metaphors and symbols to whichever pre-existing brain areas provided the closest fit?

Sapolsky is the…

Opinionator (Exclusive Online Commentary From The Times)

Check out the full article here!

One thought on “This Is Your Brain on Metaphors

  1. This is such a cool article. I am completely enamored by Sapolsky, and I think it’s because of his comparisons. For example, the comparison of quantity of neurons causing the quality of abilities and connections is a great, accessible way to phrase his ideas. This also makes a lot of sense. For example, rats have incredible senses of smell, thus their olfactory bulbs are comparatively larger than ours. And it seems as though that size is attributed to quantity of neurons. So cool!


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