Metaphor as a Fundamental Process of the Brain

Metaphor as a Fundamental Process of the Brain

By: Curtis Kelly

It happened 35 years ago. This young teacher rushed up to show this wonderful activity he had invented to teach idioms. He thought he was brilliant. I thought he was out to lunch. To teach idioms, he would pass out pieces of paper with an idiom written on each, like “a heated argument” or “ironing out a problem.” He would then tell his Japanese students to draw a picture of the literal meaning of the idiom. He showed me some examples. For “a heated argument,” two people were standing in a hot frying pan arguing with each other. For “ironing out a problem,” a T-shirt with “problem” written on it being ironed.

“How,” I wondered, “could this possibly be of any value for teaching idioms?” A heated argument had nothing to do with frying pans (unless maybe spouses were involved). Nor does problem-solving involve irons. The sad truth is that those of us flopping around in the EFL motivation wasteland of Japan, tend to get overexcited about anything that gets students to pay attention, whether it really teaches language or not, and I suspected this was the case with this teacher. It seemed to me that the time could be better spent just saying that a heated argument was an intense one, and then moving on to the next activity. But this young teacher was so proud of his students’ drawings. His eyes were so sparkly. Indeed, this young man, George Lakoff, thought himself a genius. I thought he was a dud.    

Okay, it wasn’t really George Lakoff. I can’t remember who it was, but if that teacher is reading this today, I have to offer my deepest apologies. I now know that your idea, that I so readily dismissed, was brilliant (even were it by accident) because metaphors do use the literal meanings of their components. All abstractions are composed of simpler schemata. It is the real George Lakoff who teaches us that. Every time we hear heated argument or iron out a problem, we activate the actual schema for heat along with argument, and ironing and smooth along with problem. It is the schema of heat and smoothness, created from past interoceptive, somatosensory, and sensorimotor experiences of the world, that give meaning to the abstract concepts of argument and problem-solving, or at least intensify it. As discussed in the Body-Brain Think Tank and in Heather’s article, cognition is embodied. All meaning, reasoning, and language are built out of schema, or mental models, created from our own bodily experiences in the world.

Metaphor is embodied

We can demonstrate the basis of body-based schema in a couple examples Lakoff provided in the introductory video. One is that we think of affection as warmth even though warmth and affection are two separate schema processed by different neural ensembles. Again, it comes from physical experiences. When you were a little baby, your parents picked you up and held you against their bodies, which were warm. Warmth and affection happened over and over again until these two schemata bound together. And this primary metaphor is carried over into warming up to someone, a warm welcome, she was decidedly cool, and so on.

Likewise, why do we say prices go up when they get more expensive rather than go down? Why not say something has an expensive low price or production costs went left when they increased? This metaphor of large as up pervades our language and is universal across others. Lakoff explains how we make this metaphor in a simple way. As babies, day after day, we see our mother pour something in a glass and the level goes up. Or a father might pile books on a desk and they go upwards as well. Repeatedly activated together, these primary schema of amount and verticality bind together, giving us a powerful primary metaphor. It can be reused with more complex ideas to give us a handle on them, as in: Flak from the lawsuits damaged the president’s otherwise soaring popularity. (Up is conveyed in the secondary metaphors, flying and flak).

Metaphor reveals an important brain function

Interesting, isn’t it? Until this issue came out, you probably just thought of metaphor as a literary device, but hopefully, you have come to the same conclusion I have, that metaphor represents more and is a fundamental process of the brain. It tells us heaps about how the brain works and how it does language too. Once, on a whim, I wrote up some key principles of the brain. While writing this article, I realized that many of those principles underlie how we do metaphor (footnoted here.[1] See if you can find the connection to metaphor.)

[1] Number one. The brain is good at deploying all its resources in creative ways to solving a single problem at a time. Anderson and others tell us that it does so by assembling ad hoc teams of brain routines with these teams changing from time to time. But when the same team is used again and again, the parts bind to each other. This is quite different from the understanding from a couple decades ago when we thought specific areas of the brain were devoted to processing specific things. (You might have learned examples of this, such as that language is just processed in the left hemisphere, or that Broca’s area is devoted to speech production, both of which are only partly true).

Number two is why number one works. The brain is a network with almost everything connected to everything else. Concepts, and even single words, are not stored in little pockets, as in computer RAM. They are spread throughout sensory-motor and other parts of the brain. Think “web.” Don’t think “places.”

Number three is the big one. Neurons that fire together wire together. It wasn’t long ago that we believed brains were hard-wired by genes. We now know that the brain is highly plastic, reshaping itself to fit our experiences all the time. One of its specialties is connecting things that happen together. Alice might have grown up with a puppy in her home and the dog circuits in her brain connected to the pleasure circuits, so she likes dogs. John might have been snarled at by a dog in his childhood so the routines for fear and dogs linked up, making him hate dogs. (Keep that in mind that the next time you snarl at your class.) This

Number four is just an extension of the idea above. The brain is embodied. That means that all cognition and learning starts with physical (and social) experiences. When we see people lifting a cup, we understand what they are doing through the activation of our own motor neurons for lifting. We understand apples from a model we have built from all the apples we have seen, touched, and tasted; a model composed of the sensory and motor routines that occurred during those experiences, along with emotions and affordances (such as loving to throw apples at your sister).

But one of the principles stands way out in front:

Neurons that fire together wire together.[2]

[2] “Wire together.” Not really what happens. I admit, I am purposely reducing many of the ideas to a simpler level than any neuroscientist would. For example, the notion that neurons are just connected by “wiring together” leaves out other, more important reasons neurons potentiate in specific groups. Brain waves, spikes, layers, neurotransmitters, and even calcium waves also control what fires and what does not, and you probably already know that “fire” is incorrect too. So, forgive me; I’m going for comprehensibility. Talk to Caroline Handley is you want something closer to what is really happening.

Think about it. We are given a huge number of neurons, 86 billion, to process a hugely complex world, but more, to specialize each brain to fit its particular context. And yet all these neurons are basically all the same kind of cell with variations. (Imagine we had to do that with 86 billion of some other object, like bicycles. ….[3]) But what makes the difference is that neurons are constantly combining and recombining into immensely larger groups and becoming more than just a mass of neurons. That they make structures after birth is exactly why our brains can adapt to all settings and niches.

This combining and recombining is not random nor pre-determined. It is a direct result of what we encounter throughout life, our experiences. While over a millennium, a species’ genes might adapt to fit its environment, over a lifetime, each individual as well modifies its neural connections to fit its surroundings, both social and physical.

At the most basic level, we have neurons that are good at processing simple things like lines, roundness, color, the difference between in and out, containers, direction, and so on. For example, Blakemore and Cooper discovered that there is one set of neurons that can identify vertical lines and another that can identify horizontal lines. These most basic neural ensembles combine to form larger schemata, such as “over” which is a joining of neurons that process above and forward movement. Our schema for the letter T is a combination of the neural schema for horizontal line, vertical line, intersection and end (for the top), and so on. When huge sets of such schema are activated together during an experience, such as seeing a cat, and that happens repeatedly, these sets of firing patterns also bind to each other to create our mental model of a cat, the same way affection linked to warmth.

[3] “….” is used in manga to represent a thought that cannot be expressed.

These larger mental models then become frames, which contain large sets of characteristics, actions, and other schema, but also define boundaries (source at 14.38). For example, in your mental model for a living room, you expect to see a lamp on a table, but not a shark. It is not in the frame. And while the idea of you sitting on a chair fits the frame, a chair sitting on you does not. We have thousands of frames. As Lakoff points out, “what Fillmore discovered is that every word in every language is defined relative to some frame” (15:58).

These frames and complex metaphors can also be combined, making metaphors of metaphors, and this brings us to metaphoring as a tool of thinking. In “Mapping the Brain’s Neural Circuitry: Metaphorical Thought in Everyday Reason” (2014), Lakoff wrote about how we use metaphor to get a grasp on one of the most difficult and thought-provoking challenges in life, a romantic relationship:

I had found that the abstract concept of Love is commonly understood in terms of a Journey. There are lots of linguistic expressions of this sort: Our relationship hit a dead-end street. The marriage is on the rocks. We’re getting nowhere in this relationship. We’re going in different directions. We’re at a crossroads in our relationship. We’re spinning our wheels in this relationship. And many more. The generalization over these cases is not in the linguistic expressions but in a conceptual mapping (indicated by “==>”).

    • Travelers ==> Lovers.
    • Vehicle ==> Relationship.
    • Common Destinations ==> Common Life Goals.
    • Impediments to Travel ==> Relationship Difficulties. (para 14)

What a wonderful way to use something concrete to explain the ethereal. We must keep in mind, however, that although these very adult and mysterious abstractions seem far away from the primary schemata at their core—in, out, warm, move, up, and so on—these base schemata which come from direct experience of the world must fire for the abstraction to have meaning. They are part of the larger sets.

There is evidence that the same kind of metaphoric processing is going on in other–maybe all–abstract concepts[4], even those that do not reveal the metaphors in their wording as love is a journey does. Bergen (2012, p. 22) refers to a number of studies found this to be true. For example, in one experiment, someone holding a heavy object was more likely to evaluate a new idea as important than someone holding a light object. This indicates our mental models for significance use the primary schema weight, so pre-activating that schema with a heavy object influences our evaluation.

[4] All abstractions? In Louder than Words, Bergen discusses the many studies that show language uses basic sensorimotor routines to make meaning, especially visual cortex routines (and this is why you should not speak on the phone when driving; your visual cortex gets hijacked for language processing and you see less). I asked Bergen if he thought the same process is used for all language, such as abstractions, and he replied that, of course, we don’t really know, but he suspected so.

Can metaphor enhance language learning?

Going back to the seemingly odd way that sparkly teacher taught idioms (having students draw pictures of the literal meanings, like a heated argument in a frying pan), I suppose you can now see why I’ve warmed up to the idea; pun intended. He was deconstructing idioms, metaphors, into their base components, the primary schemata the brain is uses to subconsciously create meaning. There is no empirical evidence for whether his technique is effective or not, but it sure is interesting. And I suspect there are other ways we can use the neuroscience of metaphor to teach language.

For example, just asking students add metaphors to their writing might be of value. You might have them write about some important experience and then go back and add metaphors, such as changing “a starry night” to “a night in which the stars were spread like diamonds across a blanket.” Or you might have them write poetry, a medium pretty much designed for metaphor. Metaphor serves poetry by allowing the author to establish a more intense and novel image of what something is.

For teaching grammar, it might be useful to understand that with error correction and noticing exercises that we are using frames. For example, Japanese learners have trouble getting the right order of the elements in an “of” expression. あの女の友達(ano onna no tomodachi) isあの女(that woman) の(of) 友達(friend)in Japanese, but a direct translation, “that woman of friend,” does not make sense in English. It must be transformed to “a friend of that woman.” We can teach this tough bit of English by giving examples of correct and incorrect word order in “of” expressions and asking students to identify which are acceptable, which is basically identifying frame boundaries. In fact, we should think of grammar itself as being a composite of frames, specifying word order and what can or cannot occur with various parts of speech. At the discourse level as well, a paragraph, an article, a genre, are all rule-bound frames that set limitations on register, style, progression of ideas, and so on.

And let us not forget the power of stories as personal metaphors. As I pointed out in the introduction to this issue, every story connects to some aspect of our lives, usually the challenges we face.

In conclusion

I hope the ideas we put forward in this issue help you see that metaphor is a far more important (heavier) aspect of language than we usually give it credit for. We have suggested a few ways it might be used in language teaching, but I am sure there are many more you will come up with. If so, send your ideas to us for a future issue.

Finally, if there is one essential thing metaphor teaches us about the brain, it is that …

Curtis Kelly (EdD) has gone from being a shiny star in the language teaching firmament of Japan to a deteriorating piece of flotsam on the sea of retirement. He knows where to get good pizza though.

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