Metaphor as the Origin of Meaning and Language in the Brain

May 2023

This month we’re getting metaphorical–as in, we’re looking into how metaphors work in the brain and language production. It turns out that metaphors are not solely the domain of poets, but tools that all of us are able to use and repurpose towards our own linguistic goals. Without further ado, let’s open the door and see what this issue has in store for us.

Our cover: “Life is a journey. Time is a river. The door is ajar”– Jim Butcher, in Dead Beat

Cover photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash; others from Pixabay, Pexels, Creative Commons, and Gratisography

Watch before you read...

This Think Tank looks at metaphor, which our profession has long dealt with as a literary device, but has more recently been reframed as the brain’s way to give meaning to language. This important role was put forward by Lakoff and Johnson, whose work is featured in this issue. The Main video is a short explanation of the theory by Lakoff himself, while the More video explains how their book revolutionized the way we understand language.

Curtis Kelly starts the issue off with two stories that show the power of stories as metaphors of personal challenges. Heather Kretschmer starts the Think Tank by describing her experiences with metaphors in German, connects this process to embodied cognition, and redesigns a language activity with metaphor. Curtis Kelly looks at how the brain combines primary schema to make metaphors and suggests this process is the basis for how our brain gives meaning to all language. Then Mohammad Khari brings us back to the traditional definitions of metaphor developed in literature studies. In the PLUS section, we close the issue with a delightful blog post by one of our favorites, Maha Bali, where she proposes a number of interesting metaphors for our role as language teachers.

Our Thoughts on Metaphor

How Metaphor Might Save Your Marriage Curtis Kelly

We keep coming across things in brain studies that suggest metaphor plays a greater role in language and thinking than most teachers realize. (I will claim it plays a role in marital bliss as well.) Indeed, Lakoff and Johnson’s famous Metaphors We Live By proclaimed the centrality of metaphor to language and has given us a whole new understanding of how abstractions are made, but it is not the kind of book the average teacher will pick up and read. At least I didn’t; to write for this issue, I spent about 20 hours listening to their video lectures instead.

Think Tank Articles

Cow Villages and Dead Trousers: Metaphors in Foreign Language Learning Heather Kretschmer

Some years ago, I was standing outside one day after work, shooting the breeze with some former colleagues and my boss. We all live in a rural area dotted with small towns and villages. A teasing twinkle in his eye, my former boss asked me, “In welchem Kuhkaff wohnst du?” (Which cow village do you live in?). Now, I already knew that a “Kaff” was a humorous, negative term referring to a tiny village, but “Kuhkaff” (cow village) was a new one for me. I learned a “Kuhkaff” is an even smaller village where the cows and other farm animals far outnumber the people. Nothing ever happens there; folks disappear into their homes early in the evening—this metaphor beautifully illustrates an unexciting, rinky-dink place to live.

Metaphor as a Fundamental Process of the Brain 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.

X = Y Mohammad Khari

We use metaphors all the time. They are so frequently used that one might consider them ordinary and mundane. However, our brain has evolved through millions of years to develop this amazing strategy of adding metaphors to our cognitive toolbox. Through metaphors, we bridge the gap between the unknown and the known, the familiar and the unfamiliar, to serve a few fundamental purposes: making sense of the word (sense)–better (quality of sense) and faster (speed of making sense). Metaphors can summarize and simplify sophisticated philosophical concepts and make them accessible to the less trained: “Life is a journey,” “Time is money,” “The world is a stage,” and “Hope is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Think Tank Plus

Metaphors for Teaching – Midwife, Coach, Other? Maha Bali

Editors’ Foreword: Maha Bali originally published this piece on her blog way back in 2015. We liked it so much we asked if we could republish it in our Think Tank. It’s the perfect close to our metaphor issue. If you’re not familiar with Maha’s thought-provoking work on equity, care, critical pedagogy, open and online education, AI, and so much more, we encourage you to peruse her blog and see what she’s posting on Twitter and Mastodon.

Call for Contributions: Ideas and Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Going Deeper

Research project on metaphor and the brain. Click here to …

  or here to view a good one on parts of speech 

An amazingly high percentage of brain nerds are Trekkies, so

We got ya!

Here is a scene where the starship Enterprise encounters an alien race that communicates only through metaphor: The Tamarians. (See comments to figure out metaphor.)

And from the early days, Spock’s experience trying out “colorful metaphors,” AKA profanity (strong language warning; and it is interesting how little we realize that most profanity is metaphor).

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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

             Heather Kretschmer          Curtis H. Kelly            Skye Playsted               

    Jason Walters                               Mohammad Khari




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