This is Your Brain on Words Part Five: Using red-hot metaphors
It’s only a baby step from what we discussed in Part Four of this series to the far more limited topic we’ll cover today. Last week we talked about how readers use the brain’s sensory regions when reading something that involves those senses.
In short, when you read:
“The ball shot past the pitcher. The defender at third dove to her left, stretching her body to reach. The line-drive slapped into the meat of her glove, her stinging hand instinctively closing around the ball before she skidded down the second base line.”
the language centers in your brain aren’t the only parts that you’re using. If you’re typical, your visual regions lit up on the first sentence, motor regions followed as you and the girl playing third base dove and stretched. You felt the slap and the sting and skidded across the infield — or at least the parts of your brain that would feel those sensations lit up as though you did. If she takes the glove off with her teeth and smells the leather when she does so, your taste and smell receptors (which are separate but intricately entwined) will come into play.
“Play” being the operative word. Reading fiction is playtime for our brains. Our asses may be planted in a chair or hammock when we’re reading, but our brains are running, jumping, aiming a sniper rifle, undressing a hottie, smelling cinnamon rolls baking, feeling the burn down our throats from shot of scotch, swimming… whatever.
Like I’ve said before, powerful mojo. So powerful, we need to be a little circumspect in how we use it.
First, the science
This is such a natural and logical extension of we’ve discussed already, I’m not going to dedicate much of this post to the underlying science. A 2012 Emory University study reported in the journal Brain & Language (Boo — not free) involving metaphors that refer to the sense of touch was enlightening. Long story short, when someone reads a metaphor that uses words associated with the sense of touch (like, “The singer had a velvet voice” or “He had leathery hands”) the sensory cortex –which is adjacent to the More Cowbell area and responsible for processing the sense of touch when you’re actually touching something– gets active. Control phrases meaning the same thing (like, “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,”) did not result in activation of that region.
In other words, metaphors create associations beyond the conscious meaning we know they have, activating parts of the brain not directly associated with language. The phrase “that was rough” will result in a more visceral and sense-based response than “that was difficult.”
What to do with it
There’s the rub (hehe). For starters, this cautions against indiscriminate metaphor as much as it encourages its use. At the risk of sensory overload, here is my analogy.
Yesterday, I cooked a sage and garlic crusted pork roast for dinner (and used a whole bulb of garlic, plus about a cup of fresh sage). I was doing yard work and could smell all the garlic and sage from the corner of my yard. When I went inside, one of my daughters asked what we were having for dinner. I asked, “You can’t smell it?” because by that time the house smelled like someone hosed it down with a firehose full of garlic and sage. But she’d been inside with that smell so long, it wasn’t even registering anymore.
Our brains get used to stimuli and ignore them all the time. You noticed your shirt when you put it on this morning, but probably haven’t noticed it since. Well, until you read that, at which point your brain probably went there again and said “yup, there’s a shirt there.” So now I’ll talk about your rear end making contact with the chair you’re sitting in. Something else you are sensing, if you stop to think about it, but are ignoring unless you do so.
This is where the power of metaphor must be, like all things in the “powerful mojo” category, handled with some care. Being aware that the brain wants to experience the sensations we expose it to through words needs to govern how we describe things, including use of metaphors. Simple adages we’ve grown used to over time still have a significant impact on how the reader’s brain is processing things. With intent, we can use that to our advantage. Done haphazardly, even things that are clear and make perfect sense are not going to work harmoniously for the reader, sending logically consistent but viscerally conflicting messages. Those stories you think you should have liked but — for some, unknown reason didn’t bother finishing? Take a quick look. You may find that all the instruments in the orchestra were playing different songs. All fine songs in their own right, but it still doesn’t make for much of a concert.
Using the above baseball analogy, we may want to set the scene as a slow, lazy summer day. If we hope to draw a contrast by the sudden burst of action, that metaphor may be the perfect way to set the scene. If the contrast is not what we’re looking for, however, it is the wrong way to do it. Either way, the metaphor about the day is going to interplay with the physical activity in the scene, and all of it is going to happen in the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in sensory responses. And, significantly, that will nearly always happen without the reader being consciously aware it’s taking place.
Not all metaphors involve those responses. My guess (and this is only a guess) is that the metaphor in the first sentence of this post (“It’s only a baby step from what we discussed…”) lights up a host of areas. In addition to those portions of the cerebral cortex cued by taking a step, also vision (if you literally see a baby, which is how I process those words) and other, more diffused areas associated with your emotions relating to babies. Being a sucker for babies, I am certain I have a loving, protective, happy emotional response to that word, even when it’s being used in a metaphor about our analysis of brain function and reading.
That sets me up for an entirely different response to reading “baby steps” if the subject is an elderly couple walking, hand-in-hand, down the street (awwww) as opposed to a serial killer entering a family’s home while they’re asleep (creepier than shit). There is no right way to use this knowledge – if you’re going for creepier than shit, that may be the way to go; if awwww is not what you’re after, it may not be.
So, there’s the important part
…simply being aware. Not using metaphor out of laziness or without thought, but understanding there are real consequences to the reader (albeit often not consciously) every time we use one. This knowledge encourages “choosing the right word” at a different, much deeper level. The nature of the word we choose can invest the reader more deeply in what we want her to experience or subtly, unconsciously, divorce her from the experience we are trying to create. That metaphor that either seems so clever standing on its own or is thrown in out of habit without thought is still a part of the readers “physical” journey. Knowing the way that journey is processed and playing with it – either reinforcing or using metaphors to draw stark contrasts – can have a powerful impact on the feeling the reader takes away from the experience.
I think this goes a long way toward explaining why we sometimes just connect with the way a book was written. Even if we can’t quite…
Put our finger on it.