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Mind Your Metaphors

Metaphors can be both "embodied" and transcendent.

In a breathless article over at The Chronicle Review, Michael Chorost argues that neuroscience has confirmed Georg Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s theory that all language is, at root, metaphorical and that metaphors, in turn, are “shaped by the physical features of human brains and bodies.” This undermines, Chorost tells us, “the argument that human minds can reveal transcendent truths about reality in transparent language”:

Neuroscientists agree on what happens with literal sentences like “The player kicked the ball.” The brain reacts as if it were carrying out the described actions. This is called “simulation.” Take the sentence “Harry picked up the glass.” “If you can’t imagine picking up a glass or seeing someone picking up a glass,” Lakoff wrote in a paper with Vittorio Gallese, a professor of human physiology at the University of Parma, in Italy, “then you can’t understand that sentence.” Lakoff argues that the brain understands sentences not just by analyzing syntax and looking up neural dictionaries, but also by igniting its memories of kicking and picking up.

But what about metaphorical sentences like “The patient kicked the habit”? An addiction can’t literally be struck with a foot. Does the brain simulate the action of kicking anyway? Or does it somehow automatically substitute a more literal verb, such as “stopped”? This is where functional MRI can help, because it can watch to see if the brain’s motor cortex lights up in areas related to the leg and foot.

* * *

The evidence says it does. “When you read action-related metaphors,” says Valentina Cuccio, a philosophy postdoc at the University of Palermo, in Italy, “you have activation of the motor area of the brain.” In a 2011 paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Rutvik Desai, an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, and his colleagues presented fMRI evidence that brains do in fact simulate metaphorical sentences that use action verbs. When reading both literal and metaphorical sentences, their subjects’ brains activated areas associated with control of action. “The understanding of sensory-motor metaphors is not abstracted away from their sensory-motor origins,” the researchers concluded.

I’m not sure I follow.

Why would the fact that metaphors are shaped by our experience mean that the ideas that metaphors evoke are determined by experience alone? Just because the part of my brain associated with the leg and foot “lights up” when the metaphor “kick the habit” is used does not mean that the idea that freedom is good (which is what that metaphor evokes) is not true in some universal, “transcendent” way. Seems to me that we need a bit more proof before we throw out all innate ideas.

It also doesn’t square with how metaphors actually work. Chorost might be right that we cannot “reveal transcendent truths about reality in transparent language,” but figurative language sure works in a pinch. “Tell all the truth,” Dickinson wrote, “but tell it slant,” right?

Take this example from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings

In his latest (and excellent) book, Metaphor, Denis Donoghue shows how these lines both have a “local” meaning, drawn from experience and perhaps even first-hand observation. There is a visual similarity between the figure of a woman brushing her hair and the image of a violinist “playing a pianissimo passage.” Yet, Donoghue writes, “The effect of Eliot’s metaphor is to give her a new, strange life…The woman is given another life for the time being. So have I, when I read it.”

Donoghue doesn’t say what he means by “life.” The neo-Darwinian critic would no doubt point to the similarities between music and sex, making the metaphor about procreation. But it does much more than that, of course.

The lines allude to this earlier passage:

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’

* * *

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

Whether the metaphor Donoghue discusses registers a difference between how different people view the same event or not, the two images combined, it seems to me, in the context of the entire poem evoke the idea that sex without love is meaningless and (though we are unwilling to admit this) boring. In short, love, not sex, is life.

But what am I to make of this metaphor if I were to follow Chorost’s recommendation that metaphors are reducible to experience and the brain? As with neo-Darwinian criticism, there seems to be only one option. Show how the view of love that Eliot expresses (in this case in the negative) developed in humans and added to the survival of the species. That, or run some brain scans on people to see if the part of the brain associated with violins blinks.



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