Metaphors and the Brain


I read a fascinating article in yesterday’s New York Times on metaphors and the brain. If I understand Robert Sapolsky’s piece correctly, the insula—which is the part of the brain that processes, say, disgust with rotten food—also processes “rotten” when it is used as a metaphor (as in “the very deep did rot” from Rime of the Ancient Mariner). Sapolsky writes,

Not only does the insula “do” sensory disgust; it does moral disgust as well. Because the two are so viscerally similar. When we evolved the capacity to be disgusted by moral failures, we didn’t evolve a new brain region to handle it. Instead, the insula expanded its portfolio.

As I’ve written a couple of times (here and here), I’m not enamored with neuro-criticism because I don’t think it adds much to an understanding of literature. But the idea that metaphors hit with visceral impact—well, that seems to be a confirmation of sorts (if any is needed) that literature strikes deep. At its foundation, literature is language used figuratively/symbolically. When we are so gripped by a story that the world seems to fall away, when a poetic image lifts us out of ourselves, it’s interesting to think that our insulas are at play. It’s as though we are hardwired for literature. The theory certainly reinforces what we already know, that literature reaches beyond our rational senses.

If nothing else, the theory echoes a contention of this website: that literature and life are entwined far more intricately than many acknowledge.

While I’m on the topic of brains, let me report on a talk that Barbara Baumgartner of Washington University (in St. Louis) gave at our college last week. Barbara is a former nurse who then earned a Ph.D in English and now is Assistant Director of Women’s Studies.  She researches the intersection of medicine and poetry in 19th century America, and in her talk she noted how her research into medical textbooks of the period opens up insight into some of Emily Dickinson’s “brain poems.”

Take the following poem for instance, which some scholars have interpreted as a descent into madness:

I felt a Funeral in my Brain,
And Mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading — treading — till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through —

And when they all were seated,
A Service like a Drum —
Kept beating — beating — till I thought
My Mind was going numb —

And then I heard them lift a Box,
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again.
Then Space — began to toll

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being but an Ear,
And I and Silence some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here —

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down—
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing — then —

As Barbara reads it, the poem is about the heaviness of the rational Enlightenment’s ways of understanding the world. To understand what Dickinson means by dropping through the “Plank in Reason,” Barbara referred us to an anatomy book that Dickinson read while in college.

Anatomy was all the rage at this time, and people were fascinated by diagrams of what the body looked like under the skin. In the brain as they understood it at the time, the surface was the reasoning part whereas deeper down was the creative part. So Dickinson imagines dropping anatomically down from reason into—not madness—but “a World” of creativity.

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  1. Susan
    Posted November 16, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Fun stuff. I love being able to understand what Dickinson poem is saying by understanding her metaphors. What a difference that perspective makes! And what a powerful statement that knowledge is “finished” when it doesn’t end with reason, but sinks down even deeper until it is completed by creativity. Perhaps we could talk about the left brain meeting the right brain…

    Crystal Downing, an English/Film prof I know, recommended a book to me last year by George Lakoff (professor of linguistics, UCal, Berkeley) and Mark Johnson (philosophy at S Illinois U) entitled “Metaphors We Live By.” Their contention is that reality is defined by metaphor. In fact, we can barely speak without using metaphors. This is fascinating on many levels. For instance, changing the metaphor you use can actually change your behavior. Making a conversation an “exploration” rather than a “war”, for instance, changes how you approach your conversation partner. She can be either an enemy to defeat or a partner who helps discover new lands. (Mama Grizzlies probably only have a few options – eat or be eaten)

    Another interesting thought that comes from this line of thinking is that we are actually hard-wired to need metaphors to live by. (This is what the article you mentioned seems to say). There are often experiences for which we do not have adequate language, but need to approach through similitudes. Yesterday, I happened to overhear a radio spot targeting children who have experienced grief and may not have the language to speak about their emotions. They were welcomed to a place where others had gone through similar experiences. My guess is that through these relationships children will be given language to process what they are going through. My further guess is that this language will be metaphorical. “I felt like my world was crashing down upon me. I felt like I was in a fog”, etc.

    I have also been strolling my way through another book entitled “Hunting the Divine Fox” by bread-baking theologian and former Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon. Farrar talks about our inability to describe God in any way that makes true “sense,” and therefore we have to use metaphors. Which might be another way of saying, we are given metaphor as a means to help us interact with the ineffable.

    Thanks for another thoughtful (and thought-provoking) post.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted November 17, 2010 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    I’ll look up the works of Capon, Susan, who sounds very interesting. Sometimes I think that differences in religion all come down to different metaphors–which, as you say, are our attempts to approximate God since God will always be beyond language. To recognize this, I would argue, can temper fanaticism. I don’t think it undermines faith.

    I’m also fascinated by what you say about different metaphors creating different realities. It means that we really must see language as powerful, and we should be calling out people who use metaphors to trigger fear and hatred.

    Incidentally, here is Percy Shelley addressing some of the issues you raise in his Defence of Poetry. As he sees it, metaphor is at the very foundation of language, and language has always owed its development and its advances to poets, who push our ability to make distinctions. Shelley goes on to define poets in the broadest sense, one that includes certain historians, philosophers, and others. Anyway, here’s Shelley writing on the importance of metaphors in the early development of language:

    In the youth of the world, men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order. And, although all men observe a similar, they observe not the same order, in the motions of the dance, in the melody of the song, in the combinations of language, in the series of their imitations of natural objects. For there is a certain order or rhythm belonging to each of these classes of mimetic representation, from which the hearer and the spectator receive an intenser and purer pleasure than from any other: the sense of an approximation to this order has been called taste by modern writers. Every man in the infancy of art observes an order which approximates more or less closely to that from which this highest delight results: but the diversity is not sufficiently marked, as that its gradations should be sensible, except in those instances where the predominance of this faculty of approximation to the beautiful (for so we may be permitted to name the relation between this highest pleasure and its cause) is very great. Those in whom it exists in excess are poets, in the most universal sense of the word; and the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community. Their language is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse. These similitudes or relations are finely said by Lord Bacon to be “the same footsteps of nature impressed upon the various subjects of the world”—and he considers the faculty which perceives them as the storehouse of axioms common to all knowledge. In the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression. Every original language near to its source is in itself the chaos of a cyclic poem: the copiousness of lexicography and the distinctions of grammar are the works of a later age, and are merely the catalogue and the form of the creations of poetry.

  3. Susan
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I’ll spend some time with the Shelley, Robin. Thanks for passing it along.
    I think I have some affinity with the phrase “Those in whom it exists in excess are poets, in the most universal sense of the word; and the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community” having thought this summer that there are some people who have an extremely strong sense of what looks or sounds or feels right. They often can’t even explain why this is so and it is up to those who come afterwards to analyze, explain or teach it to the rest of the community. Ironically, of course, this often becomes “institutionalized” and therefore can become a form only, losing some of its liveliness. I think that’s what he may mean there at the end.

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