Figurative language is processed faster, making the load lighter

Figurative language, and all language, is processed by embodied sensory-motor-emotion architectures

Figurative language, and all language, is processed by embodied sensory-motor-emotion architectures.[1]

Figurative language accesses strong networks

The problem of how the brain copes with the fragmentary representations of information is central to our understanding of brain function. It is not enough for the brain to analyze the world into its components parts: the brain must bind together those parts that make whole entities and events, both for recognition and recall. Consciousness must necessarily be based on the mechanisms that perform the binding. The hypothesis suggested here is that the binding occurs in multiple regions that are linked together through activation zones; that these regions communicate through feedback pathways to earlier stages of cortical processing where the parts are represented; and that the neural correlates of consciousness should be sought in the phase-locked signals that are used to communicate between these activation zones.[2]

…information is encoded in an all-or-none manner into cognitive units and the strength of these units increases with practice and decays with delay. The essential process to memory performance is the retrieval operation. It is proposed that the cognitive units form an interconnected network and that retrieval is performed by spreading activation throughout the network. Level of activation in the network determines rate and probability of recall.[3]

Figurative language conserves resources

Resources seem to be required only as attention, consciousness, decisions, and memory become involved; it is here that the well-known capacity limitations of the human system seem to be located rather than in the actual processing.[4]

…our minds tend to minimise processing effort by allocating attention and cognitive resources to selected inputs to cognitive processes which are potentially relevant at the time, and to process them in the most relevance-enhancing way.[5]

Figurative language reflects our senses and our movements

…a significant aspect of metaphoric language is motivated by embodied experience.[6]

According to theories of grounded cognition, cognitive processing is a product of our sensory and perceptual experiences… For example, during word recognition, sensory and perceptual systems may automatically become activated so that access to a concept’s meaning is influenced by our sensory knowledge of that concept—how it looks, feels, smells, sounds, and tastes.

Strongly perceptual concepts such as chair, music, or crimson can be represented quickly because most of their conceptual content is a relatively simple and discrete package of perceptual information, and hence is easy to simulate. Weakly perceptual concepts, on the other hand, tend to take longer to represent because they lack a neat package of perceptual information that can benefit from modality attention effects, and because much of their non-perceptual conceptual content involves pulling in other concepts as part of their broader situation (e.g., a tendency to do what? A republic of where?).[7]

How is prediction embodied? First, action control (and the motor system) is intimately concerned with prediction. That is, every action is accompanied by predicted changes in our proprioception and perception of the world so that the system can determine if the action was successfully completed. For example, in reaching for a glass of water, the system predicts how far the arm will have to reach, how wide the fingers need to open, and the feel of the cool, smooth glass.[8]

While the studies reported above support the grounded cognition view of word recognition, they are concerned with sensorimotor processing, only one aspect of sensory/perceptual experience. Other potential aspects of the sensory experience include sound, taste, and smell.

Figurative language also reflects our emotions

Similarly, reading a strong emotion word could produce perceptual simulations in the reader. For example, the emotion word love could lead to sensory simulations of sweating palms or racing heart that are experienced by a person actually in love.[9]

…emotional content… plays a crucial role in the processing and representation of abstract concepts: …abstract words are more emotionally valenced…, and this accounts for a… latency advantage…[10]

Figurative language often includes phrases we understand all at once

…lexical bundles… are stored and processed holistically. …regular multiword sequences leave memory traces in the brain.[11]

To hold all the aces,
to speak one’s mind,
to break the ice,
to lay the cards on the table,
to pull s.o.’s leg,
to give a hand, to stab s.o.’s back,
to miss the boat,
to pull strings,
to be on cloud nine,
to change one’s mind,
to lose one’s train of thought,
to hit the sack,
to kick the bucket,
to come out of the blue,
to break s.o.’s heart,
to spill the beans,
to have one’s feet on the ground,
to turn over a new leaf,
to be the icing on the cake,
to keep s.o. at arm’s length,
to be the last straw (that broke the camel’s back),
to cost an arm and a leg,
to go over the line,
to fill the bill,
to chew the fat,
to add fuel to the fire,
to get out of the frying pan into the fire,
to be in the same boat.[12]

Figurative language helps writers connect with readers

Consider the opening paragraphs of the following article from the Good Times, a Santa Cruz, California news and entertainment weekly (Nov 4–10, 2004, p.8). The article is titled “David vs. Goliath: Round One,” and describes the University of California, Santa Cruz’s controversial plan to double in physical size and increase enrollment by over 6000 students. Read through the following text and pick out those words and phrases that appear to express figurative meaning.

Hidden in the shadows of a massive election year, tucked under the sheets of a war gone awry and a highway scuffle, another battle has been brewing.

When UC Santa Cruz released the first draft on its 15-year Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) last week, it signaled an ever-fattening girth up on the hill. While some businesses clapped their hands with glee, many locals went scrambling for belt-cinchers.

The LRDP calls for 21,000 students by the year 2020 – an increase of 6,000 over today’s enrollment … . The new enrollment estimate may have startled some residents, but as a whole it merely represents a new stage in a decades-long battle that has been fought between the city and the City on the Hill. While some students are boon to local businesses and city coffers, many residents complain students are overrunning the town—clogging the streets, jacking up rents and turning neighborhoods and the downtown into their own party playground … .

“The bottom line is that the university can do what it wants to,” explains Emily Reilly, Santa Cruz City Council member and head of a committee developed to open up dialogue between “the campus and the city.”[13]

Life’s full of action; figurative language is full of action. We’re made for this.

Grasping an explanation, giving an example, posing a threat – language is full of actions and objects, and the ties between language and motion are under continuous investigation. Generally, embodiment links the individual sensorimotor experiences with higher cognitive functions such as language processing and comprehension.[14]

It is physically impossible to do metaphorical actions such as push the argument, chew on the idea, or spit out the truth. But these metaphorical phrases are sensible because people ordinarily conceive of many abstract concepts in embodied, metaphorical terms. Engaging in, or imagining doing, a body action, such as chewing, before reading a metaphorical phrase, such as chew on the idea, facilitates construal of the abstract concept as a physical entity, which speeds up comprehension of metaphorical action phrases.[15]


  1. Meteyard, Lotte, et al. “Coming of age: A review of embodiment and the neuroscience of semantics.” Cortex 48.7 (2012): 788-804.
  2. Damasio, Antonio R. “The Brain Binds Entities and Events by Multiregional Activation from Convergence Zones.” Neural Computation 1.1 (1989): 123-132.
  3. Anderson, John R. “A spreading activation theory of memory.” Journal of verbal learning and verbal behavior 22.3 (1983): 261-295.
  4. van Dijk, Teun A., and Walter Kintsch. “Toward a model of text comprehension and production.” Psychological review 85.5 (1978): 362-394.
  5. Moreno, Rosa E. Vega. Creativity and convention: The pragmatics of everyday figurative speech. John Benjamins Publishing, 2007, p. 229.
  6. Gibbs, Raymond W., Paula Lenz Costa Lima, and Edson Francozo. “Metaphor is grounded in embodied experience.” Journal of pragmatics 36.7 (2004): 1189-1210.
  7. Connell, Louise, and Dermot Lynott. “Strength of perceptual experience predicts word processing performance better than concreteness or imageability.” Cognition 125.3 (2012): 452-465.
  8. Glenberg, Arthur M. “Few believe the world is flat: How embodiment is changing the scientific understanding of cognition.” Canadian journal of experimental psychology= Revue canadienne de psychologie experimentale 69.2 (2015): 165-171.
  9. Juhasz, Barbara J., et al. “Tangible words are recognized faster: The grounding of meaning in sensory and perceptual systems.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 64.9 (2011): 1683-1691.
  10. Kousta, Stavroula-Thaleia, et al. “The representation of abstract words: why emotion matters.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 140.1 (2011): 14-34.
  11. Tremblay, Antoine, et al. “Processing advantages of lexical bundles: Evidence from self‐paced reading and sentence recall tasks.” Language Learning 61.2 (2011): 569-613.
  12. Moreno, Rosa E. Vega. Creativity and convention: The pragmatics of everyday figurative speech. John Benjamins Publishing, 2007, p. 144.
  13. Gibbs, Raymond W., and H. Colston. “Figurative language.” Handbook of psycholinguistics, 2nd ed., Elsevier, 2006, pp. 835-862.
  14. Jirak, Doreen, et al. “Grasping language–a short story on embodiment.” Consciousness and cognition 19.3 (2010): 711-720.
  15. Wilson, Nicole L., and Raymond W. Gibbs. “Real and imagined body movement primes metaphor comprehension.” Cognitive science 31.4 (2007): 721-731.

Touch in infancy and adolescence teaches our brain networks what we value

Brain networks have patternmatching layers that make predictions and sense prediction errors. The anatomy shown here for vision has a counterpart for touch.

…the hierarchical neuronal message passing that underlies predictive coding.

…neuronal activity encodes expectations about the causes of sensory input, where these expectations minimize prediction error. Prediction error is the difference between (ascending) sensory input and (descending) predictions of that input.

On the left: this schematic shows a simple cortical hierarchy with ascending prediction errors and descending predictions.

On the right: this provides a schematic example in the visual system.[1]

Touch is crucial to emotion

Affective touch may… convey information about available social resources…[2]

interoception… refers to the perception and integration of autonomic, hormonal, visceral and immunological signals…—or more informally as the sense of the body ‘from within’.

…we propose that emotional content is determined by beliefs (i.e. posterior expectations) about the causes of interoceptive signals across multiple hierarchical levels.

Emotion produces conscious experience

It is tempting to speculate that deep expectations at higher levels of the neuronal hierarchy are candidates for—or correlates of—conscious experience, largely because their predictions are domain general and can therefore be articulated (through autonomic or motor reflexes).

…interoceptive predictions can perform physiological homoeostasis by enlisting autonomic reflexes… More specifically, descending predictions provide a homoeostatic set-point against which primary (interoceptive) afferents can be compared. The resulting prediction error then drives sympathetic or parasympathetic effector systems to ensure homoeostasis or allostasis, for example, sympathetic smooth-muscle vasodilatation as a reflexive response to the predicted interoceptive consequences of ‘blushing with embarrassment’.

Touch is central to selfhood and boundaries

…experiences of selfhood unfold across many partially independent and partially overlapping levels of description… A simple classification, from ‘low’ to ‘high’ levels, would range

  • from experiences of being and having a body…,
  • through to the experience of perceiving the world from a particular point of view (a first person perspective, …),
  • to experiences of intention and agency…,
  • and at higher levels the experience of being a continuous self over time (a ‘narrative’ self or ‘I’ that depends on episodic autobiographical memory,… )
  • and finally, a social self, in which my experience of being ‘me’ is shaped by how I perceive others’ perceptions of me…

In this putative classification, interoception plays a key role in structuring experiences of ‘being and having a body’ (i.e. embodied selfhood) and may also shape selfhood at other, hierarchically higher levels.[1]

The emotions we feel are largely predictions based on past experiences

…interoceptive inference involves hierarchically cascading top-down interoceptive predictions that counterflow with bottom-up interoceptive prediction errors. Subjective feeling states – experienced emotions – are hypothesized to depend on the integrated content of these predictive representations across multiple levels…[3]

Intuition suggests that perception follows sensation and therefore bodily feelings originate in the body. However, recent evidence goes against this logic: interoceptive experience may largely reflect limbic predictions about the expected state of the body that are constrained by ascending visceral sensations.[4]

Reward and motivation are predicted, based on emotions that are predicted, based on touch that was experienced previously

Reward is a complex construct comprised of a feeling and an action. Components of reward include the hedonic aspects, i.e. the degree to which a stimulus is associated with pleasure, and the incentive motivational aspects, i.e. the degree to which a stimulus induces an action towards obtaining it… Typically, the feeling is described as “pleasurable” or “positive” and the actions comprise behavior aimed to approach the stimulus that is associated with reward.[5]

…the representation of self is constructed from early development through continuous integrative representation of biological data from the body, to form the basis for those aspects of conscious awareness grounded on the subjective sense of being a unique individual.

Interoception refers to the sensing of the internal state of one’s body. …interoception… is proposed to be fundamental to motivation, emotion (affective feelings and behaviours), social cognition and self-awareness.[6]


  1. Seth, Anil K., and Karl J. Friston. “Active interoceptive inference and the emotional brain.”  Trans. R. Soc. B 371.1708 (2016): 20160007.
  2. Krahé, Charlotte, et al. “Affective touch and attachment style modulate pain: a laser-evoked potentials study.”  Trans. R. Soc. B 371.1708 (2016): 20160009.
  3. Seth, Anil K. “Interoceptive inference, emotion, and the embodied self.” Trends in cognitive sciences 17.11 (2013): 565-573.
  4. Barrett, Lisa Feldman, and W. Kyle Simmons. “Interoceptive predictions in the brain.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16.7 (2015): 419-429.
  5. Paulus, Martin P., and Jennifer L. Stewart. “Interoception and drug addiction.” Neuropharmacology 76 (2014): 342-350.
  6. Tsakiris, Manos, and Hugo Critchley. “Interoception beyond homeostasis: affect, cognition and mental health.Philosophical Transactions B: Biological Sciences 371.1708 (2016): 20160002.

Energy use is all for consumers and their governments

Energy use flowchart shows that energy use is all directly or indirectly for consumers or governments.

Consumer and non-consumer energy use [1]

“If we have available energy, we may maintain life and produce every material requisite necessary. That is why the flow of energy should be the primary concern of economics…”[2]

The energy contents of the dollar and rouble are shown from 1900 to 2000.

The `energy content’ of money units [3]

The flow of energy is the primary concern of what has been come to be known as energy analysis… An important aspect of energy analysis is the determination of the total (direct and indirect) energy required for the production of economic or environmental goods and services. This total has been termed the embodied energy.

For example, the energy embodied in an automobile includes the energy consumed directly in the manufacturing plant plus all the energy consumed indirectly to produce the other inputs of auto manufacturing, such as glass, steel, labor, and capital.

Dollar value is graphed vs. energy use for all sectors in the economy.

Energy use vs. dollar value
in various direct and indirect energy-using sectors [2]

Most Americans think of energy use in terms of big-ticket items such as gasoline, heating oil, and natural gas. But a great deal of the energy we use is indirect, embedded in the things we buy.

…it is hard for consumers to change their direct energy use radically or quickly. Houses and cars are expensive, depreciating, long-lasting assets. Household energy efficiency modifications can be costly, unsightly, inconvenient, or all of the above.

Pondering the difficulties involved in cutting back on energy use led us to an offshoot of the energy literature pertaining to indirect energy use—that is, the energy embedded in virtually everything we buy.

An example of this is the manufacturing and sale of a simple cotton t-shirt. Energy is required to grow and harvest the cotton; transport it to a factory; make, package, and transport the chemicals used to bleach, dye, or condition the cotton; run the machines on which the t-shirt is processed; create packaging materials; ship the t-shirt to the store; and keep the heat and lights on in the store.

Indirect energy use in different sectors is tabulated as a percent of total indirect energy use.

Those who want to reduce their energy consumption but are unable or unwilling to forego the roomier house or car can cut down on discretionary medical purchases; minimize pharmaceutical waste; cut back on air travel; and replace high-energy foods (beef and refined grain products) with lower-energy foods such as poultry, legumes, and fresh fruits and vegetables.[4]


  1. Bin, Shui, and Hadi Dowlatabadi. “Consumer lifestyle approach to US energy use and the related CO2 emissions.” Energy policy 33.2 (2005): 197-208.
  2. Costanza, Robert. “Embodied energy and economic valuation.” Science 210.4475 (1980): 1219-1224.
  3. Beaudreau, Bernard C., and Vladimir N. Pokrovskii. “On the energy content of a money unit.” Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications 389.13 (2010): 2597-2606.
  4. Green, Kenneth P., and Aparna Mathur. “Measuring and Reducing Americans’ Indirect Energy Use.” AEI Energy and Environment Outlook (2008).