Figurative language, and all language, is processed by embodied sensory-motor-emotion architectures.
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.
…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.
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.
…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.
Figurative language reflects our senses and our movements
…a significant aspect of metaphoric language is motivated by embodied experience.
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?).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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