Language is an exquisite medium of communication. Each language follows certain symbols and codes which are deeply rooted in the culture of the geographical area it originates from. What interests psychologists is the way we acquire language. One such component of language use and acquisition is that of a metaphor.
Metaphors are direct comparisons of one thing to another. While being innovative with pick up lines at a bar or simply “grabbing” breakfast, we use metaphors. Metaphors are also an important part of expression of pain.
But how are we capable of producing and understanding metaphors?
Which processes of language acquisition play a role in the development of metaphors?
Which part of the brain synthesizes metaphors and allegories?
So, what is a metaphor?
A metaphor is the understanding of a concept in terms of another. For example,
“Richard was a lion in the fight.”
Here, there is a pre assumed understanding of the lion being brave and Richard sharing the quality of being brave with that of the lion, making Richard as brave as the lion.
Metaphors, as per the classical theory, were merely seen as a part of expressive, poetic language and not a part of conventional everyday language, meaning, they were seen as a part of language, but not thought. Reddy and Lackoff, two cognitive linguists, set out to challenge this notion. They write that metaphors exist in thought as well as language and we use metaphors in our day to day life. For example, when you say, “let’s grab breakfast”, you don’t mean grabbing breakfast with two hands while it rotates on a conveyor belt, but you mean eating breakfast. This increases the extent of the metaphors from language to other figurative mediums of expression and thought.
According to Lakoff’s theory of conceptual metaphors, we store ideas and concepts in our brain using a conceptual mapping system, and a metaphor is a result of cross domain mapping. Here, there is a source domain, related to a concept and a target domain, where the reasoning involved in the concept of the source domain is applied to the target domain.
For example, “Love is a journey”. Here, the source domain is the concept of journey, which involves travelling for a purpose, towards a certain destination. In the target domain, the concept of love is then seen as two people working towards a common goal for their own subjective purposes. The journey can have crossroads, dead ends, etc. The same way, the relationship between two people might come across various points where concepts such as dead ends and cross roads can be applicable. This theory indicates that metaphors are in fact a part of thought and are based on figurative reasoning rather than just a product of flowery language.
These conceptual mappings or conceptual metaphors are flexible in terms of more lexical terminologies. Once the source and target domain are established, related terms also start to make sense. For example, “we are on the highway to love”. The cross domain concept of ‘love is a journey’ is already established. Here the lexical terms such as ‘highway’ although drives its meaning as a part of a journey from its source domain, also means speed and danger. Thus, these new additions change the meaning slightly, inferring that although speed and love are exciting, they have possibly dangerous repercussions in terms of the relationship ending and both parties getting hurt.
The neuropsychological approach on the theory was done by Vicky Lai and her colleagues in Arizona. Through this research, they wanted to see which part of the brain is activated in production and comprehension of metaphors. The participants were shown a series of 3 sentences, one in the metaphorical sense (The church bent the rules); one in the literal sense (the bodyguard bent the rod) and one complete abstract in meaning (the church altered the rules). The brain activity of the participants was recorded using an EEG machine. When the participants saw the word ‘bent’ in both metaphorical as well as literal sense, the sensory motor area of the brain showed activity, which was almost not present when the word ‘altered’ was used. There is further research going as to how injury to certain parts of the brain can affect this particular domain of language comprehension.
However, there is a common myth regarding metaphorical comprehension in children and adolescents on the Autism Spectrum. They were generally regarded to not be able to form figurative relations among concepts and language. This notion was challenged by Kasirer and Mashal. They did a comparative study between 34 Autism Spectrum Disorder(ASD) subjects and 39 typically developing individuals by giving them a multiple choice questionnaire which assessed their understanding of conventional and novel metaphors. Conventional metaphors are those that we use in everyday language, such as, “bend the rules” or “grab a hat”. Novel metaphors are more applicable to the situation at large and draw on knowledge of contextual information. For example, “John’s suggestion was a band-aid for the problem”. It was seen that the ASD subjects had fewer understanding of conventional metaphors but no differences were observed on the novel metaphor task suggesting different patterns of thinking and not an impairment in language comprehension.
Latest research perspectives are trying to find more and more implications for the use of metaphors in comprehension of language, methods of learning and recreation, etc. Until then, nobody can call you cheesy for coming up with innovative pick up lines, especially when you have science backing your use of metaphors.
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