Oral historians have long believed that we learn best through metaphors and that we remember best (i.e., retain information best) through stories. Well, if the Brain and Behavior Blogger can remember the offer, he’ll write about stories on another occasion. In this entry, however, he’s focused like a laser, like sunlight through a magnifying glass, like the steady point of a Setter, on metaphors exclusively and he’s going to make you laugh like a hyena or like a baby being tickled or even like the B&B Blogger at a Steven Wright performance.
Okay. You can recognize a metaphor when you see one (or six). But, can you readily define the term, “metaphor?” Not too many people can. Not to worry, we can turn to metaphor-expert-extraordinaire, George Lakoff who says that a metaphor is a word or phrase that enables a person to experience and/or understand one thing in terms of another thing.” So, apparently, if it isn’t one thing, it’s not another, either.
Why are metaphors such a strong means of experience and understanding? For one thing, familiar metaphors are stored in our brains much like visual images. When we are confronted with relatively complex ideas, such as those in most metaphors, we most often tap into our brain’s visual center, a huge and elaborate image filing system from which we can dredge up “pictures” or “representations.” For example, for any Jewish person, who was an adult during WWII, seeing a swastika conjures up hundreds, if not thousands, of related pictures or mental representations.
Thus, you could say – metaphorically speaking – metaphors are like icons on our brains’ “desktop.” They act as symbols or summaries (and as points of access) for the belief and behavior patterns that they represent.
The best example of the communicative power of metaphors that the Blogger has ever heard is provided by Fast Companycolumnist Chip Heath who, with his brother, is a co-author of the book on effective communication, Stick. Heath wants you to imagine being the owner of a community bank that needs to differentiate itself from the bigger financial players in the area. Your marketing manager comes to you with the idea of re-designing the lobby and services area of your operation. He says that “We need to have a hipper, more relaxed feel – that will appeal to our younger, upscale professional customers.”
Does the “graphical interface” (picture generator) in your brain conjure up what that “hipper, more relaxed feel” would look like? Are you already picturing certain kinds of chairs and accessories? Probably not. That’s because we don’t have a pre-existing, standardized, cognitive map (or conception) of what “hipper-more-relaxed” exactly is. And, if we did, your conception of it is going to be different than the Blogger’s.
However, (per Heath) what if your marketing manager said that we need our space to look “less like a bank and more like a Starbucks.” Now, we’re getting somewhere. You already have a conception of a Starbucks – and so your marketing manager’s proposal communicated this way is much more likely to be understood. We have a “visual starting place” for honing his idea.
But, exciting new research announced this week has demonstrated that the visual center in the brain isn’t the only part of it (i.e., the brain) that reacts/responds to metaphors. Turns out that brain-imaging studies at Emory University Med School have demonstrated that certain metaphors also activate the regions in the brain most closely associated with the other senses. But, get this (!!): If the metaphor has a textural component (“I’ve really had a rough day.”), the touch center of the brain “lights up.” Same thing goes for “I rang him like a bell” (hearing center); “I wanted to win so badly, I could taste it” (taste center); and “Smells like teen spirit” (smell center).
So, with the use of multiple metaphors, many areas of the brain and both hemispheres can be activated. Try it and you’ll see: You’ll light up your listeners’/readers’ brains… like the Vegas Strip or like Times Square on New Year’s Eve or like a Christmas tree or…
Original references for any studies, books or articles cited by the Brain and Behavior Blogger can be obtained by contact with his very dear friend, Dr. Rob Snyder (firstname.lastname@example.org), an organizational psychologist with a severe neuroscience-research-reading addiction.
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