As always, when in layman’s fashion I stumble upon some interesting notion (as I did with the idea of how “reincarnation” might feel absent a divine force, in a completely material universe) it’s fascinating to learn how that notion gets explored in more academic circles. In this case I had mused a bit about the relationship between religion, science, and poetic language, and was pleased and intrigued to read Robert Sapolsky’s essay on the biological underpinnings of metaphor:
Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.
And we even understand that June isn’t literally busting out all over. It would seem that doing this would be hard enough to cause a brainstorm. So where did this facility with symbolism come from? It strikes me that the human brain has evolved a necessary shortcut for doing so, and with some major implications.
Sapolsky explains how: Continue reading