Science and poetry, cont’d: Metaphors and the brain

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: it has to do with “insulas and cingulate cortices and all those other confused brain regions” that blur the distinction between the literal and the metaphorical, and have evolved similar emotional responses to both. Then he examines the implications of this confusion:

What are we to make of the brain processing literal and metaphorical versions of a concept in the same brain region? Or that our neural circuitry doesn’t cleanly differentiate between the real and the symbolic? What are the consequences of the fact that evolution is a tinkerer and not an inventor, and has duct-taped metaphors and symbols to whichever pre-existing brain areas provided the closest fit?

The brain’s tendency to confuse symbol with fact turns out to have “enormous consequences” on our moral decisionmaking — both negative and positive. On the one hand, Sapolsky says, triggering the disgust response by equating one’s enemies with “cockroaches” — as the Hutu did with the Tutsi in Rwanda in the 1990s — helps facilitate the horror of genocide, as it did in that case. On the other, Nelson Mandela effected a reconciliation with his political enemies in part by holding negotiations in a warm, welcoming environment — defusing resistance, in effect, by avoiding the symbolism of confrontation.

As Sapolsky points out in response to comments on his piece:

The power of symbols and metaphors is implicit in David Livingstone Smith writing about the difference between “A symbolically represents B” and “A is B.” For the devout Roman Catholic, wine in a particular context does not represent the blood of Christ; it is the blood. For a Hutu capable of slaughtering his neighbors without a twinge of remorse, Tutsi are not symbolic cockroaches; they are real ones. To use Smith’s term, the “metaphoricity” of metaphors can get lost in the viscera.

But “knowing is half the battle,” as the old cartoon has it. Sapolsky again: “This neural confusion about the literal versus the metaphorical gives symbols enormous power, including the power to make peace.” It is to be hoped that the more we learn about ourselves and how our mental and emotional processes operate, the better we’ll be able to turn our biology to our advantage and finally put our ancient hatreds to rest — or at least keep them at bay, beyond the circle of light cast by the fire that our knowledge builds.

How’s that for metaphor?

(Image by Nicolas Lampert)

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