Power of Metaphor Is Being Mapped by Neurology

public-domain-medical-brain-pThe power of metaphor is being mapped by brain scientists…?

I first encountered neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky on Radio Lab, a podcast I follow closely to pick up tid-bits that apply to my field of practice. Upon learning about the guy, I went back and looked up anything I could find he’d written. (Well, I looked up anything he’d written for laymen, that is, since much of his academic writing is likely beyond me.) Below is something Sapolsky wrote for civilians, and it applies directly to the science underpinning narrative devices, such as metaphor. The whole article is a great read and worth the time for those interested in the physiological reasons for why metaphor is so powerful.


Consider an animal (including a human) that has started eating some rotten, fetid, disgusting food. As a result, neurons in an area of the brain called the insula will activate. Gustatory disgust. Smell the same awful food, and the insula activates as well. Think about what might count as a disgusting food (say, taking a bite out of a struggling cockroach). Same thing.

Now read in the newspaper about a saintly old widow who had her home foreclosed by a sleazy mortgage company, her medical insurance canceled on flimsy grounds, and got a lousy, exploitative offer at the pawn shop where she tried to hock her kidney dialysis machine. You sit there thinking, those bastards, those people are scum, they’re worse than maggots, they make me want to puke … and your insula activates. Think about something shameful and rotten that you once did … same thing. Not only does the insula “do” sensory disgust; it does moral disgust as well. Because the two are so viscerally similar. When we evolved the capacity to be disgusted by moral failures, we didn’t evolve a new brain region to handle it. Instead, the insula expanded its portfolio. [Bold emphasis is mine.]

Sapolsky’s entire essay can be found at This Is Your Brain on Metaphors – NYTimes.com.

Note: Although there is growing dissent and push-back in the scientific community concerning how the media has misrepresented recent advances in neurology by blowing them out of proportion, or taking them out of context, Sapolsky is one guy I tend to trust in this regard. The scientist, Sapolsky himself, is making arguments based on well regarded evidence from his own findings and the research of those he trusts. This information coming directly from him is not quite the same as some layman — me, or some journalist, or the evening news — making leaps or taking license that the research itself doesn’t support.