Your Brain on Metaphors

We’re suckers for an article tagged “philosophy” and “neuroscience.”

In the NY Times, Robert Sapolsky explores the fact that while the neuron of a common housefly is remarkably similar to that of a human, we benefit from having a lot more neurons (about 100 million for every one the fly has). And, as Sapolsky says, this quantity yields quality, enabling us to carry out complex tasks like the digit manipulation required to trill on a piano, or make the decision to study hard to get good grades and eventually a good job. Gophers, Sapolsky points out, don’t do that.

Sapolsky, though, is taken with a different human-only trait:

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.

We won’t get into the neurochemical analysis that Sapolsky does, but if you’re a fan of the brain, his article is a great read.

 

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