Monday, November 15, 2010

Metaphors on your Brain

This is your Brain on Metaphor

This is an interesting article and well worth the read. It's always interesting when neuroscientists start talking about language as opposed to a philosopher talking about language because scientists want to track what chemicals the brain fires when you call for a pizza where as the philosopher is interested in how you actually phrased the question and how that expresses your opinion of the world. The studies that Sapolsky cites are interesting because it is always fascinating how our external stimuli affects, often without our realizing it, our responses to the world around us. I'm not sure if that is really metaphor because if you read Lakeoff and Johnson who suggest that metaphor is such a fundamental part of our thinking so that language, how we talk about the world, is the way we view the world and often without recognizing how deep the metaphors go. Where as Sapolsky, and the cited studies, argue the way we interpret the stimuli around us, aware or unaware, is how people view the world rather than the way we talk about it. Wittgenstein's idea that "language is not only the vehicle of thought, it is also the driver" has implications here as well. So what that you though a person was more intelligent because they handed you a heavier clipboard? What if they handed you a rabid badger? The limitations of what is calculated in these types of studies is not nearly as interesting .
I think the one aspect of talking about metaphor that is exceptionally hard to pin down is the discussion of where our knowledge of it comes from. Sapolsky suggests that it is evolutionary but I think that it is learned which very well might be a type of evolution. In the first cited study, when volunteers are asked to think of something immoral and were given the choice to wash hands, what if they had thought about being hungry and then given the choice to wash their hands? While the results are interesting, there is such a wide range of human responses to the world that while limiting the study is necessary to make it actually functional gauging the level of importance can be difficult. Because at a more fundamental level I don't think the brain is confusing literalness and metaphor but that what is understood as metaphor is literally true because language drives our thought processes. Perhaps a group of people are more likely to wash after recalling ethical failures because of a shared way of thinking/talking about an incident (guilt as uncleanliness,innocence as cleanliness) rather than a brain process. I think it depends on your view of what comes first. I would suggest with W. that language drives while Sapolsky would, as of this article, argue that the brain processes drives and there is not a hard and fast distinction, I don't think, that enables to know which is which.

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