This is Your Brain on Metaphor

When I teach lyric writing, the first concept I introduce in any class is the power and impact of sense-based language. I usually start with a sort of psychological magic trick: I read a list of words, then ask people to recall as many as they can. Without mentioning this to the class, I have deliberately made half the words concrete and sense-based—koala, tomato, thunder—and the other half are abstract or conceptual—task, idea, sound, for example. 

Here is the magic part: without fail, the vast majority of people (about 90%) recall more of the sense-based words. 

How is this possible? Why isn’t it more random? Why don’t we see, over a large sample, that it’s more like 50%? I randomise the words; I make sure the words are not more complex in one category versus the other…the magic (and science) here is that there is something special about sense-based language. Our brains wrap themselves differently around it. In the field of psychology, this has a name: “The Concreteness Effect”. People’s memories (and here we’re talking at a population level) stick like glue to things we can attach our senses to. 

As lyric writers, we are tasked with creating mansions in the mind of a listener with very limited real estate, so anything in language that comes pre-loaded with emotion, impact, and connection is gold.

Here’s a dirty little secret though. I have, for years, been a bit tripped up by the logic of this. Just saying “cinnamon” is not the same thing as actually smelling cinnamon…a word is a concept, even if it’s describing a sensory thing…isn’t it? Why should we expect that sensory language isn’t actually just another kind of concept? Why believe (even in spite of the hundreds of mini-experiments I’ve run, yielding the same result, and even all the experiments done by psychologists) that sensory language should have a different emotional impact than any kind of language?

Well! I am very thrilled that science has once again come to the party, gotten tipsy, had a snog with art, and the two are now dirty dancing, showing us how one moves the other. 

In Fiona Murphy’s gorgeous book, ‘The Shape of Sound”, she talks about a piece of research that,

“demonstrated how words can rub and burn just as much as they can soothe. Test subjects lying in an MRI machine were read metaphorical and literal descriptions—the operation went smoothly (the operation went successfully), his manners are coarse (his manners are rude), she is a bit edgy (she is a bit nervous)…The results were conclusive: textured metaphors caused the brain to react as if it were being touched.”

Our brains aren’t just processing these words as language—mere concepts, solely representations of the thing; the brain actually responds as if that sense is being activated!

The power and complexity of language never ceases to astonish me. There is magic in there too. To quote, perhaps, the leading authority on words and magic:

Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.

Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2)

I Have a Confession to Make

I have a public confession to make. I have a serious problem—a profound weakness, and it only gets worse with age.

I am completely, totally, helplessly in love with reading. But not just one book. I find myself embroiled, entangled, enmeshed, ensnared, and ensnarled in reading sometimes more than 10 books at a time. It’s not healthy. If I read one at a time, I could probably read more in a year. But I can’t. It doesn’t work like that.

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I now play mental tricks with myself to justify the habit, creating different ‘categories’ of books. It started out simple: Fiction and Non-Fiction. And then I started reading books about writing. Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Writing. And then I picked up a few on interesting psychology research: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Writing, and Psychology (sub-category, Non-Fiction). Next came books not just on writing, but on specific grammar and style. Fiction, Non-Fiction (sub-category: Psychology, and also Science snuck in there somehow), Writing (sub-category, grammar and style). And then Poetry. And then Short Stories. And, um, Krista Tippett (maybe, Books by Podcasters?).

I feel good now, though. I feel lighter that I’ve let you know about my problem. Maybe I can add a few more books now that I’ve shed the weight of this secret…

In the spirit of National Book Week, I am going to post the 5th sentence on page 56 of each of the books I’m currently reading:

If you ask someone to recall a seemingly random assortment of words verbatim, starting with the first word— “was smelled front that his the peanuts he good hunger eating barely woman of so in could that him contain”—the average person will remember only the first six of those words. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

“When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not in the story.” On Writing, Stephen King.

I have never felt so terrible. Tenth of December, George Saunders.

“I’ve recently been thinking more and more that it’s so astonishing that the Old Testament prophets hardly ever discuss an “issue.”” Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett.

I could settle on nothing. House of Light, Mary Oliver.

That man was Tycho Brahe. Cosmos, Carl Sagan.

From the people comes political support or opposition; from the public comes artistic appreciation or commercial patronage. The Elements of Style, Stunk and White.

Better yet, the genetic sequences could be recorded by feeding samples into machines, taking the DNA strands apart one base pair at a time, and preserving them as strings of data that could easily be archived and replicated. Seveneves, Neal Stephenson.