A new study published in Brain Research has attempted to gain a deeper understanding of metaphors: could they improve mood? Can they play a role in health aging? What about using metaphors to learn abstract concepts? The leader of the study, Vicky Lai, a professor at the University of Arizona, analyzed how and when various different areas of the brain lighted up to try to understand what effect metaphors and language has.
The study shows that understanding the meaning of a metaphor takes significantly more effort for the brain. Previously, various studies with functional NMR or MRI had shown that when someone heard a simple expression such as “this is difficult”, regions of the brain that are associated with difficulty were activated, while if someone heard a saying like “this is good”, areas of the brain associated with pleasure were activated. But hearing metaphors had a somewhat different effect.
In Lai’s study, they had recorded electrical patterns in the brain using brain waves when participants in the study had heard various metaphors, and found that when hearing metaphors, the brain was significantly slower to understand the meaning of what it heard, and the effect was different to when the participant would hear text of the same meaning but in clearer words. More work will still need to be done in this area, and with more participants.
“Understanding how the brain approaches the complexity of language allows us to start testing how it would affect other aspects of cognition,” Lai concludes.