In Your Mind’s Eye: Looking at the perception and conception of body metaphors

When two people are seeing eye to eye, they’re usually not literally standing face to face and staring at each other. However, new research suggests that hearing the previous sentence would probably activate an area of your brain responsible for the visual perception of body parts. Almost as if you were actually looking at two people and assessing the extent to which their eyeballs were, indeed, functioning properly and more or less aligned.

The research (which focused on arm and leg metaphors like “shouldering responsibility” and “footing the bill,”) supports the idea that our abstract linguistic representations are grounded in or emergent derivatives of our physical bodily experiences.

Does it seem odd that listening to a sentence involving body part metaphors would activate the brain area used to visually identify those body parts? It should. Especially since the researchers found that listening to a sentence with a literal reference to body parts does not activate this brain area.

But maybe it’s not as odd as it seems. Our everyday use of language is like our everyday use of our bodies. On the one hand, under normal circumstances, it doesn’t require our conscious attention. Metaphors, on the other hand, involve the creative use of language. So perhaps when trying to understand metaphors, we literally need a more artistic point of view to get a better sense of what they mean.

Grounded cognition explanations of metaphor comprehension predict activation of sensorimotor [brain areas] relevant to the metaphor’s source domain. We tested this prediction for body-part metaphors … while participants heard sentences containing metaphorical or literal references to body parts, and comparable control sentences … [R]elative to control sentences, metaphorical but not literal sentences evoked limb metaphor-specific activity in the [brain area involved in] visual limb-selectivity.

Engagement of the left extrastriate body area during body-part metaphor comprehension | Brain and Language: Simon Lacey • Randall Stilla • Gopikrishna Deshpande • Sinan Zhao • Careese Stephens • Kelly McCormick • David Kemmerer • K. Sathian

Arm and Leg Metaphors Engage Surprising Brain Region | Futurity: Quinn Eastmann