This is your brain on metaphors!

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This is your brain on metaphors!

#1  Postby kennyc » Sep 06, 2014 5:10 pm

Your Brain on Metaphors
Neuroscientists test the theory that your body shapes your ideas



The player kicked the ball.
The patient kicked the habit.
The villain kicked the bucket.

The verbs are the same.
The syntax is identical.
Does the brain notice, or care,
that the first is literal, the second
metaphorical, the third idiomatic?

It sounds like a question that only a linguist could love. But neuroscientists have been trying to answer it using exotic brain-scanning technologies. Their findings have varied wildly, in some cases contradicting one another. If they make progress, the payoff will be big. Their findings will enrich a theory that aims to explain how wet masses of neurons can understand anything at all. And they may drive a stake into the widespread assumption that computers will inevitably become conscious in a humanlike way.

The hypothesis driving their work is that metaphor is central to language. Metaphor used to be thought of as merely poetic ornamentation, aesthetically pretty but otherwise irrelevant. "Love is a rose, but you better not pick it," sang Neil Young in 1977, riffing on the timeworn comparison between a sexual partner and a pollinating perennial. For centuries, metaphor was just the place where poets went to show off.

But in their 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By, the linguist George Lakoff (at the University of California at Berkeley) and the philosopher Mark Johnson (now at the University of Oregon) revolutionized linguistics by showing that metaphor is actually a fundamental constituent of language. For example, they showed that in the seemingly literal statement "He’s out of sight," the visual field is metaphorized as a container that holds things. The visual field isn’t really a container, of course; one simply sees objects or not. But the container metaphor is so ubiquitous that it wasn’t even recognized as a metaphor until Lakoff and Johnson pointed it out.

From such examples they argued that ordinary language is saturated with metaphors. Our eyes point to where we’re going, so we tend to speak of future time as being "ahead" of us. When things increase, they tend to go up relative to us, so we tend to speak of stocks "rising" instead of getting more expensive. "Our ordinary conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical in nature," they wrote.
....
What’s emerging from these studies isn’t just a theory of language or of metaphor. It’s a nascent theory of consciousness.
....


http://chronicle.com/article/Your-Brain ... rs/148495/

Very interesting article, but I disagree that metaphor is at the core or even at the basis of 'a nascent theory of consciousness.'

What is at the core of our mental abilities is the ability to compare two or more things. Metaphors -- either language or symbol are built on top of that core comparison ability.
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Re: This is your brain on metaphors!

#2  Postby igorfrankensteen » Sep 06, 2014 5:52 pm

I must be obtuse. It seems to me that ALL language is, of necessity, representational, and therefore in a way "metaphorical." So is all thought. For either to be otherwise, every time we spoke, physical objects would pop out of our mouths, and every time we thought, our heads would explode.

I would go a little step further with this thought:
at the core of our mental abilities is the ability to compare two or more things.


That is, that at the core of everything is the fact that we can turn visual and other input into something that we can both manipulate, and recall. You can't compare things without those two things coming first.

If neuroscientists are REALLY trying to work out how we recognize the difference in meaning between similar statements, in the exact manner described, I don't see any way they can get anywhere. Recognizing the different meanings requires a depth of knowledge and experience. It isn't determined by the mechanics of neuron behavior at THAT level.

It seem more likely that the real insight into brain function would be found by trying to explain why some people can, and others cannot, imagine smells, sounds, and so on. That has to be mechanical. They are already studying the mechanics of memory, via the work on things like Alzheimers, and brain injuries.
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Re: This is your brain on metaphors!

#3  Postby kennyc » Sep 06, 2014 6:03 pm

Igor, there are those that believe language is required for consciousness. Not me of course, but they are out there.
and yes, memory, is inherent in all of this ability to compare things, I didn't mention it specifically because it is so fundamental.
Comparisons certainly could take place in real time, but that's not the type of thing under discussion generally wrt consciousness.
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