Friday, 4 September 2009

Research Bulletin: All in the Body?

Few books have had as much influence on the psychology of fiction as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's (1980) Metaphors we live by, see, for instance (in our Books on the Psychology of Fiction, for which click here) the books by Raymond Gibbs (1994) and Mark Turner (1996). Lakoff and Johnson argued that although we notice metaphors in poetry and other literary forms, metaphor is much more pervasive. What happens, they claim, is that many words are metaphorical, but they have become so usual that we don’t notice their metaphorical bases. They are nevertheless principal means of thought because they invite cross-domain mappings. They map from a domain that we know well to one we don’t know. Lakoff and Johnson call the area we know well the source domain. Most usually, this is the domain of our experience of being embodied, that is to say of moving around, and interacting with each other. The domain to which we map is the target domain. Generally, they go on to say, thought consists of applying features that we do understand in source domains to things we seek to understand in target domains.

Here is an example. I am presenting to you an account of how metaphor might work. In this twelve-word sentence, “to present” is a metaphor for to make something present, “account” is something like a list, piece by piece, or a reckoning on paper, and “to work” draws on the experience of effortfully making something happen, and of machinery. These words in the sentence, “present,” “account,” “work,” address sources of knowledge in the source domain of your experience. By means of these three words, I request you to apply this understanding to other matters, in target domains. I ask that you allow me to make present to you what I am saying, piece by piece, and to notice how these pieces take part in coordinated motions to make something happen. If you were to counter Lakoff and Johnson's argument, then the idea of “countering” is drawn from the experience of conflict, perhaps of fighting.

It is therefore of considerable interest that people working in neuro-imaging have found ways of testing the hypothesis of embodiment. For instance, Lisa Aziz-Zadeh and Antonio Damasio (2008) published an article in which they review the relevant research. (I thank Olly, in his comment to a previous post, for which click here, on the research of Giovanni Buccino and his colleagues, for putting me on to Aziz-Zadeh's work.) The basic idea is that if Lakoff and his followers were correct, when subjects read or hear words that are metaphors for actions, then parts of the brain associated with making the metaphorical actions (in the source domain) would be activated.

Aziz-Zadeh and Damasio review fMRI work on the human mirror system in which activation occurs both when an action is observed to be made by another individual and when the same action is initiated by the subject. This work includes Aziz-Zadeh et al.'s (2006) finding that when participants observed actions or read literal phrases relating to foot, hand, or mouth actions, there was comparable activation of the relevant regions of premotor cortex of the left hemisphere. When, however, in this study, participants read metaphorical phrases such as "bite the bullet," "grasp the meaning," and "kick the bucket," no activations corrresponding to those of watching videos of biting, grasping, and kicking, were found.

Aziz-Zadeh and Damasio write that once a metaphor becomes conventionalized it seems no longer to activate the motor system. A fuller account, which broadly agrees with this conclusion, has been offered by Gerard Steen (2008). He puts the onus on whether the speaker or writer intends a metaphorical usage (that includes similes, which also map across domains). Working with corpora in both Dutch and English, Steen and his colleagues have found that with the most generous definitions only 13.5 of all lexical units can be classed as metaphorical, and that 99% of all metaphor in academic discourse, news discourse, fiction, and conversation, is conventional. It is processed mentally not as cross-domain mapping but as categorization within a domain, that is to say by the same lexical identification of meaning as is used for non-metaphorical terms. The issue, says Steen is of how deliberate the writer or speaker is in inviting hearers or reader to map between domains.

So let me see if I can make up a couple of sentences. "I'm going to hit the road" means "I'm going to leave." It does not invite cross domain mapping. It is a figure of speech but not a figure of thought. It means "I'm going to leave," in much the same way as "I'm going to leave" means "I'm going to leave." One would not predict effects in any motor area involved with hitting, though one would predict effects in an area activated by a video of leaving a house and getting into a car. By contrast, "I'm going to hit you with everything I've got," is a deliberate figure of thought, it summons up conflict. If researchers using techniques employed by Aziz-Zadeh and her colleagues were to make the comparison, I would predict they would find that reading this sentence had an effect comparable to that of watching a video of someone hitting someone else.

Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, Stephen Wilson, Giacomo Rizzolatti & Marco Iacoboni (2006). Congruent embodied representations for visually presented actions and linguistic phrases describing actions. Current Biology, 16, 1818-1823.

Lisa Aziz-Zadeh & Antonio Damasio (2008). Embodied semantics for actions: Findings from functional brain imaging. Journal of Physiology - Paris, 102, 35-39.

Raymond Gibbs (1994). The poetics of mind: Figurative thought, language, and understanding. New York: Cambridge University Press.

George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Gerard Steen (2008). The paradox of metaphor: Why we need a three-dimensional model of metaphor. Metaphor and Symbol, 23, 213-241.

Mark Turner (1996). The literary mind: The origins of thought and language. New York: Oxford University Press.


Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

One of the things evoked by this great post is those moments in language when the references flip place with the referents, and we know the metaphorically meaning without the original meaning being present. I quite enjoy these moments, although I think part of what makes them compelling is their slight danger: we don't quite know, and aren't in full control of, the range of resonance in what we're saying. Instead, we're kind of *flying by the seat of our pants*, and hoping that we've properly received an understanding of common usage of these phrases. (And we can see where these phrases go awry, too, as in the horrible warping of the phrase "carrot and stick."

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks very much, Valentine. I totally agree: one of the wonderful things about metaphors that really work is the possibility of the reciprocal resonances. I love the idea of "slight danger," and I think you are right. Is it because we find ourselves in a world-in-between, neither known and familiar, nor unknown and therefore not part of the mind?

Rebecca Wells Jopling said...

This research dovetails nicely with findings by Rachel Giora and colleagues whose brain research is showing that it is not the metaphor/literal dichotomy that is operative, but the novelty/familiarity one. She recently edited an issue of Brain and Language (Volume 100, 2007) on metaphor. In her editorial, entitled “Is metaphor special?”, she concludes, “The brain is not sensitive to metaphoricity or literalness as such. Instead, it is sensitive to degrees of meaning salience, remoteness of semantic relationships, open-endedness, transparency of stimuli’s meanings, and speakers’ intention (regardless of contextual appropriateness)” (p. 113). These results would also seem to challenge the Lakoff and Gibbs hypotheses, but perhaps from a different angle as compared to the research you discuss, Keith.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Rebecca, for this reference to Rachel Giora; I will look her up. I think that after the initial enthusiasm for Lakoff, this kind of more tempered conclusion is coming to be more generally accepted.

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