Monday 15 November 2010

Sapolksy's 'Brain on Metaphors'

And what is the frontal cortex good for? Emotional regulation, gratification postponement, executive decision-making, long-term planning. We study hard in high school to get admitted to a top college to get into grad school to get a good job to get into the nursing home of our choice. Gophers don’t do that.
An essay by Robert Sapolsky has been published this week in the New York Times' blog column, The Stone on the brain and metaphor (the essay is also is the subject of this week’s forum discussion among the humanists and scientists at On the Human). I am finding this piece (from which I have taken these excerpts) fascinating, along lines often discussed in these pages:
What are we to make of the brain processing literal and metaphorical versions of a concept in the same brain region? Or that our neural circuitry doesn’t cleanly differentiate between the real and the symbolic? What are the consequences of the fact that evolution is a tinkerer and not an inventor, and has duct-taped metaphors and symbols to whichever pre-existing brain areas provided the closest fit?
Sapolsky cites a number of brilliant natural and lab experiments that show the myriad ways our brains play with our experience of one thing as another: a cup of warm (rather than iced) coffee as personal warmth, the heavier clipboard for my dossier showing my gravity, the '“mutual symbolic concessions” of no material benefit' that hang in the balance of peacemaking along with the more palpable and perhaps likely-seeming material concessions like 'water rights, placement of borders, and the extent of militarization allowed' to occupied people like Palestinians.

Talking around the problem that academics like me often fall into--the belief in rational appeals--Sapolsky ends his essay with a call for thoughtful engagement with the ways we might alleviate the suffering and disgust people feel toward the ills of the world by our comforting and empathetic use of symbolism.
Nelson Mandela was wrong when he advised, “Don’t talk to their minds; talk to their hearts.” He meant talk to their insulas and cingulate cortices and all those other confused brain regions, because that confusion could help make for a better world.
I am heartened (corticied?) by this idea, staunchly as I might wish to press metaphor into service to wrest the material into view, and I am left musing about what tones of explanation might make political economy more enticing.

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