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Archive for 08/12/2010

Embodied metaphor

An article by R. Sapolsky in the NewYork Times talks about embodiment without really mentioning the word embodied (here). He is looking for the nature of metaphor and where our facility for it comes from.

Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them…It strikes me that the human brain has evolved a necessary shortcut for doing so, and with some major implications.

Consider an animal (including a human) that has started eating some rotten, fetid, disgusting food. As a result, neurons in an area of the brain called the insula will activate. Gustatory disgust. Smell the same awful food, and the insula activates as well. Think about what might count as a disgusting food (say, taking a bite out of a struggling cockroach). Same thing.

Now read in the newspaper about a saintly old widow who had her home foreclosed by a sleazy mortgage company, her medical insurance canceled on flimsy grounds, and got a lousy, exploitative offer at the pawn shop where she tried to hock her kidney dialysis machine. You sit there thinking, those bastards, those people are scum, they’re worse than maggots, they make me want to puke … and your insula activates. Think about something shameful and rotten that you once did … same thing. Not only does the insula “do” sensory disgust; it does moral disgust as well. Because the two are so viscerally similar. When we evolved the capacity to be disgusted by moral failures, we didn’t evolve a new brain region to handle it. Instead, the insula expanded its portfolio…

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?

Something does not arise from nothing. Basically a nervous system (any nervous system) has a sensory input connected with a motor output. Any elaboration has to be grown on top of that. In other words, the elaboration must be an embodied metaphor. Nothing magic here; just start with the embodied and then pile one metaphor on top of another and you can end up with Shakespeare’s plays or Mozart’s music.