Evidence Based Learning, Mental Models, Neuroscience

The Neuroscience of Metaphors is like an Octopus

11 Sep , 2016  

Every time we focus our attention we’re making choices about how we fill our relatively limited working memory.

Latest research indicates that there are about 4 chunks within our working memory that are filled and lost quickly, but before they slip away there’s a chance for them to integrate into our long term memory.

There are a range of ways this happens more effectively, and one of them is how those thoughts connect with our existing mental models.

Barbara Oakley compared this process to an octopus. The octopus body sits in your forehead, just as working memory sits in your prefrontal cortex.

Working memory is relatively fleeting, so it struggles to grip onto something by relating and connecting to your neural structures (your existing concepts and memories). Similarly, the octopus grasps out with it’s tentacles, searching for something to grab hold of.

Metaphors help strengthen those gripping points. It takes one concept that can be alien to us (like how working memory functions) and helps to embed them into long term memory by relating it to something we do know (like an octopus).

That’s pretty handy… but wait, there’s more! Latest research has revealed that metaphors actually trigger sensory responses in our brain.

The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience reported that taste based metaphors trigger the same parts of the brain that are relevant to taste. For example, consider ‘she looked at him kindly’ compared to ‘she looked at him sweetly’. The change in that one word sets off a range of taste related activity in your amygdala and portions of your hippocampus (which are related to taste)… even if you’re not consciously aware of it.

Meanwhile Science Mag reported on another study where volunteers listened to literal sentences and then ‘touch’ based metaphors. Language processing parts of the brain were triggered with both, but the parietal operculum (part of the brain associated with textures and touch) only activated with the metaphors.

What does this all mean?

Metaphors provide conceptual hooks for memories and evoke real emotional and sensory triggers in our brain… in other words, they help that slippery octopus latch on and stick around.



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