Brain: Was That a Touch or a Metaphor?

TextureToday was a drag.

I’m all wound up.

My brain is mush.

Meet the metaphor: a literary technique that allows us to represent not-so-tangible things (like the feeling of a tired, overworked brain) with tangible things (like “mush”).

They help us to understand complex topics. To draw an example from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Metaphors We Live By, argument is war.

In an argument, as in a war, you can win. You can lose. You can gain ground or lose it. Your claims can be right on target or they can miss the mark. You can shoot down someone else’s idea.

This week, Brain & Language published some new metaphor-related research. Psych Central’s news team reported their findings:

In a new study using brain imaging, investigators discovered a region of the brain important for sensing texture through touch, the parietal operculum, is activated when someone listens to a sentence with a textural metaphor. The same region is not activated when a similar sentence expressing the meaning of the metaphor is heard.

A textural metaphor is, well, a metaphor that uses a tangible texture to represent a not-so-tangible concept. Let’s say you had a rough day. You didn’t stick sandpaper up to today’s date on the calendar, did you? Nor did you spend the whole day dragging your hand on a rough surface. When you claim you’ve had a rough day, you’re using the word “rough” to describe the more abstract concept of difficulty.

The researchers used fMRI imaging to study the brains of seven college students. While the MRI was being performed, the students listened to sentences that contained textual metaphors and sentences that did not contain textual metaphors, but still conveyed the same overall meaning. From the news story:

“We see that metaphors are engaging the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in sensory responses even though the metaphors are quite familiar,” said senior author Krish Sathian, M.D., Ph.D. “This result illustrates how we draw upon sensory experiences to achieve understanding of metaphorical language.”

In other words, when we hear a metaphor like “today was rough”, the part of our brain that would respond to a physical touch lights up — suggesting that we process metaphors in a way that’s very different than the manner in which we usually process language.

And what does this mean for anxiety?

It’s hard to say — but now, this study has got me wondering about the ideas and the emotions that we attach to various textures. What kind of textures do you find calming? I find soft and smooth objects more calming than I do rough and gritty ones. And, like Amélie, I enjoy the sensation of sticking my hand into a barrel of beans:

I wonder if this means that I should focus more on using metaphors that invite reference to my favorite textures, and less on using metaphors that suggest roughness or grittiness. It’s truly possible to change the body by means of the mind. If you decide to extend your next exhale for a second or two longer than usual, you will notice that your heartbeat slows down ever-so-slightly. Your decision (mind) to exhale longer impacts your heartbeat (body).

If the touch of smooth fabric can relax me, then can using a metaphor that suggests smoothness relax me as well? After all, wouldn’t the same area of my brain light up in both cases?

I don’t know for certain. But in the name of self-discovery, it couldn’t hurt to try this out. I could focus on what activities went smoothly today instead of which ones were rough. A little linguistic optimism, if you will.

I suppose it’s only natural to conclude by saying that this blog post was a breeze.

What metaphors do you use to describe the world around you? Do you think that adopting new metaphors can change the way you think or feel?
Creative Commons License photo credit: M.Christian

Brain: Was That a Touch or a Metaphor?

Summer Beretsky

Summer Beretsky enjoys writing about her experiences with anxiety, panic, and Paxil. She had her first panic attack as an undergrad at Lycoming College and plenty more while she worked toward her M.A. in Communication from the University of Delaware. She contributes to the World of Psychology blog here on PsychCentral and has written for the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @summerberetsky.

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APA Reference
Beretsky, S. (2012). Brain: Was That a Touch or a Metaphor?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Feb 2012
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