In exploring metaphors, neuroscience looks at the intersection between language and visual imagery. In this article, we will dive into the relationship between metaphors and the brain, exploring how metaphors serve to bridge spoken words and the mental images that they conjure in our minds. 

Metaphors Light Up the Brain

Metaphors are more than just figures of speech; they are a linguistic tool that taps into our brain’s visual processing centers. When we encounter a metaphor, it activates the areas of the brain responsible for interpreting visual stimuli. This activation illustrates how metaphors use language to create mental pictures or idea containers. Based in part on the work of Lakoff and Johnson, The Metaphors We Live By.

Your brain and the importance of visual wiring

Visual Neurons

Our brains are designed with a complex network of visual neurons constantly seeking patterns and connections. Metaphors activate these neurons, linking the words we hear and the images they represent for us. This is how metaphors transport us to new ways of looking at a situation, they literally light up our minds.
 
Metaphors offer us a pathway to the visual regions of our brain. They enable us to explain complex concepts, or how we perceive the world, in novel ways. Allowing us to create verbal shortcuts and convey meaning more concisely. Metaphors are tools that allow us to share our experience of the world, using language that demonstrates our own unique perspectives. 

Consider the following examples:

  • “I am wrestling with this situation.”
  • “I see the path; I don’t know the steps to get on it.”
  • “I keep hitting a wall.”
  • “When my boundaries get pushed, I wrap myself in armor.”
Each metaphor creates a visual story, allowing us to visualize the speaker’s struggle or even giving us hints as to what they desire, so that they can move forward. If I am wrestling with a situation, what would I prefer? If I see the path, what needs to be explored that would allow me to get my foot on the step? And, if I keep hitting a wall, what might need to shift to stop doing that?
 
This is the essence of metaphors—they tell us important information and as we listen, we not only hear the words but also experience them.

Hemispheres of the Brain

Research into metaphors reveals that both hemispheres of the brain play roles in understanding metaphors. The right hemisphere is flexible, managing various metaphorical and literal primes, while the left hemisphere maintains a precise sense of metaphor without interference from alternate meanings. Metaphor comprehension is a dynamic process, with the right hemisphere adapting to new contexts and the left hemisphere processing nuances (Chettih et al. 2012).

Further, metaphor comprehension is recognized as a cognitively complex task involving multiple brain areas. The right hemisphere’s involvement seems to vary depending on the cognitive effort required, hinting at a nuanced role that depends on the complexity of the task and potentially on the novelty or familiarity of the metaphor (Duque et al. 2023).

Functional neuroimaging studies have shown that both hemispheres are involved in processing and understanding metaphors, challenging the traditional notion that only the right hemisphere is responsible for this function (Cardillo et al. 2012). The interaction between the right and left hemispheres in metaphor comprehension is complex and dynamic, influenced by factors such as the conventionality of the metaphor, sentential context, and cognitive demands of the task.

Newest Book: Light Up!

Light Up is a must read for both new and experienced coaches, showing you how to use the transformative power of metaphors. Lyssa translates theoretical insights into effective coaching practices to leverage the power of metaphors in fostering meaningful client transformations. With multiple coaching demonstrations and significant examples, this book will help you create many lightbulb moments in your coaching conversations.

    Dr. Marcia Reynolds, MCC

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Light Up: The Science of Coaching with Metaphors

Light Up is a transformative read for coaches and therapists at any level. It illustrates the vital role of metaphors in coaching and delves into how metaphors clarify complex emotions and thoughts, aiding clients in better understanding themselves.

Visual Focus and the Brain

Human evolution has placed significant emphasis on the sense of vision. The brain has hundreds of millions of neurons devoted to visual processing, with approximately 55 percent of the cortex’s neurons specialized for this task. This is in contrast to 3 percent for auditory processing and 11 percent for somatosensory processing (Felleman and Van Essen 1991). The importance of vision is further underscored by the fact that 90 percent of the information transmitted to the brain is visual. “Because half of the human brain is devoted directly or indirectly to vision, understanding the process of vision provides clues to understanding fundamental operations in the brain” (Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1997).

The retina of the eye contains 150 million light-sensitive rods and cones; that retina is actually an outgrowth of the brain. Each of the body’s two optic nerves carries signals from the retina to the brain and consists of 1 million fibers—yes, 1 million. Each auditory nerve carries a mere thirty thousand. The brain has devoted many resources to the ability to perceive the world through visual mediums (Grady 2019).

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We Remember Better with Pictures

Studies have shown that images engage memory-related regions in the brain more effectively than words, leading to superior recollection of visual imagery. This highlights the power of visual language in shaping our understanding and memory (Grady et al. 1998).

Interestingly, a 2018 study suggested that blind individuals’ comprehension of metaphorical expressions does not differ from that of sighted participants. This indicates that even without the ability to see, blind people fully experience the world around them and make mean in ways that still use metaphorical language. Examples might sound like, “I am having a rough day,” “I feel warm inside,” or “I am juggling too many things.” Regardless of site, people use metaphors to explain their experiences.

Putting it into Perspective

The brain’s emphasis on vision is rooted in its fundamental design to support survival. As we explore conceptual metaphors, we see how the brain’s survival-oriented structures are at work. Conceptual metaphors create bridges between abstract ideas and concrete experiences, enabling us to understand and communicate complex thoughts and emotions.

Metaphors are the paintbrush of the mind, allowing us to create vivid pictures with our words to explain our internal narrative or schema. Sharing meaning through metaphors is essential to our ability to interact with others and survive as a social species.

Who is Lyssa deHart?

Lyssa deHart, LICSW, MCC, BCC is a Leadership Confidence and Whole Life Coach, Coaching Educator, ICF Assessor, and the author of three books, StoryJacking: Change Your Inner Dialogue, Transform Your Life, the Reflective Coach, and Light Up: The Science of Coaching with Metaphors.

She is also the host of the Coaching Studio Podcast, a Confidence Coach, a Certified Mentor Coach, a Coaching SUPERVision Partner, an ICF PCC Assessor, and a coaching educator. Lyssa leverages her knowledge in ICF Core Competencies and neuroscience to help professional coaches enhance their client outcomes by deeply listening, being client-led, and, ultimately, empowering their clients through partnership.

In 2018 Lyssa began developing the Power of Metaphor Certification Program. This program trains coaches to tune their ears and leverage their clients' metaphors. In 2022, Lyssa developed the Updated Credentialing Exam PREP, a resource that has helped over 5000 coaches prepare for the updated ICF Exam.

Lyssa is a Mentor Coach, Coaching SUPERVision Partner, ICF Exam PREP Master, Coaching Educator, and Professional Confidence Coach. If you are interested in meeting to see if we might be a good fit to work together follow the link...

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