In the fascinating realm of cognitive neuroscience, the interplay between language and visual imagery is a topic that garners significant attention. In this article we will delve into the intricate relationship between metaphors and the brain, shedding light on how metaphors serve as a bridge between the spoken word and the mental images conjured 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 same areas of the brain responsible for interpreting visual stimuli. This activation illustrates how metaphors are a means of using language to create vivid mental pictures. 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 equipped with a network of visual neurons constantly seeking patterns and connections. Metaphors ignite these neurons, creating a link between the words we hear and the images they represent. This is why metaphors can transport us to new places and evoke strong emotions—they literally illuminate our minds.

Metaphors provide a unique pathway to the visual regions of our brain, enabling us to perceive the world in novel and exciting ways. They are powerful tools that allow us to explore the depths of our imagination and experience the world through our own unique lens.

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 paints a vivid picture, allowing us to visualize the speaker’s struggle or envision a way forward. This is the essence of visual language—we not only hear the words but also experience them.

Hemispheres of the Brain

Research into the neuroscience of 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.

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).

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.

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Lyssa deHart, LICSW, MCC, author of StoryJacking: Change Your Dialogue, Transform Your Life and the Reflective Coach, and the new book, Light Up: The Science of Coaching with Metaphors. Lyssa is a Confidence Coach, Certified Mentor Coach, Coaching Super-Vision Partner, ICF PCC Assessor, and coaching educator. Using her understanding of the ICF Core Competencies and her knowledge of Neuroscience, Lyssa works with Professional Coaches to expand the capacity to partner with their clients through how they show up and hold the space for those with whom they work.

Lyssa is the creator of the Power of Metaphor Certification Program. Giving coaches new ways to tune their ears to hear the powerful metaphors their clients bring forward and discovering how to leverage the important metaphors to create stronger agreements, build trust and safety, allow the client to lead, and ultimately evoke powerful embodied awareness.

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