Neural sweet talk: Taste metaphors emotionally engage the brain

Jun 26, 2014

By Science Daily

So accustomed are we to metaphors related to taste that when we hear a kind smile described as “sweet,” or a resentful comment as “bitter,” we most likely don’t even think of those words as metaphors. But while it may seem to our ears that “sweet” by any other name means the same thing, new research shows that taste-related words actually engage the emotional centers of the brain more than literal words with the same meaning.

Researchers from Princeton University and the Free University of Berlin report in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience the first study to experimentally show that the brain processes these everyday metaphors differently than literal language. In the study, participants read 37 sentences that included common metaphors based on taste while the researchers recorded their brain activity. Each taste-related word was then swapped with a literal counterpart so that, for instance, “She looked at him sweetly” became “She looked at him kindly.”

The researchers found that the sentences containing words that invoked taste activated areas known to be associated with emotional processing, such as the amygdala, as well as the areas known as the gustatory cortices that allow for the physical act of tasting. Interestingly, the metaphorical and literal words only resulted in brain activity related to emotion when part of a sentence, but stimulated the gustatory cortices both in sentences and as stand-alone words.

Metaphorical sentences may spark increased brain activity in emotion-related regions because they allude to physical experiences, said co-author Adele Goldberg, a Princeton professor of linguistics in the Council of the Humanities. Human language frequently uses physical sensations or objects to refer to abstract domains such as time, understanding or emotion, Goldberg said. For instance, people liken love to a number of afflictions including being “sick” or shot through the heart with an arrow. Similarly, “sweet” has a much clearer physical component than “kind.” The new research suggests that these associations go beyond just being descriptive to engage our brains on an emotional level and potentially amplify the impact of the sentence, Goldberg said.

“You begin to realize when you look at metaphors how common they are in helping us understand abstract domains,” Goldberg said. “It could be that we are more engaged with abstract concepts when we use metaphorical language that ties into physical experiences.”

If metaphors in general elicit an emotional response from the brain that is similar to that caused by taste-related metaphors, then that could mean that figurative language presents a “rhetorical advantage” when communicating with others, explained co-author Francesca Citron, a postdoctoral researcher of psycholinguistics at the Free University’s Languages of Emotion research center.

“Figurative language may be more effective in communication and may facilitate processes such as affiliation, persuasion and support,” Citron said. “Further, as a reader or listener, one should be wary of being overly influenced by metaphorical language.”

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