Next time you wish to praise your girlfriend’s smile say ‘sweet’ instead of beautiful or lovely. Why? Because latest brain research shows that taste-related words engage the emotional centers of the brain more than others with the same meaning.
Appearing in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience the study by researchers from Princeton University and the Free University of Berlin, is the first to experimentally demonstrate that the brain interprets everyday metaphors like sweet smile and bitter feelings differently as compared to literal language.
The conclusions in the report are based on a study that involved mapping the brain activity of 37 participants even as they heard sentences containing common metaphors based on taste. When the scientists replaced the ‘tasty’ metaphors with their literal equivalents, the difference was dramatic. For example, “she looked at him kindly” was nowhere as impactful as “she looked at him sweetly.”
Sentences with taste-related words appeared to activate areas associated with emotional processing, such as the amygdala and gustatory cortices that enable the physical act of tasting.
The findings indicate that metaphorical sentences tend to speed up brain activity in regions related to emotions. “This is because they refer to physical experiences,” said co-author Adele Goldberg, a Princeton professor of linguistics in the Council of the Humanities.
In our every day speech we often use physical sensations or objects to describe abstractions like time, understanding or emotion. For instance, one can be ‘love sick,’ a ‘sweet friend’ or a ‘bitter rival.’ Words like ‘sweet’ have a much clearer physical component than ‘kind.’ The study suggests that the associations called upon by these words not only engage our brains on an emotional level, they potentially also amplify the impact of a sentence.
What this could mean is 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 centre. “It may support processes like affiliation, persuasion and support,” Citron said. “What it also means on the downside is that as a as a reader or listener we need to be wary of being swept by metaphorical language.”
There’s a lot of research on the effect metaphors have on allowing people to think about new or abstract concepts in relation to concrete objects they’re familiar with. But little on the emotional influence of metaphors. The fact, however, is that when we use metaphors it is usually to evoke an emotional response.