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Brain Region Linked to Metaphor Comprehension

From Scientific American:

Metaphors make for colorful sayings, but can be confusing when taken literally. A study of people who are unable to make sense of figures of speech has helped scientists identify a brain region they believe plays a key role in grasping metaphors.

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego and his colleagues tested four patients who had experienced damage to the left angular gyrus region of their brains. All of the volunteers were fluent in English and otherwise intelligent, mentally lucid and able to engage in normal conversations. But when the researchers presented them with common proverbs and metaphors such as "the grass is always greener on the other side" and "reaching for the stars," the subjects interpreted the sayings literally almost all of the time. After being pressed by the interviewers to provide deeper meaning, "the patients often came up with elaborate, even ingenious interpretations, that were completely off the mark," Ramachandran remarks.

More here.

That's interesting. I would never have imagined that metaphors could be so localized. I had imagined that our whole brain worked on some sort of system of metaphors. I wonder what this means in the context of Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By where they argue that metaphor is a fundamental mechanism in the way we think about things...


Follow-up question: How do you tell that relative or co-worker who (it now becomes obvious) simply can’t cope with figures of speech?

“Excuse me, but I have reason to believe that you’re suffering from brain damage.”

Joi, localizing metaphors to some region of the brain doesn't imply the rest of the brain isn't involved. It's not like you can turn off the rest of the brain and you'd still have metaphor comprehension.

Joi, confusing correlation with causality is a common fallacy when clinical study results are reported in the press. The key word here is "linked." SciAm is a reliable for its reporting but you have to appreciate their careful wording. The scientists "believe" they've found a correlation, and with only 4 patients. But since there is no animal model for testing abstract thinking, and barring human experimentation, this is the best we can expect.

To show you what happens in the blogosphere, takes your post and says, "Brain's metaphor center identified." This is not a knock against Cory whom I respect as a writer and an activist. It's a common misconception especially when you're led to think that this is a significant scientific finding.

It could be a nerve pathway that passes through this region but connects a number of sections of the brain. Or maybe they're just wrong.

If you want to take it to the extreme, you could have 4 people walk out of donut shops, with each getting hit by a car, and then read somewhere, "Donuts Are Deadly."

AKMA: Every medical student is taught how to conduct a mental status exam (MSE) of a patient. You start asking if they know where they are, what the date is, who's the President. Not being able to answer doesn't automatically point to an organic cause, unless you consider tequila organic. Asking (quoting from a published MSE): "What would I mean if I said I were feeling blue? seeing red? I had a chip on my shoulder? or was hot under the collar?" is meant to test abstract thinking. Again, this is used for lack of any other reliable measure of higher cortical thinking.

But what it really comes down to is, why don't we approach any news report with a high level of skepticism, rejecting any claim until it has met our standard of proof or believability? In statistics it's called failing to reject the null hypothesis, i.e. the reported results are most likely due to coincidence.

I think "the grass is always greener on the other side" is more a saying than a methaphor.
"When everything else fails, say something interesting about the brain" seems to be the methaphor some brain experts live by. And all you need is four persons in an experiment to make it to Scientific American. I wish my job was that easy.

Bill K. : Good points. Agree with you completely. So the question is whether we can keep people's attention on this long enough to follow through the fact checking and debunking process or whether people will just remember the headline I suppose... In main stream media, is definitely an issue. On blogs, some stories stay alive through the lifetime of the process and others don't I guess...

Well bill, this is a very small sample, but its the methodology that is groundbreaking, which is in the field of brainmapping. It does sort of throw a monkey wrench into

Douglas Rushcoff has a link to a similar study that collects more image data, but it is of only 9 or so patients that are tracted by functional MRI while they are growing to tract development and achievement of Piaget's milestones. That is to say, you take a part of the brain, and take pictures of it while you flash images, or ask a subject questions. Therefore you see what part of the brain lights up. Again, its not the sample size that is earth breaking, its the methodology and the issue of datamining tones of data (which is the huge dataset) so that one can brainmap that is scientifically a big deal

Doug's Link

The Mini Mental Exam is kind of Old fashion, but is a screening method of finding what part of the brain is being damaged, and if there is a probability if one has alzheimers, or multi infarct dementia.

This requires an old fashion doctor to interpret: but increasingly, we are relying upon technology to solve problems: this is where brain mapping becomes problematic: as we get to the point of signal averaging millions of mri's, and then datamine them with existing data from the ubiquitous computing infrastructure, we will determine more about what are generalizable neuro anatomical areas of the brain that coorelate to function. Biometrics will converge with medical informatics. The data and possibility to datamine the data, like they are starting to do with the brain mapping is very fundamental, and goes beyond the issues of well, "Its only 4 patients". This methodology will be used in face recognition systems that work, and in fMRI systems that can tell if someone is telling the truth, or is lying.

does Camp X-Ray ring a bell? neuroimaging to tell if someone is telling the truth or not violates the geneva convention, and goes beyond the previous arguments of how ubiquitous computing can undermine the fourth amendment in the USA. It starts to undermine the idea that persons should be free of torture. Well that is all opinion of what will happen in the future

I'd admire those who are good at metaphorising and, I feel, they tend to get the deal done especially in the negotiating situations. While neurosciences might find out where it is located, I'd be more interested in learning how I can improve the skills.

stefanos: Speaking of SciAm, in their April issue of "Mind," "Fact or Phrenology? The growing controversy over fMRI scans is forcing us to confront whether brain equals mind," raises doubts about the conclusions of studies using this technique. I almost put something in my first post to the effect, "And please don't cite fMRI results as being definitive proof of mapping the mind to the brain."

If anyone's interested, I can see if I can find my copy and summarize the criticisms stated. For one, fMRI is monitoring decrease in deoxyhemoglobin (has different paramagnetic properties from oxygenated species) associated with increased blood flow in brain tissue where neuronal activity is high. Problem is, this is occurring on the order of seconds (?) while neuronal activation is on the order of milliseconds. Like using a pinhole camera to photograph a horse race.

But as far as analyzing a scientific study, I would rather the reporter make an attempt to show the weaknesses of the study. Plus, it's not fair to build false hope in those patients who may think that this could mean a new treatment for their disease. How many news broadcast do you hear with the teaser, "New hope for xyz sufferers, after these messages...?

Joi: Some may talk about the echo chamber of the blogosphere, but I think some times it works for the benefit of deciding which views resonate with something that sounds close to the truth.

Yes. Vet, Echo, Repeat...


will try and clarify what I was trying to say on my own blog. we have a common ground a various points, and different opinion to the articles due to different life experiences: I guess my perspective is biased by the fact that I take care of persons after strokes, and see how they improve after the stroke. I also see a pattern of symptoms after the stroke and this coorelates, often, to an anatomical space. So when I see articles like the ones you posted, it is reviewed by me with two main themes running through my mind in parallel: that of hope, and that of remembering based upon a glogged experience of a physician. I am not running like a cyborg, such as steve mann yet, but my approach to seeing multiple patients, and experiencing various patterns, ranging from epidemics of colds (joi caught one in NYC with a bad stomach ache), to mini strokes with similar past medical histories, creates an intuitive data storage and creates a different way of thinking about things in the aggregate: a guess becomes an educated guess based upon experience. For example, in a certain hospital, where there is a high probability of resistant organisms, I have learned not to use certain antibiotics. With certain stroke patterns, I have learned to predict either a good prognosis or a poor prognosis (my accuracy is about 85 percent: I simply tag my dictated note, and put in a key sentence, then download it into a simple mp3 key chain, to data mine the histories. then I compare discharge notes to how accurate I am with prognosis) so hence, we do develop an intuitive understanding of brain images and can predict symptoms. This is a form of cyborgglogging, and will converge with data mining images seen with medical symptoms. Yes, this is more accurate than brain mapping, but no one cares about doctors nor the art of medicine anymore. Research funding is for technology, and for eliminating the need for the humanistic element, ect (another opinion of mine). The great strides in pathology began when we added dyes to slides to work out what we see under the microscope: this still needed the user to interpret the images (papanikolaou and the pap test). So hence, this is where I am diverging in aggrement with you: that fMRI does have merit, but its the intent of removal of the interpreter that has a more profound effect, and hence, allows anyone to do fMRI's including governmental officials who may not have the persons best interests in mind. As much as persons are upset by doctors, society still values them as humanitarians.

There is more I would like to write, but dont have time, and it has to do with the idea that the way we use our mind, influences how our brain works: there is a great piece out of the national geographic that shows how meditation can which side of the frontal lobes is more active. It also influeces personality and outlook on the world.

In terms of phrenology: jenny marketou has a great exhibit called smell you smell me. It uses a system of body smells to calculate your personality type. This brings up lots of interesting biometric questions, including the ones you are bringing up. go under smellyousmellme and it leads you to a very interesting exhibit. The idea is to document the absurdities and problems of machines interpreting human smells

Now, if they can only get those quack Lie Detector (sic) machines to work as advertised.

This is fairly well recycled research results. It is worth seeing some of Ramachandran's documentaries though - he has interesting insights from his clinical work. Ramachandran is unique for being a guy who can draw far-reaching, but plausible, relevant and fairly reasonable conclusions from the really bizarre disorders he studies. I think that's great myself, and he should be congratulated. He is a populist sure, but he is also a good researcher and thinker.

Ramachandran's results generally don't depend on fMRI results. He's working with brain injury patients. The fMRI parallel would be to show angular gyrus activity in patients who were solving metaphors, but I don't think it would be possible to detect this with current technology (for the reasons that Bill stated).

It is true that the mapping hasn't really been demonstrated. Let me explain it in computer terms. It's possible to imagine a computer that could do without its floating-point unit, for example (the 386 and some of the 68000-series chips were set up like this, I think). That computer would become very slow at scaling photographs if you removed the FPU. However, you can't say that photograph-scaling is somehow 'located' in the FPU to the exclusion of all other places. It just means that the FPU is a specialized part which is better able to perform this task than the other parts.

This is a very subtle point. I'm sure someone with a better-developed angular gyrus can come up with a better metaphor. Meanwhile, I'm going to move my cows over to that other field.


i think the fact that the ideas are developed directly from patient observation is the key: from observation one can get a clearer picture.

The 2003 iswc had a keynote speaker of Dr. Michael Okun. He works with the dept of movement disorders at the University of Florida, and gave a great lecture on the neuro anatomy of how the deep brain stimulators function. Also a great summary of all the different signals that each group of cells emits: this all plays into the pacing effects of the deep brain stimulation. In fact, cyborg Thadius Starner has been scrubing in with him to work out the details of these pacemakers...and new prototypes.

What I found in the presentation that was interesting, was that when the wires are misplaced, one finds all sorts of side effects: the rapid cycling bipolar side effect was very compelling towards a neuroantamical site for the symptom. With correction of the wire placement, symptoms resolved.

So hence, when one collects information, one uses ones experience as a data mining short cut, to start looking for a particular pattern that can be imaged. It is sort of "cheating" but when one sees injuries to a particular area of the brain, and coorelates it with ones particular life experience, then one starts to understand the hypothesis.

Good to see scientists conducting studies on Metaphors too.

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This is a comment I made on Joi Ito's blog. He's reacting to the report of a study that suggests a correlation between a deficit in metaphor recognition and a particular anatomical segment of the brain:Joi, confusing correlation with causality Read More