Is it live or is it metaphor?

‘Kick the habit’ lights up the brain’s motor cortex

When your readers kick, the motor cortex in their brains light up. If they read, “the player kicked the ball,” that cortex lights up as if they’re kicking.

Metaphors stimulate the brain

Metaphor … or virtual reality? Your brain doesn’t know whether you’re kicking … or just reading the metaphor ‘kick the habit.’ Image by Brooke Cagle

But what if they read, “The patient kicked the habit”? Or “The villain kicked the bucket”?

We know that descriptive words light up the brain. But do readers’ brains light up if they read metaphors? And what about clichés?

Metaphors stimulate the brain.

Yes … and no, according to a new area of neuroscience. For this research, volunteers in fMRI scanners read literal, metaphorical and idiomatic (clichéd) sentences.

The results?

“When you read action-related metaphors,” Valentina Cuccio, a philosophy postdoc at the University of Palermo, Italy, told IEEE Spectrum, “you have activation of the motor area of the brain.”

Same thing’s true of textural metaphors, according to a 2012 study at Emory University. Read “He has leathery hands,” and the part of your brain responsible for feeling textures — aka the somatosensory cortex — lights up.

The brain doesn’t respond to clichés.

But clichés? Does the motor cortex light up when people read, “The villain kicked the bucket”?

Not so much, says Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California. In 2006, Aziz-Zadeh and her team found that idioms such as “biting off more than you can chew” did not activate the motor cortex.

Rutvik Desai, an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, agrees. His team learned in 2011 that the more idiomatic the metaphor was, the less the motor system got involved.

“When metaphors are very highly conventionalized, as is the case for idioms,” Desai reported, “engagement of sensory-motor systems is minimized or very brief.”

So you could build your executive’s message around sad clichés like “breaking down the silos” and “taking it to the next level.” Just don’t expect your readers’ brains to respond.

Why use metaphor?

Theorists from Aristotle to contemporary academic researchers agree: There is power in metaphor.

Metaphor makes messages more:

  • Understandable. Our conceptual system is metaphorical, say researchers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. That means we can help people think — we can clarify complex concepts — through analogy.
  • Persuasive. Study after study shows that metaphoric language is more persuasive than literal language.
  • Believable. Ads with metaphors were 21% more credible than ads without them, according to a study by Mark F. Toncar and James M. Munch.
  • Important. Participants in the Toncar study saw ads with metaphors as 26% more important than ads with literal claims.
  • Memorable. Ads with metaphors were remembered almost twice as well as ads with literal descriptions in a study by Edward F. McQuarrie and David G. Mick.
  • Readable. An archival study of 854 ads showed that Starch Read Most scores — the percentage of people who read most of the ad — were higher for ads with a metaphor in the headline than with a literal headline. Audience members also may spend more time processing metaphors than just plain facts.
  • Likeable. Speakers and other communicators who use metaphors are deemed more appealing than those who do not. They’re seen to be more competent and dynamic and to have better character. And readers like metaphors because it feels good to figure them out.

Tip: Use this list next time one of your approvers wants to strip the metaphors out of your copy.

  • Make magic with metaphor

    It’s tempting to call metaphor the magic spell in a writer’s repertoire, the Penn and Teller of the page.

    Metaphor has the power to persuade far better than literal language. It lets you say in five words what would otherwise take five paragraphs to explain. It makes readers’ brains light up, helps them think more broadly about your message — even (ahem!) gives the illusion that the communicator is more attractive.

    But, as with other forms of magic, you’ll want to master a few tricks before you step onto the stage.

    At Portland creative writing workshopMaster the Art of the Storyteller — a two-day creative writing master class on July 25-26, 2018 in Portland — you’ll learn you’ll learn to craft analogies to make your material clearer and more compelling. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Take the ‘Numb’ Out of Numbers: Develop analogies that help your readers understand your statistics.
    • Cut clichés from your copy by replacing them with a creative substitute.
    • Bring your tired topics to life with comparisons.
    • Get an analogy during an interview by asking one simple question.
    • Craft a compelling metaphor with our simple, fill-in-the-blanks formula.

    Learn more about the Master Class.

    Register for Master the Art of Storytelling Workshop in Portland

    Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

    Would you like to hold an in-house Make Your Copy More Creative workshop? Contact Ann directly.


Sources: Michael Chorost, “Your Brain on Metaphors,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 1, 2014

Steven Cherry, “This Is Your Brain on Metaphor,” IEEE Spectrum, April 6, 2012

Steve Frandzel, Metaphors Make Sens(ory Experiences), The Academic Exchange, Emory University, May 11, 2012

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980

Edward F. McQuarrie and David G. Mick, “Visual and Verbal Rhetorical Figures under Directed Processing versus Incidental Exposure to Advertising,” Journal of Consumer Research, March 2003

Edward F. McQuarrie, ” The development, change, and transformation of rhetorical style in magazine advertisements 1954-1999,” Journal of Advertising, Dec. 22, 2002

David L. Mothersbaugh, Bruce A. Huhmann, George R. Franke, “Combinatory and Separative Effects of Rhetorical Figures on Consumers’ Efforts and Focus in Ad Processing,” Journal of Consumer Research, March 2002

Pradeep Sopory and James P. Dillard, “The Persuasive Effects of Metaphor: A Meta-Analysis,” Human Communication Research, July 2002

Nancy Spears, “On the use of time expressions in promoting product benefits: the metaphoric and the Literal,” Journal of Advertising, June 22, 2003

Mark F. Toncar and James M. Munch, “The Influence of Simple and Complex Tropes on Believability, Importance and Memory,” Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, December 31, 2003

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