Study eyes power of the metaphor

Special to Western News

Love may have been the only battlefield for 1980s rocker Pat Benatar, but understanding that metaphor may be at the true heart of the human condition, according to Western researchers.

Love is a battlefield, according to a 1983 hit by Pat Benatar. But there’s much more to it than that. The metaphor at the heart of this song – or any metaphor, for that matter – has the power to elicit empathy.

According to a new study by Western Psychology professor Albert Katz and colleague Andrea Bowes, reading metaphors significantly increases one’s ability to interpret the emotional state of another individual simply by looking at the person’s eyes.

In other words, reading, using and interpreting metaphors has the potential to bring us closer to someone else.

The paper, Metaphor creates intimacy and temporarily enhances theory of mind, appeared in the March issue of Memory & Cognition.

“To understand metaphor, you have to understand the intent of another person, partly because there’s an ambiguity there, and (the person) could mean to say multiple things,” said Katz, who is a cognitive psychologist.

“There might be something in the comprehension of the sentence itself which orients you to try and figure out why would someone say that, or what do they mean when they say that, and that might be what is still active (in the mind) when doing the eye test.”

The ‘eye test’ Katz refers to is the measure he used with undergraduate students as part of the study. Katz and Bowes conducted three different experiments, asking students to read sentences and paragraph-long short stories, some of which contained a metaphor, and some of which were expressed entirely in plain language. Immediately after, students were asked to look at an image of a person’s eyes and pick one of four adjectives to indicate the emotion expressed in the eyes.

“What we tend to find is, when people read the metaphor, they actually did better on (the eye test), which is ostensibly an unrelated task,” Katz said.

Experts refer to one’s ability to understand what another person might be feeling or thinking as ‘Theory of Mind.’ The test used by Katz and Bowes to measure Theory of Mind is called the Reading the Mind in the Eye Test (RMET), in which participants have to correctly identify the emotions or mental state displayed in black-and-white photographs of 36 pairs of eyes.

The general public, barring certain cognitive conditions or diagnoses, including forms of autism, can be expected to perform reasonably well on the RMET. But metaphor appears to boost the results, according to Katz and Bowes’ study.

“What we found is, students who read the metaphor did better on this task,” Katz said. “We also gave them a sentence and asked them to write a paragraph-sized passage where that sentence would be used as a metaphor or as a sincere statement. When we did that, we found they created, not surprisingly, different types of passages and the types of passages they created had more emotion in them, and had more social interactions in them.

“And once again, when they were given the eye test, they did better.”

Even if the students were given no context – that is no paragraph, just one metaphorical sentence, like, ‘the moon is a balloon’ – they still performed better on the eye test than the control group that read plain language statements.

“In some sense, this wasn’t an accident. We did (the study) because there’s some research that suggests metaphor creates intimacy between people. A study in the 1990s, in the U.S., showed just reading metaphor, people see themselves as more intimate with another character,” Katz added.

“There’s some social cognitive network being activated and it’s being activated in multiple ways, including metaphor, because it creates this intimacy between people.

Most of the work on metaphor and other types of non-literal language is interested in how you process it – how you go from surface meaning of a sentence to its underlying meaning? That’s where most research is done, he continued.

“There’s a smaller group of literature on why you even use it. And there’s a very small group looking at what metaphor does, how metaphor creates social bonds between people.”

While reading literature is often cited for higher levels of empathy, reading metaphors, specifically, is responsible for this boost, Katz explained.