The magic of metaphors
Adela Talbot | May 19, 2015Love 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.” Measuring emotional insight 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. While reading literature is often cited for higher levels of empathy, reading metaphors, specifically, is responsible for this boost, Katz explained. A longer version of this story was originally published by Western University. It has been edited for clarity, accuracy and brevity, and is republished here with permission.