Study: Using metaphor helps us understand each other's minds

Metaphor makes you more empathetic, it seems: When subjects in a new study read metaphors, they got better at identifing the emotion in pictures of people's eyes.

Lately, novelists have been smugly thrilled by several studies finding that when we read fiction, we become more empathetic — better able to develop a "theory of mind" of other people, to grok their emotions and perspective. It's still not clear precisely why fiction might have that effect. But a new study poses one possible mechanism: Metaphor.

Why would metaphor render us more sensitive to other's delicate, rose-petaled internal lives? Because metaphors require social and emotional work to unpack. Back in 1978, the philosopher Ted Cohen suggested that when we use metaphors in conversation with each other, it's "a kind of concealed invitation" to the person we're talking to — and that person, in turn, "expends a special effort to accept the invitation". This creates a shared understanding of our minds.

Andrea Bowes and Albert Katz, researchers at the University of Western Ontario (my home province!), decided to test Cohen's hypothesis. So they ran a bunch of experiments where subjects were put into groups and exposed to language — some got metaphoric language, some didn't. ("Frank warned Kyle: 'watch your back around him'" versus "Frank warned Kyle: 'be careful what you say to him'", for example.) Then the subjects were given a Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), which challenges you to ascertain the emotions in a picture of someone's eyes, like the one above, or like his one:


The results? Those who'd been exposed to metaphor did considerably better at emotion-reading task than those who didn't. Even more interestingly, subjects who read snippets where two people talked to each other (like Frank and Kyle, above) said that Frank/Kyle couple that used metaphor seemed to be better pals than the ones who didn't. So on some level, we recognize that metaphor-use is a mark of intimacy. (The entire paper is free here and is quite fun to read, BTW.)

Bowes and Katz have their own ideas about why metaphor glues us to each other mentally. As Stephan Lewandowsky describes it:

What processes might underlie this phenomenon? Bowes and Katz focus on the simulation-theory approach according to which people "…use their own, sometimes fragmentary, bodily reactions to make inferences about others." That is, to understand what others are thinking or feeling we "simulate" their presumed responses using our own reference point, by imagining how we would react in that situation.

To enable comprehension of metaphors, people must rely on an extra-linguistic context consisting of past memories, thoughts, and emotions more than when they read literal text. Understanding how a hospital bed might resemble a taxi requires considerable processing and cultural context such as knowledge of the Marx brothers. In consequence, that additional processing primes people to "simulate" other people's emotions later on when they inspect the test faces.

Bowes highlights the importance of those results by noting that "The research explains why we speak differently with friends and family than with strangers, and [it] shows how we make friends and meet partners simply with the style of language we use."

"The results also stress the importance of literature in developing and understanding human empathy," adds Katz. "Reading fiction indeed promotes people's ability to identify the emotions or mental state of others."