Why Irony and Metaphor Are Good for You

Figurative Language and the Brain

irony sign
Note the handwritten comment at the bottom of this sign: "Irony, however, is encouraged.". (Ariel Mcalister / EyeEm/Getty Images)

If you have any interest in the figures of speech, I encourage you to read this fascinating article by Kenneth Krause in the July/August 2008 issue of The Humanist: "Mapping Metaphor: This Is Your Brain on Figurative Language." According to cognitive scientists who have been scanning our brains with functional MRI, irony and metaphor are significantly "more than an intellectual extravagance." They're actually good for us.

As it turns out, the ability to understand complex tropes "serves as a useful barometer of our personal and communal health."

Those of us on the humanities side of the cultural divide should welcome such scientific support for a view we've long taken for granted. Of course, all that rhetoricians have had to work with are inklings, hunches, and language. The scientists have access to functional magnetic resonance imaging (and much bigger budgets besides).

First off, we need to discard some of our hokey-pokey distinctions between left-brain and right-brain activities--specifically, the notion that language proficiency is the exclusive preserve of "a pair of knuckle-sized regions on the brain's left side called Broca's area and Wernicke's area." We should also be ready to qualify the view, first put forth 30 years ago, that when the brain's left hemisphere fails to make literal sense out of words, the right hemisphere jumps into metaphorical action. Research over the past decade has revealed that making sense out of figurative language is a bit more complicated than that.

Language Processing and Irony Deficiency

If you happen to have a dissected human brain handy, take a good look at the frontal lobe--in particular, the inferior frontal gyrus and, just below it, the superior temporal gyrus. (If a brain isn't available, just imagine a half-melted scoop of ice cream sitting on a plate.) According to a study reported in the January 2007 issue of NeuroImage, these are "key regions in the neuropathology of schizophrenia."

And what does that have to do with the processing of language? Well, if the two gyri (the ice cream and the plate) are out of whack, patients exhibit "the clinical symptom of concretism, reflected in the impaired understanding of non-literal, semantically complex language structures."

Put another way, they suffer from irony deficiency. And that's no joke.

As Krause points out, the medical implications of these recent studies are significant, especially for the millions of people struggling with schizophrenia and the millions more suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Mastering Metaphor

But these studies are important to students of language as well. By providing insights into the ways we comprehend words that are meant to convey something other than their literal meanings, cognitive research has given credence to Aristotle's ancient claim: "to be a master of metaphor . . . is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarities in dissimilarities."

Figurative language, then, is not merely decorative or ornamental--not just some sort of linguistic accessory. As Krause writes, it is "as much a fiber of our being as each of the countless neurons contained in our big, beautiful brains."

Further Reading

To learn more about the nature and power of figures and tropes, see these articles:

  • What Is Irony?
    "To say one thing but to mean something else"--that may be the simplest definition of irony. But in truth there's nothing at all simple about the rhetorical concept of irony. In this article, we've gathered a variety of definitions and interpretations of irony, both ancient and modern.
  • What Is a Metaphor?
    Some people think of metaphors as nothing more than the sweet stuff of songs and poems--Love is a jewel, or a rose, or a butterfly. But in fact all of us speak and write and think in metaphors every day. They can't be avoided: metaphors are built right into our language. Here we look at some of the different kinds of metaphors, with examples drawn from advertisements, poems, essays, songs, and TV programs.
  • What Is the Value of the Figures of Speech?
    Over a century ago, a popular Canadian novelist and professor of rhetoric, James De Mille, offered several good reasons for studying the figures of speech. Though we might word them a bit differently today, the points he made in 1878 still hold true.