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”Speaking your mind”: analysis locates brain areas for understanding metaphors in healthy and schizophrenic people
Scientists have used MRI scanners to discover the parts of
the brain which understand metaphors, in both healthy volunteers and people
with schizophrenia. They found that people with schizophrenia employ
different brain circuits to overcome initial lack of understanding. The
researchers hope this identification of brain reactions and affected areas
may help people with schizophrenia to better comprehend metaphors in everyday
speech. This work is presented at the ECNP congress in Copenhagen.
People with schizophrenia have often problems in understanding some common
figurative expressions, such as humour, irony, and spoken metaphors. They
tend to take the metaphor at its literal meaning (for example, “a leap in the
dark” may imply jumping and darkness for someone with schizophrenia): it may
take some time for them to arrive at an understanding of what the metaphor is
meant to imply. There has been little attempt to understand why this might be
so at a neurological level.
A group of Polish and Czech researcher examined 30 patients who had been
diagnosed with schizophrenia and 30 healthy controls. While undergoing a
brain scan in a high-sensitivity MRI, they read 90 brief stories. 30 of the
stories had a metaphorical ending, 30 had an absurd/nonsense ending, and 30
had a neutral ending (i.e. a literal ending). The scientists monitored brain
activity while the subjects were reacting to the stories.
They found that compared to controls, the patient group showed increased
brain activity in certain areas, but lower brain activity in others. For
example, the healthy group showed brain activation in the prefrontal cortex
(near the front of the brain) and left amygdala (at the centre of the brain,
near the top of the brain stem), implying that these are the brain areas
where metaphors are normally processed. Instead, schizophrenia patients
showed a decreased activation in the temporal suculus (an area ascending from
the low central brain towards the back of the head).
Researcher Martin Jáni, from the Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland
“Previous researchers studied brain areas that are connected to
impaired metaphor understanding in schizophrenia, so comparing metaphors with
literal statements. However, by adding the absurd punchline, we were able to
explore the stage at which the deficit occurs. We also used everyday
metaphors, which would be easily understood.
We found that biggest changes in brain activity in schizophrenia
patients occur during the basic stage of metaphor processing, that is when a
person needs to recognize there is incongruity between the opening sentence
and the punchline. These activated areas of the brain are very different to
the brain areas activated in healthy patients, as if the brain is struggling
to find a compensatory mechanism, to bypass the circuits normally used to
It’s likely that this inability to understand the sort of
conventional metaphors we use in everyday life is socially isolating for
people with schizophrenia. While this at the research stage, our hope is that
we can develop practical skills in patients with schizophrenia – and indeed
the people who know them - which will help them understand the speech
the way it was intended”.
Commenting, Dr Emilio Fernandez-Egea, University of Cambridge said;
"Understanding the neural basis of social cognition are of
great relevance for people with schizophrenia. These deficits are often
overlooked, despite the impact on the general functioning and in the ability
to find and maintain social relationship and work. Expanding our knowledge of
this often neglected domain will Improve the recovery process in this
is an independent comment; Dr Fernandez-Egea was not involved in this work.
The metaphors themselves were commonly used in everyday Polish speech. They
were incorporated in brief stories, such as:
On the street, man on the bike accidentally hits a pedestrian “I am sorry,
are you alright?” asked the cyclist, to which the pedestrian replied “No, I
am sorry, I shouldn't walk with my head in the clouds”.
Comment: People with schizophrenia had more difficulty in pulling the
metaphorical meaning away from the literal “head in the clouds” meaning.
A man comes back home after unusually long day at work. His partner asks “Why
are you so late? The dinner is already cold” He replies “I am very sorry. I
had to finish an important project”.
Comment: This is literal – there’s no hidden meaning here.
Two colleagues are talking at work. One says “I can't believe that John is
earning money than me for the same position!” The other says “The copy
machine broke yesterday”.
Comment; In this case the reply is not relevant to the question.