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The anatomy of a metaphor

"She was feeling very sad."
"She was drowning in a sea of grief."

The two statements mean exactly the same thing. And yet, they evoke very different feelings in us when we read them.

My communicative style (while talking and emailing) is generally quite literal. I don't exaggerate and embellish and try to keep things very simple. I tend to use metaphorical language only while writing (less in blog posts, more in fiction) and more recently while doing standup comedy.

"She was feeling very sad." - literal statement
"She was drowning in a sea of grief." - metaphorical statement

I have seen the effect metaphors can have first-hand, which makes them such strong communication tools, and yet refrained from using them in my day-to-day communication due to game theoretical implications. "If I use a lot of metaphors, the person I'm talking to might think I'm exaggerating things because they understand how metaphors work, so I stick to a more literal language."

But I've been reading a few books in the recent weeks about the functioning of the brain works and how we process inputs, especially language-related inputs, and have had an (re)awakening about the use of metaphors.

The way we process language is not necessarily by stripping the words down to their meaning and then filing away our reaction to them.

When we hear some words, we have a prior experience or feeling that we can associate a set of words to, and when we hear them in a new context, similar emotions and reactions are evoked in us and we associate the new input with the similar experience we have filed away in our brains from before.

For instance, in the example I used above, we know how horrible 'drowning in a sea' is either through first-hand experience or second-hand experience. And when we hear 'She was drowning in a sea of grief', even though we understand that it is a metaphor to mean that 'She is very sad', we equate the gravity of her feeling to that of drowning in the sea. Whereas, when we hear 'She was feeling very sad', we don't have the same strong association.

This is used both to our advantage and to our detriment in the copy of Internet products, advertisements and many other forms of communication. And of course, we are affected by this constantly in our day-to-day communication.

It is a powerful tool indeed. Use it where you see fit and see through the facade where you think the situation doesn't merit it. 

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