March 21, 2013

Use Metaphors to Touch Your Fact Finders

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:

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As much as we celebrate thought and cognition, we still tend to experience the world in a tactile fashion, through our bodies. And as much as we celebrate innovation and originality, we still tend to understand the new in terms of what is already familiar. Putting the two together, a team composed of specialists in neurology, psychology, and rehabilitative medicine at Emory University have recently looked at the curious ability of some metaphoric language to be processed not just in the speech regions in the brain, but in those associated with bodily action as well. In particular, they looked at the ability of tactile metaphors — those that invoke the experience of touch — to activate the regions of the brain that are involved in the sensory experiences of touch. It appears that discussing a “smooth” landing, a “rough” experience, or a “pointed” comment doesn’t just lead the brain to consider the ideas suggested in that language, but leads the gray matter to process the touch-based experiences as well.
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The study (Lacey, Stilla & Sathian, 2012) is just one of many recent entries in the  genre of investigations referred to as “embodied cognition.” The notion that our mind and our body may not be as far apart as René Descartes believed, provides a new way of thinking about how we reason in a way that is more integrated, holistic, and human. Instead of being simply an abstract zone ruled by concepts, logic, and emotion, our mind is really a bodily extension using all our senses and faculties in order to perceive, to think, to decide, and to act. That evolving understanding has implications for anyone who works with words, and that includes litigators. Often needing to recreate events in the fact finders’ heads, or to tell a story in a way that helps listeners experience it and not just comprehend it, litigators need a good working understanding of their tools, and that means tracking the continuing advances in our ability to understand the complex ways that language works in the mind. And this is one way that might touch your fact finders literally…at least in a cognitive experience of what is literal. This post takes a look at the research and shares some examples of ways tactile metaphors might work in a number of litigation contexts. 
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Getting a Feel for the Research
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The research (Lacey, Stilla & Sathian, 2012) is really a case study since it focuses on only seven subjects. That is probably a record low for research considered in this blog, but you need to take the design into account and think about the quality versus the quantity. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery (fMRI) to measure blood flow to the brain, the researchers were able to directly observe the areas most active as the participants read a series of messages. They didn’t just rely on generalizations on what parts of the brain tend to be responsible for what kinds of processing and perception — a risky approach based on the degree of variation in how different individuals use their brains. Instead, the research team individually mapped the regions of each of the seven participants’ brains so they knew, for example, what parts of the brain would activate when the individual participant used their sense of touch to differentiate between the soft feeling of a feather and the rough surface of sandpaper.
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While hooked up to the fMRI apparatus, the subjects would read sentences containing either metaphoric language (“She had a rough day.”) or control language that conveyed the same thought but in descriptive terms (“She had a bad day.”). What they found was that touch words would activate the touch centers of the brain. So even in the case of common phrases that we might not even see as metaphors (like “smooth operator,” “slick salesman,” or “bristling response”), they still were able to feel it even as they understood it. Participants were also asked to push a button as soon as they understood the sentence, and interestingly, the subjects took slightly longer to understand the metaphoric language. That is not necessarily a bad thing though, since more time might indicate more cognitive processing and a greater chance for the listener to be engaged. The authors also cite research (Desai et al., 2011) suggesting that more novel expressions (those that aren’t well-worn sayings but instead surprise us, like “we had a fizzing time”) might lead to even more processing and brain activation since they’re less likely to be viewed as just content words divorced from the senses. 
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Touching Upon Some Litigation Uses of Tactile Metaphors
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Of course, this research is not about the grand strategic metaphor, as in “Here is my metaphor…can you feel it?” Instead, we’re talking about metaphoric expressions which are simply part of the small habits of speech that mark the difference between a colorful and evocative speaker on the one hand, and a bland and descriptive speaker on the other.  You might not even think of them as “metaphors” at all, but simply as descriptive adjectives. But still by invoking tactile sense, they function metaphorically and make the communication experience richer in the process. That’s been the belief at least since the time of the ancient rhetoricians, only now we have the brain data to support it. Or at least we have some early indications from a field that is bound to deepen as we learn more about how we understand and experience communication and expression (the researchers also expect to soon be looking at visual and proximity metaphors as well). 
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So, stepping a bit ahead of this research, let’s think about a few litigation uses of tactile metaphoric language: 
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… In a Products Case: 
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Federal regulations create a level playing field, but that doesn’t work when a company has an uneven commitment to the rules. 
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… In a Construction Case: 
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The owners pointedly requested project updates, but the GC bluntly refused. 
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…In a Patent Case: 
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The infringement claims are so fuzzy that it just calls out the invalidity. 
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…In an Employment Case: 
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Management knew the employee was abrasive, but they stuck with the improvement plan. 
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…In a Professional Malpractice Case: 
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Hindsight is always fluff, but the standard of care is solid
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…In an Energy Case: 
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Finding and producing natural gas is hard, especially when landowners only make a soft commitment. 
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…In a Contract Case: 
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The negotiations were smooth, but the breach was rough on everyone. 
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I’m having fun with the examples, but there is a broader point about metaphors, and that is all understanding is relational — we get the new in terms of the familiar, and in this case we understand the concept in terms of the senses. What a team: the mind and body working together to arrive at understanding. . 
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Lacey, S., Stilla, R., & Sathian, K. (2012). Metaphorically feeling: Comprehending textural metaphors activates somatosensory cortex. Brain and language.
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Photo Credit: Mutednarayan, Flickr Creative Commons

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