While the study I share in this blog is fascinating for many reasons–the most compelling for me being that language isn’t “in” just one hemisphere of the brain–it is the focus on the metaphor of the map or atlas that intrigues me in this article.
The article, and presumably the scientists involved in the study, speak of the brain as a “region” that can be “mapped”. The article also switches between “reading” and decoding” writing that the study has created a “semantic atlas” or “directory” for understanding how language is grouped in the brain. Through the help of an MRI, the scientists have gathered evidence that seems to support that language is understood through many areas of the brain rather than being limited to a few areas in the left hemisphere. This could, after further research, aid in treating brain disorders and injuries that have affected language.
Additionally, the brain is often spoken of as “lighting” up when in an MRI. Metaphors to explain knowledge and learning, in a broader sense, often rely on metaphors of light to explain the thinking process. A lightbulb over a thinker’s head or being called “bright” if you are seen as smart.
“By putting together information from all seven participants, with the help of a statistical model, the researchers created a brain atlas, a 3D model of the brain that shows what brain areas lit up at the same time among all the participants.” (emphasis added).
But in fact, this “lighting” up is due to the imaging devices creating a way for the human to see what is happening in the brain, but leaves a reader with the feeling that the brain is a colorful, lively organ. It is in fact quite plain and gray.
And to return to the above metaphors, can a human brain be mapped? This brings to a mind a 2D surface and the brain is definitely not two dimensional. It is its peculiar form that gives us the brain power we have: lots of surface area crammed into a small place: the brain is between 233 to 465 square inches. To fit into the small space of the skull, the cortex is folded forming folds (gyri) and grooves (sulci). You could flatten it mathematically and transform that space to 2D, but what does this do for advancing our understanding? I also know that metaphors are used to communicate scientific findings to a lay audience, so perhaps those trained in scientific and medical fields would have greater access to what these findings mean without having to resort to metaphor.
Regardless, do these metaphors help more broadly in thinking through what the brain does and why? I have become sensitive to the role of metaphor in past research, and I wonder, especially in this featured article rife with mixed metaphors, what work they are doing in shaping the way we research those very things we are speaking of metaphorically. Are there better metaphors for the brain and its function that would further our knowledge? In other words, are the very ways we talk about the brain keeping us from formulating research programs that better fit what we need from these studies? To use the map metaphor, can we get from place A to place B?