Reading_taste_metaphors_web

Sweet talk

Writers, speakers, and editors around the world are constantly looking for the right words to engage their audience. This often manifests in some of the worst punning life has to offer, and sub-editors are the worst offenders. Consider for instance the real life case where a group of aquatic mammals were killing pet fish and chickens in a small English village; the headline offered by one newspaper sub-editor was “Otter Devastation”. As a public we have become accustomed to pun-driven journalism but now a new study has shown that what headlines, or any piece of communication, really requires to grab your attention, is a bit of taste.

When you think about it we use words related to taste very readily in the imagery of everyday life. How often do you say things like, “Isn’t he sweet” or perhaps “She has an acid tongue” or even “He can be quite bitter”? It turns out there is a very good reason for this tangy tendency to spice up our language with taste metaphors and imagery.

The new study comes from researchers at Princeton University and the Free University of Berlin who had subjects read words related to taste and also read sentences that included imager based on taste like “she looked at him sweetly”. On other occasions they showed them similar sentences without the taste metaphor so the previous sentence would become “she looked at him kindly”.

Brain scans revealed that sentences containing words that relate to taste caused activation in areas of the brain associated with emotional processing like the amygdala, as well as activating areas known as the gustatory cortices that are involved in the physical act of tasting. Interestingly, it was only when the taste words were used in metaphors contained in sentences that these effects were generated. The taste words on their own did not cause the emotional activation that taste related metaphors did.

It seems clear as the Hebridean sky on a cool spring morning that the brain processes imagery in a different way to the way it Deals with literal language. So for speech writers and prose authors alike the evidence is there to savour; use taste based imagery in your work and you will spice it up making syrup of your audience’s emotions and leaving them ripe for your message.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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