Ilana Simons

Ilana Simons Ph.D.

The Literary Mind


How Metaphors in Novels Relate to Empathy

Reading is exercise in perspective taking, in empathy

Posted Aug 15, 2012

Something intimate happens with the right metaphor in fiction. There is an emotion or idea. Instead of describing it directly, the author leads the reader through an intricate series of thoughts: You evoke one set of experiences and compare them to another. You have to draw on lived experiences to draw the connection. If this movement is orchestrated well, it produces a familiarity with experience that can feel like intimacy.

I like a line from Aimee Bender’s novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: “Light is good company, when alone; I took my comfort where I found it, and the warmest yellow bulb in the living-room lamp had become a kind of radiant babysitter all its own.” 

Her metaphor describes loneliness: You might imagine sitting with a babysitter—and the thought of having a person beside you whose job it is to think of you, a close body that protects you from danger, is meant to map the experience of sitting next to a yellow lightbulb when lonely. This is a comparison of one experience to another, and if we can follow the detailed trail from one set of feelings to the other set, it’s moving. Literally: She moves us into a feeling.

I’m wondering how metaphors in literature relate to empathy in general. Our experience of empathy has a sensory, or mechanical, component to it: That is, when I see someone burn her hand, my own somatosensory cortex, the area of my brain that fires when I burn my own hand, triggers; that’s how I recreate her feeling inside me. Or when a friend describes being scared, my motor neurons can fire and cause me to raise my own eyebrows in an expression of fear. Empathy is the body’s ability to create an experience from imagining the triggers. Your body produces a felt experience from a set of visual or spoken cues. Tracing a metaphor in a book is a similar thing: You construct an experience from the instructions offered in an analogy. 

We know that reading exercises our skills of empathy (see one study on empathy and reading here). Reading is certainly practice in perspective taking. A good reader practices recreating felt experience while sitting somewhere quietly on her own. A good reader practices comparisons and acts of constructive imagination. She also routinely experiences the excited sensation of feeling close to another human being.

For more on the links between psychology’s understanding of empathy and literature’s presentation of experience, see Laura McCullough’s book, The Mirror Neuron Effect: Cognitive Science and the Aesthetic Experience in Literature and the Humanities; it talks about the connection between the science of motor neurons and poetry.