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A (Metaphorical) Bridge Between Semantic Order and Chaos

Charting the semantic boundaries between great poetry and linguistic gibberish

"The Golden Gate Bridge as Seen from Fort Point on a Foggy Day" by Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.5
Source: "The Golden Gate Bridge as Seen from Fort Point on a Foggy Day" by Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.5

As a formula for cultivating the sort of visionary creativity necessary for writing great poetry, the French poet Arthur Rimbaud prescribed a “long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses.” While Rimbaud’s prescription was in large part a defense of the bohemian lifestyle which he rather infamously pursued, recent behavioral and neurocognitive studies of the processing of creative language provide a good deal of support for the role of “systematized disorganization” in poetry writing and other creative endeavors in language.

For the past twenty years, Miriam Faust and Yoed Kenett have been studying the “processing of novel metaphors taken from poetry compared to conventional metaphors, literal expressions, and meaningless, unrelated word-pairs.” Whether or not we make a habit of reading and writing poetry, we all use metaphors virtually every day of our lives. If we’ve ever found ourselves “at a crossroads” in regard to some decision we are facing, or made a “quantum leap” by choosing the more extreme course in that decision, or if we have justified the need for regular car maintenance by observing that “a stitch in time saves nine,” we have used metaphors. Such idiomatic expressions as these, however, are so familiar to us that we give little or no thought to their figurative character, drawing no conscious qualitative distinction between them and more literal expressions of the same ideas. But what if we encounter the description of a London evening as “a patient etherized upon a table,” or see faces of people in the subway compared with “petals on a wet black bough”? Faced with such strikingly unusual comparisons we realize immediately that we are “not in Kansas anymore” (figuratively speaking) and can almost feel our brains shift into another gear as we try to make sense out of them. It is this shift in gears—the difference between the way we process unconventional metaphors and the way we process literal language and conventional metaphors—that has occupied Faust and Kenett for the last couple of decades.

It is a widely—almost axiomatically, held perception that the right hemisphere of the human brain is more involved with certain types of creativity that the left hemisphere is. The basis for this perception is that the two cerebral hemispheres code semantic information in different ways. Right hemisphere mechanisms “are highly sensitive to distant, unusual semantic relations,” while left hemisphere mechanisms “strongly focus on a few closely related word meanings while suppressing distant and unusual meanings.”

The research of Faust and Kenett has shown that, in keeping with this distinction, the right cerebral hemisphere is more highly involved in the processing of novel, unconventional metaphors than is the left hemisphere. Contrary to the popular notion that such linguistic creativity is purely a right-brain phenomenon, however, their research indicates that the successful processing of unconventional metaphors is less a matter of division of labor between the two hemispheres than it is a collaborative effort.

Citing difficulties in semantic processing that occur when either hemispheric network operates in relative isolation from the other, Faust and Kenett propose a “rigidity-chaos semantic continuum” stretching between the two. At the left hemispheric extreme of the continuum lies a “hyper-rigid and rule-based semantic processing” such as is characteristic of people with Asperger’s Syndrome. At the right hemispheric extreme lies a “chaotic and over-flexible semantic activation” such as is characteristic of people with schizophrenia. According to the popular notion of right brain creativity, one might expect people on the right end of the continuum to be more successful at processing creatively unconventional language, but the work of Faust and Kenett with metaphors shows quite the contrary to be true. People at both extremes of the continuum have difficulty processing novel metaphors, although for very different reasons. When presented with two pairs of words or phrases—one a novel metaphor from poetry, and the other a semantically unrelated pair of words or phrases—people on the “rigidity” end cannot distinguish between them because they see neither pair as being meaningful. Both appear to be equally nonsensical. Presented with the same two pairs of words or phrases, people on the “chaos” end of the continuum similarly have trouble distinguishing between them, but rather than viewing neither pair as meaningful, they view both pairs—including the semantically unrelated pair—as being meaningful.

Faust and Kenett use network science to distinguish the two opposing semantic states. A rigid network is “strongly ordered and minimally random,” and lacks the “activation of wide, flexible associative” connections necessary to process unconventional semantic associations. Such rigidity hinders processing of non-literal language such as metaphor. A chaotic network, on the other hand, is “very highly connected and very little organized,” making it “random, or nearly random.” The sort of “loose associations” entailed by such extreme and random network connectivity creates difficulty in distinguishing completely unrelated concepts from novel, but meaningful, conceptual associations.

Successful processing of metaphoric and other creative uses of language requires a “semantic integration” of the two extremes. The “rule-based semantic system” of the left hemisphere facilitates quick processing of literal meanings or highly conventional metaphors, but when confronted with semantic relations that are “distant and unusual,” such as unconventional metaphors, the more rigid system of the left hemisphere requires a “complimentary neural system that is able to cope with the potential rule violations.”

The sort of linguistic creativity involved in metaphor processing, then, is neither a “left brain” nor a “right brain” phenomenon. To make sense of, or rather to find the sense within, semantically creative language requires an integration between the rigidity of the one, and the chaos of the other. Or, as Rimbaud put it, a “systematized disorganization” is required both for writing poetry and for reading it.