Break Through to a Breakthrough

Embodying creative metaphors can lead to creative thinking.

Posted Aug 20, 2018

Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

Have you ever told someone to “show some backbone” or “keep a stiff upper lip” when you wanted to inspire courage or fortitude?  Has something ever made you so mad that you had to keep your anger “bottled up” inside you to keep it from “boiling over”?  Have you fallen “head over heels” for someone, and yet kept him or her “at arm’s length” because you were afraid of “getting your heart broken.”  Has anyone ever given you “the cold shoulder” because you “rubbed” him or her “the wrong way”?  Regardless of how many of the above behaviors you may or may not have actually engaged in, if you have ever used any of the familiar phrases with which they are described, you have engaged in figurative language use.

A figure of speech is, of course, a word or phrase used in a non-literal sense to describe some concept or action in a particularly colorful or memorable way.  If you complain to a friend, for instance, about someone on the subway who “talked your ear off” on the way home from work, your friend will know without having to look that neither one of your ears is actually missing, but that you are really, really tired from having to endure a prolonged one-sided conversation from which you could not escape.  Most such figures of speech are so familiar to us that we typically see right through their literal content to the figurative meaning they are intended to convey, but a growing body of research indicates that focusing attention on the figure itself—on the severed ear rather than the abstract concept of garrulousness—can have a profound and even beneficial influence on the way we perceive reality and process information.

“Embodied cognition” is the theory that mental processes in human beings are to a large extent shaped by our concrete bodily experiences, just as our bodily processes are influenced by what goes on in our mind (matter over mind, as well as mind over matter).  Researchers in the field of embodied cognition have designed studies to explore how our minds respond to an “embodiment” of the literal content of various figures of speech—metaphors in particular.  One study, for example, “embodied” the metaphor “thinking outside of the box” by having participants complete a Remote Associates Task, designed to measure creativity, either inside or outside of a 5’ x 5’ cardboard box.  Consistent with the figurative meaning of the metaphor, participants who worked “outside of the box” scored higher on the test than those who completed the task inside of it.  Embodying the metaphor literally promoted the kind of creative thinking that is figuratively denoted by the expression.

In a more recent study designed to examine the creative impact of imaginatively embodying a metaphor, virtual reality technology was used to embody the metaphorical expression “breaking the rules” which, like “thinking outside of the box,” is associated with creativity.  Participants “walked” through a virtual reality series of corridors while completing an alternative uses task (a task which measures divergent thinking by requiring people to generate as many “unusual and original uses as possible for common objects”).  For half of the participants, the corridors through which they moved contained walls that they had to break down in order to proceed forward.  The other half of the participants faced no such obstacles as they proceeded through the course.  As with the embodied “thinking outside of the box” metaphor, the participants who were forced to virtually break through a wall in order to continue their forward progress showed an increase in creativity relative to the participants in the “no-break” group, scoring higher on both originality and flexibility in the alternative uses task.  The virtually embodied act of breaking through barriers promoted literal breakthroughs in creative thinking.

When we hear the word “metaphor,” we typically think of poetry and other forms of creative writing, which we imagine to be the almost exclusive domain of such figurative uses of language.  And while it is true that creative writers do rely heavily upon metaphor to give concrete expression to abstract concepts, our own daily experience brings us into contact with nearly as many metaphorical expressions as we would encounter in a given poem or short story.  Because of our familiarity with such common figurative expressions as “thinking outside of the box” and “breaking the rules,” however, we tend to overlook the striking and quite often intensely physical imagery of the expressions themselves and pass directly to the abstract concepts they signify.  Embodying such metaphors through physical action, virtual reality, or even our imaginations can close the gap between the image and the concept, allowing us to fulfill the figurative meaning of the metaphor by directly experiencing the image that represents it.

So the next time you face a problem that calls for a creative and original approach, instead of figuratively proclaiming that it’s time to think outside the box or break the rules, go find (or imagine) a nice rigid box or wall, and stand outside of it or smash it to the ground as you mull the problem over.  You may surprise yourself with the solution you come up with.


Leung, A. K. Y., Kim, S., Polman, E., Ong, L. S., Qiu, L., Goncalo, J. A., & Sanchez-Burks, J. (2012). "Embodied Metaphors and Creative 'Acts.'" Psychological Science, 23(5), 502-509.

Wang, Xinyue, Lu, Kelong, Runco, Mark A., & Hao, Ning. “Break the ‘Wall’ and Become Creative: Enacting Embodied Metaphors in Virtual Reality.” Consciousness and Cognition, 62 (2018), 102-109.