Metaphor and Meaning (Consumer Understanding #9)

Mar 18 2011

Sensory thinking

The senses inform much of our language, as the dominant source of our experiences.  We all use words related to different senses to express ourselves (I can see your point, I hear you, I was touched by a thought), and some theories (eg NLP) claim that we have different preferences for the sensory modalities (I hear what you’re saying vs I see what you’re saying).  Thus, the senses truly help us to create our everyday expressions.

The senses, and the interactions between them, are also a basis of our creativity.  Some of you reading this article are synaesthetic (by some estimates synaesthesia is experienced by 1 in 23 adults), and all of you are likely to have experienced synaesthesia as a young baby.  Synaesthesia is much more common in artists and creatives than in the general population.  For example, Wassily Kandinsky (see above) was synaesthetic as was Richard Feynman (one of the more creative scientists), who once said, “When I see equations, I see the letters in colors – I don’t know why. As I’m talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions, with light-tan j’s, slightly violet-bluish n’s, and dark brown x’s flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.”

Specialisation means less connectivity

Latest theories suggest that we are born with many more connections in our brain than we eventually have as adults – so there is a lot more cross-wiring when we are born than in later life.  As we get older many of these connections are cut, focusing our brain on specific sensory inputs in specific areas.  That is, our brain does not start specialized, but only specializes as we grow older (think about our discussion of brain plasticity).  Those with synaesthesia perhaps have less drastic reduction of these connections, or find some use for them (in the creative sphere).

People who take psychoactive substances such as LSD can also experience some of the similar “trip” like experiences of synesthetes.  Synaesthesia is cross-activation between different sensorial areas of the brain, literally a blending of the senses, with a strong emotional component linked to such connections.

Now look at the figures below, and figure out which is Bouba and which is Kiki?

We are all synaesthetes

If you are like 99% of other people (across cultures), you will name the sharp, pointy shape as Kiki (a sharp, pointy sound), and the soft, rounded edges of the other shape as Bouba (a soft, rounded sound).  This is just one example of the way in which we all retain some mixing of the senses, and constantly use analogies (metaphors) in our speech.  We talk about loud shirts, smooth tastes, bright sounds and sweet music, and synaesthesia sheds light on some of the most basic qualities of human thought and creativity.

Cross-sensory integration is important, and junctions within the brain bring together information about touch, hearing and vision to enable the construction of ‘higher level’ concepts.  For example a cat purrs and is fluffy, it has a certain appearance, and fishy breath. All of which are evoked by the memory of a cat.

Metaphorically speaking

There are even connections between the sound and shape of words and their meaning in normal language, perhaps showing a sense of the history of how language developed.  Latest theories of the mind indicate that we learn (and create new things) by making connections or analogies across domains.  In fact, metaphor is the basis of our mental operations, our memory and how we predict.  Our minds search for common patterns and use these to predict and control our environment.

More practically, metaphors are often used in marketing to communicate the fundamental values of brands.  Deep Metaphors are unconscious “structures of human thought”. They manifest themselves in surface metaphors used in everyday language. Deep metaphors can be used in a marketing context to help us communicate more effectively to consumers about a brand, product, or topic with the same viewing lens.

Gerald Zaltman uses metaphors as the basis of his research to understand deeper beliefs and thinking patterns, and has written about seven (7) fundamental metaphors which are commonly used across cultures and categories: balance, transformation, journey, container, connection, resource and control.  These metaphors have a strong connection to the universal human traits we discussed in an earlier article.  Our love of stories, myths and movies is simply a love of extended metaphors.

Mixing and matching

Our senses are constantly blending to create patterns which are the basis of creative thinking and of the metaphors which help us to tie many different thoughts and ideas together into a useful information and prediction system.  Metaphors are part of our everyday language, but also reflect our deepest emotions and the highest levels of our conceptual thinking, making them a powerful marketing tool and in important lever for researchers to access the most fundamental drivers of human behaviour.

If you would like to learn more, join one of our workshops or contact us here.


The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran (2011)

Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal about the Minds of Consumers by Gerald Zaltman & Lindsay Zaltman (2008)

The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language by Mark Turner (1996)

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