This is Your Brain on Figurative Language: Behavioral Science Offers a Whole New Way of Thinking about Metaphors and Similes

You know what a simile is, right? A metaphor? If you’ve ever sat through high school English, you can probably join me in this explanation.

A simile is a comparison that uses “like” or “as.”

A metaphor is a comparison that does NOT use “like” or “as.”

Now that we’re all on the same page, though, I have to offer a confession.

I taught figurative language using these two definitions for a huge chunk of my teaching career, never realizing that I was stuck in a rut.

These textbook explanations blocked me from seeing that symbolic language was much deeper than the way I was teaching it. Then, recently, I read something that turned everything I thought I knew on its head.

The excerpt below is from a book by Robert Sapolsky, who is such a respected scientists that even other scientists put him on a pedestal. It’s called, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Sapolsky is not a poet. But when I read this, it hit me with the force of great poem.

Before you read it, though, I want to ask you not to take notes. Don’t try to capture everything on paper.

Just sit back, block out other distractions, put your student hats on, and let Robert Sapolsky drop some poetic science on you.

Excerpt on figurative language from Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, By Robert M. Sapolsky, p.557-559

 The height of the symbolic features of language is our use of metaphor. And this is not just flourish metaphors, when we declare life is a bowl of cherries. Metaphors are everywhere in language – we may be literally and physically “in” a room, but we are only metaphorically inside something when we are “in” a good mood, “in” cahoots with someone, “in” luck, a funk, a groove, or love. We are only metaphorically standing under something when we “understand it.*

….Language is always a metaphor, transferring information from one individual to another by putting thoughts into words, as if words were shopping bags.**

…Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when ordering all of them on deck, that Kafka’s Metamorphosis isn’t really about a cockroach, and that June doesn’t really bust out all over…. We learn that the orchestral sounds constituting the 1812 Overture represent Napoleon getting his a– kicked when retreating from Moscow. And that “Napoleon getting his a– kicked” represents thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.

… These capacities evolved so recently that our brains are…. pretty lousy at distinguishing between the metaphorical and the literal, at remembering that “it’s only a figure of speech” – with enormous consequences for our best and worst behaviors.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst By Robert M. Sapolsky, p.557-559


*Boroditsky, Lera. “How Language Shapes Thought.” Scientific American, vol. 304, no. 2, 2011, pp. 62–65. JSTOR, JSTOR,

**G. Lakoff and M. Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980)

And now, for your assignment

Now that you’ve read Sapolsky’s excerpt, reread the introduction to this post. Try to find examples of hidden figurative language.

There are at least 15 examples, and not all of them are traditional metaphors and similes.

See how many you can spot.

Teachers: Want a full lesson plan to teach this to your students?

You’ll find a full figurative language lesson plan based on this Robert Sapolsky quote on Teachers Pay Teachers.

The lesson plan includes:

  • The intro full of hidden figurative language.
  • An answer key that highlights all 17 examples of figurative language in the intro.
  • Behavioral scientist Robert Sapolsky’s explanation of how figurative language works in our brains.
  • Writing prompts and ideas for expanding the lesson to fill a 45-minute class period or 90-minute block.
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