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The Psychological Significance of Metaphor

Metaphors can understand what people have been through or what others have experienced. (Young, 2001). In this way, people can understand some important parts of an event they would normally not understand because metaphors can draw one’s attention to somewhere else. This also enables people to construct their perception of reality in a different way. To use a metaphor, the words said cut deeper than a knife, can be an example of how talking in a nonliteral way can change reality. Metaphors allow people to view experiences differently. Moreover, people use metaphors every day in their lives because thinking is metaphorical. People use metaphors in their daily life consciously, however, metaphors can exist in the unconscious mind as the act of dreaming as well. Dreams are a way to show people’s unfulfilled wishes, according to Freud. There are two types of verbal metaphors, which can be divided into common and uncommon metaphors. A common metaphor means that the metaphor can be used in a language by a lot of people.

Researchers investigated whether common metaphors can be found in two unrelated languages, such as Japanese and German. From one hundred and six examples of similar metaphors in both the languages, the researchers have concluded that this cannot be a

coincidence because the number of similar metaphors is high, even considering the cross-cultural differences between these countries. The reason that they considered cultural differences is that cross-cultural differences would make the similarity between metaphors harder to occur. Primary experiences in human life provide universal metaphors that everyone in the world uses because the experiences and feelings of people from similar events are the same. From this point of view, the feelings and events that every human has experienced create universal and common metaphors. However, these metaphors still hold the weight of subjectivity, hence the importance of further dissection of meaning becomes important. Uncommon metaphors are the other part of verbal metaphors. These are also called creative metaphors because they are used and created by people for a particular subject to express themselves. Different interpretations of the same metaphor show that every person interprets the metaphor according to their past experiences, ethnicity, religion, culture, perspective, etc. (Gibbs Jr., 2010). If they had to interpret one another’s metaphor, their comments would be different from each other. Interpreting a metaphor without asking the person what they actually mean would be an unsuccessful attempt, especially in terms of uncommon metaphors.

In conjunction with the verbal metaphors, there are also symbolic metaphors. Symbolic metaphors are similar to dreams, yet they differ from linguistic metaphors. Metaphors are nonverbal when they obtain meaning from anything other than words, such as dancing. Another example of nonverbal metaphors is that children use nonverbal metaphors all the time while playing games.

The usage of metaphors starts at the age of four and continues throughout life; only the type of

metaphors that are used change and their variety increases in the process.

Metaphors can change and differ over cultures, time, location, etc., as Kovecses mentioned in an article (2005). For example, Hungarian and English-language users say

that love is kind of a journey, while the Chinese language uses the metaphor of a kite that is flying when they want to talk about love (Yang, 2002)

People who speak the Hmong language see life as a string, whereas people who are from other cultures view it more like a struggle than a string (Riddle, 2000). Another cultural difference between countries and languages is that there are some metaphors in one language that cannot be used meaningfully in another language. For example, the metaphor of "flowers in the heart" is seen as happiness in the Chinese language, but people who speak English do not use this metaphor in their daily lives.

This cultural difference between metaphors is also significant for students who go to universities abroad and listen to lectures from professors who use the local language’s metaphors (Littlemore, 2001). It has been found that international students often understand the metaphor

that is used by the professor in the wrong way because they interpret the metaphor differently compared to national students who know the meaning better than they do. This results in misunderstandings in the lesson, and the international students experience difficulties with the topic. In addition to that, the reason why different languages’ metaphors differ from each other is that different cultures value different events.

People should not interpret another person’s metaphors, and this is also applicable to therapists while they are talking with their patients in a therapeutic context. Normally, metaphors are devices that both help the patient and the therapist because they allow exploration of the inner thoughts of the patient. Metaphors should be elaborated carefully in the therapeutic context. The reason is that the metaphors that the client has used should not be interpreted by the therapist in such a way as to cause any misunderstandings. The therapist should be able to meet the patient on his level and provide symbolic metaphors (Aleksandrowicz, 1962). However, they should not interpret the patient's metaphors. The crucial factor to note regarding metaphors is that no one should interpret another person's metaphor because the metaphor's meaning is subjective, even though the metaphor is considered a universal metaphor. When someone interprets another person's metaphor, they rob that person of the opportunity to discover themselves and the meaning behind what they have said. This is especially true in the relationship between the therapist and the patient. The therapist should listen to the metaphors the patient uses, but they should ask what that metaphor means to the patient, otherwise the interpretation would not be correct.


This Blog on 'The Psychological Significance of Metaphor' has been contributed by Abhinav Rai.

Abhinav has completed his undergraduate from Delhi University, Hindu College in English Literature. He loves to research and write about everything from seemingly trivial ideas to broad larger-than-life concepts that transcend human grasp. He finds linguistics and psychology incredibly fascinating and wishes to continue research in these fields. He is a wallflower that often builds his bridge to the world through words, metaphors, and interpretations.

He is part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP). GIRP is an IJNGP initiative to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.


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