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Sweet Words – Taste Metaphors Elicit More Emotion in Readers than Literal Expressions

Study by Researchers at Freie Universität Berlin and Princeton University on Effect of Metaphors Involving Food and Taste

№ 208/2014 from Jun 05, 2014

When taste metaphors are used in a sentence, the reader is more affected emotionally than when reading a sentence with the same statement expressed literally. This was found in a study by two researchers at Freie Universität Berlin and Princeton University. The neuroscientist Dr. Francesca Citron and the linguist Prof. Dr. Adele Goldberg found that silent reading of simple metaphorical sentences such as "The separation was bitter for him" elicited enhanced activation in regions of the brain that have to do with taste compared to their literal counterparts, i.e., "The separation was bad for him. Most interestingly, there was also increased activity in regions associated with the processing of emotion. The researchers concluded that even conventional metaphors such as "sweet" for "nice" or "bitter" for "displeased" are more emotionally engaging than literal expressions. The results of the study have been published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

This is the first neuroscience study to look at figurative language related to taste. The study used 37 simple metaphorical sentences and their literal counterparts, which differed by only a single word, such as "She received a sweet compliment" versus "She received a nice complement." The experiment was conducted in Berlin, with German native speakers and with German sentences. They were matched in terms of length, familiarity, imageability, emotional valence, and emotional arousal.

The researchers recorded participants’ brain activity as they silently read these sentences. As a control, they also presented the participants with the critical words in isolation at the end of the experiment. This control condition was meant to make sure the gustatory (i.e., taste-related) brain regions were also active when participants read literal words about taste (for example, interpreting “sweet” as “sugary”), and they were.

Francesca Citron surmises that "It is possible that metaphors are more emotionally engaging because they tend to activate physical experiences." She and Goldberg plan to investigate this in follow-up studies. In addition, the researchers now want to find out how these metaphors are processed by speakers who have learned the language as a foreign language.

The study was part of the working group that the linguist Adele Goldberg from Princeton University built up at the Cluster Languages of Emotion, Freie Universität Berlin, during her term as an Einstein Visiting Fellow, sponsored by the Berlin Einstein Foundation.


Francesca Citron and Adele Goldberg (2014): Metaphorical Sentences Are More Emotionally Engaging than Their Literal Counterparts. In: Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (online on May 6, 2014; doi:10.1162/jocn_a_00654).

Further Information

Dr. Nina Diezemann, Office of News and Public Affairs / Cluster Languages of Emotion, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838-73190 or 57864, Email: