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).