Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lipstick on a pig: a neural perspective

Abstract. Purpose: To investigate the effects of political party affiliation on the interpretation of metaphoric expressions. Approach: Millions of subjects were exposed to a single metaphor, "You can put lipstick on a pig -- It's still a pig" and were asked to indicate the intended referent of the word, "pig." Data collection and analysis: Response data were collected via tedious monitoring of television news channels, particularly CNN, where interpretations of "pig" were offered (repeatedly) by a handful of "representative" subjects. Each responder was classified as belonging either to the Democratic or Republican party, and interpretations were tabulated. Results: Democrats uniformly interpreted "pig" to refer to John McCain's proposed policies, whereas Republicans uniformly interpreted "pig" to refer to Sarah Palin. Conclusion: metaphor interpretation is strongly influenced by political affiliation.

There's only one problem with this study. In a less biased sample of subjects, including myself, a couple of acquaintances, and the audience at Obama's speech which roared with laughter at the comment and (reportly) began chanting "no more pit bull," even some democrats interpreted pig as referencing Sarah Palin. At the very least (admit it), you interpreted the comment as a reference to her pit bull, hockey mom, & lipstick joke.

Here's why: Brains are pretty good at associative learning. Cream and _____, peanut butter and ____, and now, lipstick and _____ ... pit bulls? Sarah Palin? "Lipstick on a pig" was close enough to trigger the association with Sarah Palin and her lipstick joke. We can't help but think of it.

It turns out as well, that there is some commonality in the brain basis for metaphor interpretation and associative learning. Metaphor interpretation compared to the interpretation of literal sentences consistently activates the left inferior frontal gyrus (BA 45/47 for you brain nerds) (Eviatar & Just, 2006; Rapp et al., 2004; Shibata, et al., 2007; Stringaris, et al. 2007). The same area also seems to be activated when subjects listen to phrases that violate semantic associations, such as She spread her bread with socks relative to phrases that are consistent with previous associations, She spread her bread with butter (Willems et al., 2008). This area is often interpreted as supporting the integration of semantic information. Other studies have shown that this inferior frontal gyrus region is involved in semantic memory for previously presented words: it responds differently to a word if that word was presented to the subject previously, even when days intervene between presentation (Meister et al., 2007). Given this patterns of results, it seems likely that this chunk of frontal cortex is involved in our association of Obama's pig and Palin's pit bull.

Does this mean Obama was calling Palin a pig? Not necessarily. A metaphor isn't restricted to one meaning. It could have been a comment on McCain's more-of-the-same policies, and a jab at the lipstick joke. Whatever the intention, the comment certainly opened the door to Republican critics. Obama should have consulted with a language scientist...


Z EVIATAR, M JUST (2006). Brain correlates of discourse processing: An fMRI investigation of irony and conventional metaphor comprehension Neuropsychologia, 44 (12), 2348-2359 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2006.05.007

Ingo G. Meister, Dorothee Buelte, Roland Sparing, Babak Boroojerdi (2007). A repetition suppression effect lasting several days within the semantic network Experimental Brain Research, 183 (3), 371-376 DOI: 10.1007/s00221-007-1051-8

A RAPP, Leube DT, Erb M, Grodd W, Kircher TT. (2004). Neural correlates of metaphor processing Cognitive Brain Research, 20 (3), 395-402 DOI: 10.1016/j.cogbrainres.2004.03.017

M SHIBATA, J ABE, A TERAO, T MIYAMOTO (2007). Neural mechanisms involved in the comprehension of metaphoric and literal sentences: An fMRI study Brain Research, 1166, 92-102 DOI: 10.1016/j.brainres.2007.06.040.

A STRINGARIS, N MEDFORD, V GIAMPIETRO, M BRAMMER, A DAVID (2007). Deriving meaning: Distinct neural mechanisms for metaphoric, literal, and non-meaningful sentences Brain and Language, 100 (2), 150-162 DOI: 10.1016/j.bandl.2005.08.001

Willems RM, OzyĆ¼rek A, Hagoort P. (2008). Seeing and hearing meaning: ERP and fMRI evidence of word versus picture integration into a sentence context. J Cogn Neurosci. 20(7):1235-49.


Anonymous said...

well done. I was amused by this as well. My conclusion was that the "pitbull/lipstick" line by Palin, which was played over and over again on tv, may have associatively primed the "lipstick on a pig" node in Obama's semantic network. The heightened activation increased it's probability of retrieval and -- out it came.

Or, alternatively, he did it deliberately, with full malice of forethought :)

Anonymous said...

I think the priming was particularly strong in this case because of semantic and phonological similarities as well.

Lipstick on an animal (pitbull) (pig) [semantic]

Pit---> Pig [phonological]

Jeremy Allen said...

I recently read George Lakoff's book Moral Politics and am still digesting it.

Am I misreading him that our metaphors contribute to our moral development which leads to our politics, and that this would be the opposite of your conclusion?

Please straighten me out.

Also, I am wondering if this,, has more effect on metaphor interpretation than politics does.


Greg Hickok said...

I'm afraid I haven't read Lakoff's book so I can't comment.