Goldberg, a professor of psychology, says the brain finds clichés rich in meaning and emotion

Photo: Sameer A. Khan h’21
I’m at a standstill. I’ve taken two steps backward. That idea went right over my head. I’m barely managing to stay afloat. These conventional metaphors, used to convey abstract concepts, are so commonplace that we may not even notice when we use or hear them. But Princeton psychology professor Adele Goldberg can spot them in a flash; she studies how the brain takes in this kind of cliché.

In a study published in the Journal of Memory and Language in December, Goldberg created a database of 180 English sentences consisting of these conventional metaphors alongside literal paraphrases and concrete descriptions. She found that people’s brains pay more attention to clichés than to the other ways of conveying the same information.

Goldberg used eye-tracking software in her lab to test how 66 people responded to hearing those phrases. When someone’s pupils dilate, it’s a sign that their brains are working harder to process the information or that they are more emotionally engaged, she says. And Goldberg found that’s exactly what happened: When the participants heard the clichés, their pupils widened. 

The brain was processing them differently, even though the language didn’t stand out in any way. “There’s nothing remarkable about these phrases,” says Goldberg. “We use them every day without even noticing.” 

In addition to testing pupil size, Goldberg and Serena Mon ’20 asked questions about the sentences, comparing the literal and metaphorical phrases. The study participants reported that the clichés were no more informative than other ways of communication but were richer in meaning and more emotional. 

Emotions are tied to understanding in unexpected ways. While conducting earlier studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain, Goldberg stumbled upon the fact that when people were passively listening to clichéd language, their amygdalas — the small, almond-shaped region of the brain involved in emotions and motivations — became more active. 

It makes sense that the amygdala is bound up in cognitive engagement, Goldberg says. “My own feeling is that emotions drive everything we do,” she says. “And metaphors appear to be more engaging in some ineffable way.” 

Goldberg plans to follow up with a study in second-language learners and test if they are as emotionally involved in metaphorical language as people who have heard such clichés for their entire lives. She’d also like to know if the emotional engagement changes with how proficient someone is in English.