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Take Advantage of Memory “Chunking” with Metaphors

September 22nd, 2012 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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Metaphors and similes are wonderful tools in the writer’s belt. But what is going on in the brain that makes them so useful?

So, as I was writing about “show don’t tell” for last week’s post a little connection went *blip* in my brain and I remembered a fascinating piece on memory that I’d seen on Brain Pickings (which is completely awesome by the way and you should, like, totally check it out).

Chunky Memories

The article in question is The Science of “Chunking,” Working Memory, and How Pattern Recognition Fuels Creativity and details the findings of neuroscientist Daniel Bor in his book The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning.

In it he describes the brain’s method of “chunking” data in order to make our working memory more efficient.

Sometimes this is how my brain feels

I don’t think this brain will be doing much chunking, do you? Image courtesy of skpy.

The example quoted in the article is a good one, so I’ll re-quote it here. It tells of an experiment whereby the volunteer would try to remember a series of random digits. They started with four, but if he could recall them correctly, the number was increased. This was done for an hour a day, four days a week for two years:

This volunteer happened to be a keen track runner, and so his first thought was to see certain number groups as running times, for instance, 3492 would be transformed into 3 minutes and 49.2 seconds, around the world-record time for running the mile. In other words, he was using his memory for well-known number sequences in athletics to prop up his working memory.

One data-point (the world-record) thus became a placeholder for four (the original series of four digits). You can see the potential for exponential increase in memory “capacity” there. By the end, he could reportedly recall sequences 80 numbers long!

Metaphorically Speaking

Of course, this is all about working memory so far. But the connection that went off in my head was how this related to metaphors.

I’ve mentioned before that metaphors could be used to convey complex information in a small amount of words. The “chunking” idea helps to convey this extremely well. Metaphors, just like the running times in the sample above, act like placeholders for more detailed information.

The book itself – The Ravenous Brain by Daniel Bor

Let’s take a clichéd example we should all be familiar with. Obviously it goes without saying that we should avoid clichés and this is just an example. Well, I’ve said it anyway now, haven’t I.

Okay, so how about when the foamy crest of a wave is described as “white horses”? Instantly we have a wonderful image – a white horse leaping at the top of a wave. That image quickly unpacks in our minds – with it come associations we might have with horses – beauty, elegance, power; we might imagine wild eyes and the tossing of a mane, whinnies and neighs and the thundering of hooves merge with the crash of water.

And Daniel Bor doesn’t disagree with this:

Some of our greatest insights can be gleaned from moving up another level and noticing that certain patterns relate to others, which on first blush may appear entirely unconnected – spotting patterns of patterns, say (which is what analogies essentially are).

So there you have it. Because of the way human brains work, metaphors can stand in for whole paragraphs of words, creating evocative images and saving your precious word count. It may be true that a picture paints a thousand words, but a writer can paint a picture using metaphor or simile.

Of course, the article contains more insights and specifics, including some notes on creativity. Or you could read the book itself!

Over to you:
What’s your opinion of metaphor and simile? Does it make writing richer? Any tips for creating evocative images in the reader’s mind? Let us know… below.

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