Vilayanur S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego and his colleagues tested four patients who had experienced damage to the left angular gyrus region of their brains. All of the volunteers were fluent in English and otherwise intelligent, mentally lucid and able to engage in normal conversations. But when the researchers presented them with common proverbs and metaphors such as ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ and ‘reaching for the stars,’ the subjects interpreted the sayings literally almost all of the time. After being pressed by the interviewers to provide deeper meaning, ‘the patients often came up with elaborate, even ingenious interpretations, that were completely off the mark,’ Ramachandran remarks. For example, patient SJ expounded on ‘all that glitters is not gold’ by noting that you should be careful when buying jewelry because the sellers could rob you of your money.” (Scientific American)
Ramachandran is an astounding neuroscience thinker. I have written before about his thinking about “mirror neurons” and the extraordinary significance he — quite rightly — affords them in understanding human experience. Most neurologists are quite skittish about thinking about the neurological functions I consider nontrivial, things like thinking and feeling. If you have an interest in the relationship between the brain and the mind, forget the Mind Wide Open and Brain Hacks hyperbole and head straight for Ramachandran’s A Brief Tour of Consciousness and Phantoms in the Brain for more insights per square inch of printed page than you can handle. For a quick and dirty introduction, look at his 2003 series of five BBC radio lectures, The Emerging Mind (audio links and transcripts), to which I blinked when they emerged then.