Sweet talking emotions

A recent paper by a team from Princeton University and the Free University of Berlin has shown that taste related words engage the emotional brain more strongly than equivalent literal words. They showed that the brain processes everyday metaphors differently from more literal language, with greater emotional engagement. For example, ‘she smiled at him sweetly” created more activation of the emotion centres of the brain than the expression “she smiled at him kindly”, even though they have equivalent meaning and were understood equally well.

The most likely explanation is that metaphors work better because they allude to physical experiences. All languages regularly use physical sensation and reference to objects to explain more abstract concepts such as time, understanding and emotion itself. The language of the senses is far more powerful than the language of dictionaries – for example, sweet has a clear direct meaning in contrast to kind. ┬áThe researchers suggest that figurative language may be more powerful in communication than ordinary language, something that other research into communication has shown and metaphors are often used to evoke an emotional reaction.

Sensory processing is strongly linked to emotional responses. We experience the world physically and not through language, and the majority of the brain’s processing is devoted to processing sensory information (the majority of which is visual information). Indeed, the brain recreates the physical sensation of a described experience in order to make sense of it. Other research has shown that figurative language is remembered better than literal language. Other examples of sensory phrases evoking stronger responses might be “sparkling white teeth”, “pearly whites” or “as smooth as silk”.

Perhaps an argument for engaging the senses more often in marketing, research and design through language and more directly? For further information, you must visit About

You can read the original article here.

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2 thoughts on “Sweet talking emotions

  1. Alice

    When I studied socio-linguistics (a long time ago), this concept was called, if I’m not mistaken, semiotics – communication through all sensory modes. It doesn’t matter that you can’t taste the sweetness, it’s enough for it to have been suggested in words. The same applies for imagery showing textures. So much about suggestion. This is what makes content effective.

    I’m a content strategist now and currently working on a paper for my client, outlining our overarching content strategy principles ahead of a major website redesign. My view is that so much of what you’ve written about – and what I’ve also been thinking about – is tied up in semiotics.

    As websites become device-responsive, web design and usability are much, much more reliant on a palette of sensory communication tactics which need to work together.

    1. Neil Gains


      Thank you for commenting. I agree about the importance of semiotics, and have written about this both in Brand esSense and at the companion blog Inspector Insight which you may want to check out. If you like, I will add you to the mailing list for these blogs.



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