Keynote Speakers

Anjan Chatterjee
(University of Pennsylvania)

Gerard Steen
(University of Amsterdam)

Roundtable Respondents

Alexander Bergs (University of Osnabrück), Lorella Bosco (University of Bari), Deborah Jenson (Duke University), Gaetano Lalomia (University of Catania), Pascal Nicklas (University of Mainz), Pierre-Louis Patoine (New Sorbonne University), Massimo Salgaro (University of Verona), Marco Venuti (University of Catania), Francesca Vigo (University of Catania)


Renata Gambino, Grazia Pulvirenti, Simona Di Mari, Salvatore Arcidiacono, Federica Abramo, Natalia Scandurra, Sabrina Apa


Renata Gambino (

Simona Di Mari (

Conference Report

Second NeuroHumanities Dialogue

Metaphors as a Source of Creative Thought

4-6 June 2015

NHS Research Group
Department of Humanities
University of Catania


On the dates of June 4-6, 2015, the University of Catania and the Teatro Machiavelli hosted the Second NeuroHumanities Dialogue on the theme of “Metaphors as a Source of Creative Thought”, organized by the NeuroHumanities Research Group based at the Department of Humanities of the University of Catania.

The event built on the success of last year’s NeuroHumanities Dialogue about “Neuroaesthetics and Cognitive Poetics” and expanded the number of sessions and participants, while promoting lively scholarly discussion through its tried and tested dialogical format, already introduced with the first meeting.

Specifically, the Second NeuroHumanities Dialogue addressed the issue of metaphor from a variety of points of view, ranging from cognitive and neural approaches to linguistics, literature, and art.

The conference program featured three dialogical sessions with two invited keynote speakers and six other speakers, together with a final roundtable-session with all the participants contributing to the discussion.

The opening address of the conference was delivered by the NHS research group leaders, Professor Grazia Pulvirenti and Professor Renata Gambino, who presented the NewHums – Neurohumanities Studies Research Centre, inaugurated in Catania on the 11 May 2015 with a guest lecture on “The Origin of Beauty” delivered by Prof. Semir Zeki, neurobiologist at the University College London. Newhums is the first research centre in Italy to be devoted to the analysis of such phenomena of human mind as memory, consciousness, imagination, cognition and learning, with a specific focus on creative processes. Professors Gambino and Pulvirenti explained that the centre is the result of a complex networking activity with both private and public scholarly institutions, in order to promote, coordinate, and publish research which put together neurological, cognitive, biological and digital studies with best practice and knowledge in the field of art, performance and the humanities.

Anjan Chatterjee, Professor of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered the first keynote speech on the theme “Building Metaphors in the Brain”. Professor Chatterjee presented his current research on the neural bases of human cognition. He reported on behavioural experiments conducted on patients with cognitive disorder, aimed at investigating the neural underpinnings of such phenomena as relational thinking, spatial thought, and the procedures of abstraction and extraction that take place in our brains, especially when exposed to metaphorical language. Further experiments contrasting the patients’ reactions to novel and familiar metaphors gave evidence of two different cognitive strategies, pointing out that novelty in language demands a higher level of abstraction and increased cognitive control in order to creatively elaborate the sense of the sentence.Professor Chatterjee showed how re-reading metaphors comprehension models on the basis of cognitive neuroscience is crucial to the development of a deeper understanding of the complexity of human cognitive abilities, where metaphor becomes the critical tool in the investigation of the interface between perception and language.

The following talk from Julie Neveux, MCF in English Linguistics at the University of Paris IV Sorbonne, entitled “Metaphors in Mrs Dalloway’s incipit: a cognitive view of the stream of consciousness technique”, turned the attention on how a cognitive and phenomenological approach to metaphor can open up new perspectives in the understanding of a literary technique such as the so called “Stream of Consciousness”. Starting form a view of metaphor as a creative linguistic phenomenon stemming from perceptual experience, Neveaux’ analysis of the incipit of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway pointed out the pivotal role of metaphor in allowing the readers’ entrance in the character’s mental space, a process grounded on a shared embodied experience of the inner and outer world.

Bringing the focus back to medical sciences, Giulia Frezza, Temporary Researcher at the Department of Medical-Surgical Sciences and Biotechnologies of the Sapienza University, Rome, delivered a talk entitled “A transition in Medical Metaphors: from ‘Heredity’ to ‘Epigenetic Landscapes’”. Starting from a narrative-based approach, Frezza reconstructed recent changes in medical discourse on genetics through the shift from the metaphor of “heredity” to that of “epigenetics”. The talk aimed at showing how metaphors in medical discourse can affect the general understanding of illness, while suggesting that adopting a transdisciplinary and multi-level approach to metaphorical language in medicine can enrich and deepen our interpretation of illness as a physiological and social phenomenon.

On the following day, Gerard Steen, Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Amsterdam, gave the second keynote speech on the theme “Discourse Conditions for Creative Metaphor Use: a Genre-Analytical Approach”. Professor Steen illustrated a top-down model for analysing conceptual metaphors, grounded on a set of genre variables ranging from context variables (such as participants, setting, medium, and domain) to text variables (such as content, type, form, and structure) and code variables (such as language, register, style, and rhetoric). Starting from these premises, he presented his current research about conceptual metaphors in different communicative contexts, such as advertising, politics, poetry and new media, pointing out that the poetic genre in comparison to other genres seems to offer greater possibilities for using metaphors creatively. His comparative analysis of the use of metaphors in different genres further gave evidence that even if a creative use of metaphors poses some crucial questions about the very definitions of metaphor and poetic text, it represents an effective tool for expressing the Self with alternative means.

The following talk from Luzia Goldmann, PhD student at a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities of Cologne, entitled “From Metaphor to Metaphor – Darwin’s Re-creation of Tree-Metaphors as Creative Process”, went on reflecting on the dichotomy of conventional and creative use of metaphor. Starting from the analysis of passages from Darwin’s The Origin of Species and from his notebooks, Goldmann explained how Darwin appropriated the conventional metaphor of the “tree of life” through a process of dismemberment and refiguration which allowed him to attach new meanings to the traditional image of the tree. The talk was aimed at showing how the inherent polysemy of metaphors can trigger the creative process, becoming the starting point for developing and representing new images and ideas.

The last dialogical session opened with a talk from Richard C. Sha, Chair of the Department of Literature at the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience of the American University, on the topic “Creativity made Flesh”. Sha explained how we rely on forms of embodiment in order to construct models of creativity that make use of the metaphor of flesh to represent how discovery and invention happen. Making a survey of different scholarly accounts on creativity, the talk was aimed at reflecting on the reasons why some metaphors of flesh appear to be more persuasive than others.

Mark Pizzato, Professor of Theatre and Film at UNC-Charlotte, delivered a talk on “Metaphors of Inner and Outer Theatres”. Starting from a transdisciplinary perspective putting together Baar’s metaphor of the “staging of consciousness” in the brain, Damasio’, Lieberman’, and McGilchrist’s neurocognitive theories with the cultural paradigm of western theatre, Professor Pizzato’s talk built on his past and current research in the field of theatrical metaphors. In particular, the talk proposed a model of the brain’s evolutionary heritage and current cathartic potential with its neural correlates, while at the same time using theatrical metaphors to represent the very same neural correlates of experience as well as the interaction among brains in the staging of Self and Other both in everyday and artistic relations.

Lars Elleström, Professor of Comparative Literature at Linnæus University, Sweden, delivered the last talk of the day, on the topic “Cross-Modal Iconicity”. Professor Elleström proposed an understanding of metaphors as iconic signs characterized by cross-modal complexity, that is by their capacity of creating meaning at the intersection of different material modes, spatiotemporal dimensions, sensory perceptions and cognitive domains. In this perspective, metaphor becomes the object of a broader investigation on the ways in which meaning can arise in and pass through different communicative domains.

On the third and last day, a roundtable-session closed the Second NeuroHumanities Dialogue. The discussion was led by nine invited respondents and saw the lively participation of both speakers and audience. Each of the respondents presented herself and her main research interests and debated on further issues raised during the previous dialogical sessions.

PD Dr. Phil Pascal Nicklas, from the Medical University of Mainz, opened the roundtable discussion with a presentation of his current work on the cognitive mechanisms underlying the literary process of adaptation. He explained that the aesthetic pleasure in adaptation depends on our memories’ ability to recognize an original text underlying the adapted one. He thus pointed out that aesthetic pleasure in adaptation is grounded on some sort of metaphorical reference between the two texts: just as it happens with metaphors, when exposed to adaptation our brains work to recognize similarity in difference, in order to reach comprehension and, consequently, aesthetic pleasure.

Professor Chatterjee took the floor, pointing out that the brain itself is often used as a metaphor for describing other domains of our everyday world. Suggesting that this could depend on some sort of fascination for the field of neurosciences, he highlighted the need for deeper investigation of brain metaphors. He then turned attention to the issue of synaesthesia, already discussed in the previous dialogical sessions, pointing out that metaphor and synaesthesia from a neurocognitive point of view are two radically different phenomena. He explained that in his view synaesthesia is a very common phenomenon in our brains, since perceptions have to be deconstructed in their single sensory components and then recomposed in an object, while the salient character of metaphor is that it implies a process of cross-domain mapping, which allows the comprehension of a target phenomenon through the reference to a source phenomenon.

Dr. phil. Habil. Massimo Salgaro, Researcher at the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature of the University of Verona, turned the attention on the significance of the neurocognitive approach for the future development of literary reception theory. In particular, he pointed out how the paradigm of embodied cognition has shifted emphasis from an abstract reader instance to an embodied reader, thus bringing into the foreground the problem of how literature can affect bodies.

The roundtable went on to further discuss the issue of synaesthesia. Professor Pulvirenti expressed her view that both metaphor and synaesthesia have to be considered in connection with the issue of creativity, since from a linguistic point of view both phenomena have to do with an unusual association of different cognitive domains which causes a specific reaction by the reader.

The attention then turned on the very same neologism of ‘Neurohumanities’, and its attached metaphorical or heuristic values. While everybody agreed on the significance of issues of art and creativity for the investigation of the cognitive architecture of human brain, it had to be acknowledged that the scientific establishment is still highly reluctant to consider art and literature as its specific object of interest.

The discussion closed with the unscheduled intervention of Maestro Riccardo Insolia, chair of the association ‘Ingresso Libero’ and member of the Fondazione Lamberto Puggelli, who asked the conference participants to listen to La Lugubre Gondola no.2 by Franz Liszt and try to look for metaphors in it. After the listening, he explained that in this piece of music chromaticism played the role of metaphor in language, thus suggesting that metaphor should be regarded as an extensive phenomenon characterizing not only linguistic expression, but also artistic expression tout-court.

Bringing together experts, researchers, and students from different disciplinary fields, the Second NeuroHumanities Dialogue proved an excellent opportunity for reflecting on the contribution that the newly born transdisciplinary field of Neurohumanities can offer both to the neurosciences and the humanities, opening up new possibilities for networking and sharing expertise while overcoming traditional disciplinary borders.


Mariaelisa Dimino
PhD Student
University of Verona