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Keywords:

  • Perceptual symbol theory;
  • Metaphor;
  • Simile;
  • Mental representation;
  • Object shape

Abstract

People mentally represent the shapes of objects. For instance, the mental representation of an eagle is different when one thinks about a flying or resting eagle. This study examined the role of shape in mental representations of similes (i.e., metaphoric comparisons). We tested the prediction that when people process a simile they will mentally represent the entities of the comparison as having a similar shape. We conducted two experiments in which participants read sentences that either did (experimental sentences) or did not (control sentences) invite comparing two entities. For the experimental sentences, the ground of the comparison was explicit in Experiment 1 (“X has the ability to Z, just like Y”) and implicit in Experiment 2 (“X is like Y”). After having read the sentence, participants were presented with line drawings of the two objects, which were either similarly or dissimilarly shaped. They judged whether both objects were mentioned in the preceding sentence. For the experimental sentences, recognition latencies were shorter for similarly shaped objects than for dissimilarly shaped objects. For the control sentences, we did not find such an effect of similarity in shape. These findings suggest that a perceptual symbol of shape is activated when processing similes.