Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Postformal Thinking as a Predictor of Creativity and of the Identification and Appreciation of Irony and Metaphor

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Postformal Thinking as a Predictor of Creativity and of the Identification and Appreciation of Irony and Metaphor

Article excerpt

Communication is fundamental to social interaction. Language is probably the most important medium of human communication, whether in the form of speech or the written word. When the main goal is to share precise information, the messages must be accurate and easy to interpret literally. However, when the goal is to communicate ambiguity and perhaps also provoke affect, the message may be conveyed implicitly rather than explicitly. This can be accomplished using the linguistic devices of metaphor and irony.

Metaphors, which have appeared in ancient texts such as Homer's Odyssey and the Hindu Vedas, convey meaning indirectly using a form of analogy. According to Low (2002), their power lies in contradiction and ambiguity. For example, in Shakespeare's classic statement "All the world's a stage", at a primary, literal level, we have an obvious contradiction, since a stage is clearly not equal to the world; however, at a secondary, or figurative level, we have a form of analogy or comparison, in which both concepts become fused and their shared qualities are made apparent.

Like metaphor, irony also has a long history, having appeared in Ancient Greek comedy and as a device employed by Socrates (Pexman, 2008). According to Pexman, irony is a nonliteral language that makes salient a discrepancy between expectations and reality. Consequently, contradiction is also central to irony. Situational irony (also known as cosmic irony) refers to occasions when the actual outcome of events is contrary to the expected outcome. For example, the "unsinkable" Titanic not only went down, but did so on its maiden voyage. Verbal irony, for its part, designates instances in which an individual states the opposite of what he or she truly thinks (e.g. "that's the best idea I've heard in years!"). As with metaphor, we are faced with a fundamental ambiguity, where one is challenged by the simultaneous, yet contradictory statements : A = B (this idea is great), and A [not equal to] B (this idea is not great).

Researchers have investigated the psychological processes that underlie the comprehension of metaphor and irony. For example, studies of brain imaging have shown distinctive patterns of activity associated with exposure to these linguistic devices (Coulson & Van Petten, 2002; Regel, Gunter, & Friederici, 2011). In addition, insights have been gained from populations such as young children and people with autism or brain damage who have difficulty processing nonliteral language (Pexman, 2008).

It is clear that metaphor and irony cannot be fully appreciated by rational processes such as standard verbal intelligence, because logical reasoning cannot admit the simultaneous existence of two contradictory elements. According to Low (2002), the power of metaphor and irony comes from their ability to call "upon the creativity of the reader as well as of the poet to contain the ambiguity" (p. 198). The link between metaphor and creative thinking was identified long ago by Aristotle (Glicksohn, Kraemer, & Yisraeli, 1993), but the idea that contradiction is important is also consistent with Koestler's (1964) notion of creativity, which he says arises when a single situation or idea is perceived in "two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference" (p. 35).

Psychologists have conducted extensive research on creativity, discussing how it should be defined, how it should be measured and how it is related to standard intelligence (Batey, Furnham, & Safiullina, 2011; Kaufman & Plucker, 2011; Nusbaum & Silvia, 2011). Some of the most important contributions to these questions have been made by Guilford (1967), who integrated creativity into his structure of intellect model as a process of divergent production (or divergent thinking) in which people generate answers to open-ended questions (Baer & Kaufman, 2006). Indeed, some IQ tests contain subtests that tap this process (Kaufman, Kaufman, Lichtenberger, 2011). …

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