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How Our Brain Understands Hyperbole

Hyperbole: How we know that $103 means $103 and $1,000 means a lot.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #448

what is hyperbole.

This is a transcript of an interview I did with Ellen Hendriksen, the Savvy Psychologist.

Ellen: Thanks for having me!  Yes, I’m here to talk about how our brains recognize hyperbole.  Because if you think about it, we seldom say what we mean. Ask me about holiday shopping and I might say it took forever to get a parking space at the mall.  Or that it was worth it because I got the deal of the century. Taken literally, what I’m saying is completely untrue. But because our brains understand hyperbole, you immediately know what I mean.

In computer science, one of the holy grails is to teach machines to understand non-literal language like hyperbole.  A computer that can understand Shakespeare is still a long way away, but a new study from the lab of Stanford psychology professor Dr. Noah Goodman gets us one step closer.  

He and his students created a mathematical model of how people understand figurative language, specifically hyperbole in numbers.

Our brains do this easily, but how, exactly? When I tell my kids I used to walk fifteen miles in the snow uphill to school, they know I’m full of it.  But how? How do our brains toggle between literal numbers and figurative numbers? 

One thing he found is the importance of what he calls round versus sharp numbers.

So for instance, say I spot a coveted Frozen Snow Glow Elsa at a toy store. You ask me how much it costs and I say, “Oh my goodness, it was $43.” How much would you think it was?  

Mignon: Probably $43.

Ellen: Right. But what if I said, “Oh my goodness, it was a thousand dollars.” How much would you think it costs then?

GG: Well, probably not a thousand, but really expensive.

Ellen: Right. So why would I say a thousand? Why wouldn’t I just say it was really expensive?

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