How Our Brain Understands Hyperbole

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

Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read
Episode #448


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?


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.