The Mind of Metaphor

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances” – William Shakespeare

In I Is An Other, James Geary explores the power of metaphor and its pervasiveness in everyday life, arguing that it is not just a literary device but fundamental to human thought across domains as diverse as economics, advertising, politics, psychology and many more. Metaphor is “essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent”.

Humans have the habit of using metaphor all the time – by some estimates around one metaphor in every 10 to 25 words spoken (six per minute). Metaphor is all about describing one thing in terms of another thing, as in “hailstones like golf balls” or “the recovery is gaining traction” or more poetically, “I’m in love; I’m all shook up” (the same song has ‘lips like volcanoes’ and ‘a touch that chills’). Have you ever felt ‘down in the dumps’ or ‘hot under the collar’? Then you too have a mind of metaphor.

Many cultures (in fact almost all) equate anger with hot stuff. In English, there are hotheads, in Tunisia your brain is boiling, in South Africa you are hot blooded and in Japan you have boiling intestines. Somehow the same basic analogy and idea has translated itself across diverse cultures and contexts into a metaphor that has become universal.

To some extent metaphor in language is the literary version of what all humans do, which is to read each other’s minds and bodies to understand how they are feeling. The skill of “double knowledge” (the ability to hold two different ideas about the same thing in your mind at the same time) develops very early in children (around 12 to 24 months). There are different kinds of double knowledge, as things can be functionally similar (a shoe can also be a teacup as it is able to hold liquid) or perceptually similar (a banana ¬†looks like a telephone). Research suggests that such double thinking in the make-believe games of children is an early manifestation of ‘theory of mind’ which is so important to all of us. Such thinking also has a lot in common with puns and jokes, which rely on the difference between literal and figurative meanings of objects and events.

Metaphor is rife in market research and advertising too – projective techniques have been around for many years (i.e., ‘if this brand was a car … ?”) as has the use of metaphors in the imagery of advertising and even in car names (many of which are named after animal or human archetypes). The importance of archetypal patterns reminds us that at heart the mind is a pattern recognition machine, searching for, finding and abstracting common patterns that help it to make fast and easy decisions on auto-pilot. That’s why metaphors are a great research tool as in the ZMET process or TapestryWorks own use of visual metaphors for human stories, emotions and sensory experience in our Visual Think Cards.

Ultimately all successful advertising is about building rich networks of unconscious associations between a brand and the customer’s key emotional and functional needs (‘jobs’). Understanding the meaning of the associations for any category is a great way to develop communication strategies that leverage on existing associations and also build a distinctive positioning.

Thus metaphors are also the basis for synaesthesia and the ability of all us (although some are much better) to perceive a stimulus through one sense and experience it through another sense. Many everyday metaphors rely on such synaesthetic abstractions. Silence is often gold, and sometimes sweet. Interestingly, such metaphors always seem to move from more immediate to less immediate senses. Silence can be sweet, but sweetness is rarely silent. So such metaphors are always pointing in the same direction from more immediate to less immediate senses, and reviews of literature have shown that this is consistent across cultures, perhaps reflecting a more fundamental truth about how human senses developed. This directionality is true of metaphors in general, which often appropriate concrete language (i.e. physical or sensory experience) to describe more abstract ideas like thoughts, feelings, emotions and ideas.

Musical appreciation depends on metaphor, as we talk about ‘high’ and ‘low’ notes and perceive music in terms of space and position. Mathematical thought has a similar connection with space as higher numbers are up and lower numbers are down and we tend to count along dimensions of space. Some have argued that metaphors of ‘left’ and ‘right’ (remembering that the word sinister comes from the word for left) hark back to the reality that the majority (but not all) of us are more competent on our right-hand sides. James Geary quotes Steven Pinker at length and so will I:

“If all abstract thought is metaphorical, and all metaphors are assembled out of biologically based concepts, then we would have an explanation for the evolution of human intelligence. Human intelligence would be a product of metaphor and combinatorics. Metaphor allows the mind to use a few basic ideas … to understand more abstract domains. Combinatorics allows a finite set of simple ideas to give rise to an infinite set of complex ones.” (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought)

Embodied cognition is the idea that language and thinking are grounded in the physical experience of how our body interacts with the world around us. Therefore, metaphors are universal in as much as our experience of our bodies in the world is also universal, although each culture has specific nuances that reflect local conditions, climate and environment. For example, in the West people gesture in front of them when they talk about the future, whereas some cultures in South America gesture behind (because the future is unknown so can’t be seen, whereas the past is known and seen and therefore in front). Mandarin has a vertical rather than horizontal bias, reflected in the direction of writing and language and influencing all kinds of behaviours. Embodied cognition may also be ‘grounded’ in the fact that the same sets of neurons are thought to be involved in processing a metaphor as would be involved in the physical experience itself (i.e. language is understood by simulating the experience that language describes).

The analogies that metaphors express are not fixed or constant, but change according to the context in which they are used. Assessments of similarity are ‘made on the fly’ (to use a metaphor) and can caging depending on the frame of reference that applies at any given time. Einstein used shifting analogies, or what he called ‘combinatory play’ all the time in his work and thinking as a tool to imagine new ideas and connections. Richard Feynman was another great scientist who was highly creative in science and in his use of analogies (think of the iced water moment after the Challenger tragedy). He once compared electromagnetic fields with two corks floating in a pool of water saying, “if we jiggle the cork … waves travel away”. These analogies were connected to the spirit retreat last year and you can book yourself as well to experience it on this website.

Parables are stories that are metaphors or analogies, helping us to understand the inner lives of other people, the complexity of society and real-life problems in a way that is easy to digest and understand. Although Aesop’s fables are often about animals, the situations and events are very concrete and the moral of each story clear, usually ending in a proverb (something of a short metaphorical story).

As James Geary says in the final chapter of I Is An Other, “the logic of metaphor is the logic of our lives”. Metaphor is the enabler to help us experience and understand the world in flexible and creative ways. It helps us connect the familiar and the concrete with the unfamiliar and abstract. Above all, metaphor is the basis of all our knowledge and understanding and fundamental to the human experience.


I Is An Other: The secret life of metaphor and how it shapes the way we see the world by James Geary

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