Thursday, February 16, 2012

Thinking Metaphorically

Over at, a couple scientists (Benjamin K. Bergen and Simone Schnall) mentioned that metaphors are a very powerful explanation of how humans think.

The idea is that you don't just talk about understanding as seeing, you think about understanding as seeing; morality is thought of as cleanliness, affection as warmth, winners are thought of as being in front of others. The abstract is explained via the concrete, something we know, such as seeing, feeling warmth, clean, catching, escaping.

This is why everything is 'like' something else, and why 'its like...' is a great way to explain a new idea. We have a small set of basic things our brains know, assumptions, and these are then the basis for building our more complex thoughts. I think this is important in understanding the problem of consciousness, in that we have certain thoughts are not inferred or reasoned, but rather hard wired. For example, we infer consciousness in others not via first-year philosophy courses, but rather mirror neurons that fire as if we were smiling, etc.

Understanding the origin of our intuitions is helpful in understanding the concepts they relate to. Schnall talks about how we derive meaning fundamentally from analogies with our sense of our bodies. After all, the brain's main job is controlling its body, as over 50% of its neurons are within the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls our motor activities. So, we all have a very deep, profound understanding of 'hard', 'up', and other sensations. Cognitive operations have arisen to solve certain adaptive challenges of the physical environment, and so embodied metaphors are the building blocks of perception, cognition, and action. People think metaphorically.


B. A. said...

derman's last book is on this too. methaphors are little conceptual models. he is saying that the main advantage of using such mental objects or tools (methaphor, here we go) that we are already familiar with is that they save us intellectual work. with the more complex ones that you learn in school, for instance, you are actually using the intellectual work of others, same way you are using a car and a washing machine built by others (another methaphor) instead of making one yourself. or you can use some smaller stuff that you built yourself a while back which is still in "working condition".

it's all a trial and error process of pattern recognition in the end. being familiar with all sorts of complex patterns/objects/models can give you a good start.

Kevin said...

not me. I think similely.

Acad Ronin said...

Deidre McCloskey (when she was Donald), also emphasized the use of metaphors in "Economical Writing". However, one thing I have come to realize is that you have to pick your metaphors very carefully. Let me just focus on sports metaphors. First, sports is zero sum, whereas economics is positive sum. Second "bases loaded and two outs" means nothing to someone who is worried that you are pitching them a "Googly". That is, many metaphors are extremely culture-bound, and so may sow more confusion than meaning.

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