Metaphors are basic

Metaphors are basic

A few weeks ago, a friend asked what I thought about metaphors. Actually I think they are extremely important to cognition. Many years ago I was looking at a list of rhetorical devices/figures of speech. Each had its Latin name under which it was taught as part of rhetoric in ancient and medieval times. What stood out was how different metaphor, simile, allegory, analogue (and the figurative by any other name) were from the other devices and how similar they were to each other. It was as if these were ways of thinking as well as forms of speaking.

This prompted me to look at investigators such as Lakeoff and Johnson. Many of the ideas and theories about metaphor are very well known and I do not want to repeat them here. I want to deal with some less well known ideas.

Embodied cognition bridges the gap between babies being born with an empty mind, a ‘blank slate’, and having to figure everything out for themselves; and the other extreme in which babies are born with all the cognitive concepts they need to understand the world. Neither of these extremes are credible. But being born with some very useful starting points and tools, but quite a small group of them, can allow the child to get to a general understanding relatively quickly. We can think of metaphor in this sense. The child has embodied cognition that uses metaphor to get from a physical grounding point to complex and abstract notions.

Take the structure that can be built from the child’s idea of motion that is grounded in the child’s own ability to engage in intentional movement. We could draw a little map of this: there is ‘here’ where I am now, there is ‘start’ where I was when this movement started, ‘target’ where I want to get to, ‘path’, ‘goal’, ‘obstacle’, ‘finish’ and so on. As the child matures other grounded concepts get added. Eventually the child has the concept of a journey which is more complex but still heavily grounded in the child’s physical experience. But journey can become another map including many more ingredients in its structure. Lakeoff did a lot of work on this particular metaphoric structure and I will not repeat those structures (like career, life, transport, exploration) here. As adults we end up (metaphorically) with nested piles of maps, each giving a structure: concepts and relationship between the concepts of a group things that can be related by metaphor.

If I want to explain a computer memory, I say that each bit of data is stored in memory in a particular address. What does this do? The word address brings up a map set, let’s call it the postal system map set. Here everything has an address and there is a standard way to identify an address. Things (letters) can be delivered to an address by a system (postal system) using various forms of transport etc. Once we understand the postal system, we can understand many other systems with similar structures by relabeling the concepts and making small modifications to the relationships, a little tweaking and a new map goes on the pile. In a sense what the words in a language do is to point out to the listener appropriate metaphorical maps to aid in understanding what is being said. It is not just language, we can get these prods and nudges from many things in our environment and from our own thoughts. There are visual, auditory, kinesthetic metaphorical ‘maps’ too. One of the problems with experiments in this area is that very small unnoticed clues can affect the results – a sort of human ‘clever Hans’ effect.

There is a sense in which language is just one huge metaphoric machine. There are dead metaphors. If you take a page of a dictionary and examine a word’s different meanings and etymology you can see how many words are obviously derived from metaphors that have lost their figurativeness through long use and become literal. Look at the word ‘go’ as a good example. What does it mean to die as a metaphor and become literal? One, it is processed in a different part of the brain. Two, it has lost some of its poetic and emotional power. But more importantly, its metaphoric base has changed type; it no longer seems to cause recall its metaphorical roots.

It is a very important question for neuroscience and linguistics to answer: how is what I have (metaphorically) described as grounding – mapping - dieing – pointing-to etc. actually happen in the brain. In terms of autism, it is also a medical question. How is this powerful tool of learning, thinking and communicating realized in the flesh?

2 thoughts on “Metaphors are basic

  1. judith copithorne

    Fascinating. I read Mark Johnson’s book on metaphor as the brain uses it and I was very interested. I
    t is amazing how many things we do of which we are totally unconscious isn’t it.? I enjoyed your description of further examinations in these ares.


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