Metaphors are a way to explain one experience in terms of another experience.
For example, think of the metaphor “The movie was a roller-coaster.” In this metaphor, we are comparing the experience of watching a movie to the experience of a roller-coaster, even though objectively the experiences are very different.
A metaphor works by highlighting “conceptual similarities” between two different experiences. So a movie can be a roller-coaster in the sense that it has “ups” and “downs,” and is an overall exciting and thrilling experience.
According to the classic book Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, metaphors are essential for thinking and understanding our world in deeper ways, especially abstract concepts like “love” or “happiness.”
In fact metaphors are so embedded in our society and culture that we often use metaphors all the time without even realizing it.
Basic metaphors like, “I’m feeling up” or “I’m feeling down” are common ways we describe our emotions in terms of a physical orientation (where happiness is considered “up,” and sadness is considered “down”).
To George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, metaphors aren’t just fancy ways of saying things – they have a direct influence on how we see our world and how we interact with it.
Therefore, the metaphors we choose to describe things can make a big difference in how we live.
For example, one interesting study describes how the metaphor of cancer as “fighting a battle” can be harmful, and it can lead to feelings of guilt and failure in those who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Metaphors frame how we see the world and interpret it. Every metaphor has the potential to highlight some aspects of our experience, while ignoring others. So the metaphors we choose to use can be very influential on how we experience the world.
Here are just a few examples of how different metaphors frame our experiences in different ways.
How metaphors change the way we see our experiences
First let’s look at two different metaphors to describe “love,” and how each highlights different aspects of the experience.
A. Love is a physical force:
- “There were sparks at first sight.”
- “We gravitated toward each other.”
- “We lost our momentum.”
In this metaphor, love is seen as an uncontrollable force that we succumb to. We don’t have much power over it, it just comes and goes without us having a choice in the matter.
B. Love is a collaborative work of art:
- “We need to work together.”
- “Relationships require creativity.”
- “Love is about sharing and compromise.”
In this metaphor, love isn’t just something that passively happens to us, but something we participate in. To make a great “work of art” we have to work together and be willing to experiment with new things.
Both metaphors for “love” highlight different aspects of our experiences. Neither one is necessarily wrong. But it’s interesting to see how each metaphor influences our perspective of “love” in a different way.
Now let’s look at two different metaphors, this time to describe “arguments.” Let’s see how each highlights different aspects of being in an argument.
C. Argument is war:
- “She destroyed his argument.”
- “His ideas conflicted with mine.”
- “Your counter-attack was weak.”
In this metaphor, we see having an argument as a battle. Each person has their particular position – and each person attacks and defends their position, until someone loses or surrenders.
D. Argument is a journey:
- “Let me walk you through this step-by-step.”
- “This brings us to our next point…”
- “Finally, we’ve arrived at the conclusion that…”
In this metaphor, we see having an argument as a journey. The goal is to start where the other person is and then guide them to where you stand on a particular issue.
Like in the “love” metaphors, both of these “argument” metaphors hold a grain of truth. Neither one is right or wrong – they just highlight different aspects of our experiences.
One of the best ways to change the meaning of our experiences is to find new metaphors to describe them.
A provocative new metaphor can drastically change the way you think and feel about a situation, and it may even add new insight into a situation that we hadn’t previously thought of.
For example, you can take a past experience and see it as something that “imprisons” you, or something that helps you “grow” into a better person.
The metaphors of “Prison” and “Growth” are two common metaphors we can apply to our past experiences, but each significantly changes how we may perceive the situation.
The ultimate lesson is that we have flexibility over how we interpret our experiences – and metaphors play a powerful role in exercising that flexibility – and actively choosing new ways of looking at things.
Metaphors can also play a powerful role in communicating new ideas to others. Often a good metaphor can be more persuasive than just a list of facts or reasons. Metaphors attract us to new ideas in a deep-down, intuitive way that can be hard to forget.
One interesting study found that using metaphors can help people connect better by increasing our understanding of each other’s experiences.
You may have seen the recent commercial of a child describing his asthma attack as “like a fish with no water.” This is just one simple example of how metaphors can help us understand other people’s experiences, even if we’ve never experienced them directly.
Metaphors play a powerful role in understanding our world. It’s almost impossible to speak and think without using metaphors in some way.
Analogy as the Core of Cognition
Here is a related lecture by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. In it he gives his theory that analogy is the core of all cognition.
Hofstadter tells us that analogies aren’t just a small type of reasoning (like the questions you’d find on an IQ test), but a highly sophisticated intersection of mental concepts that are present in much of our everyday thinking.
He defines analogy-making and metaphor-making as “a perception of common essences between two different mental representations.”
This is a very insightful and informative watch with some really good examples to give you a clearer idea of how pervasive analogies and metaphors are in our thinking.
(I’ve skipped the long intro and synced the video to the beginning of the lecture).
In summary, the metaphors we use on a daily basis are worth paying close attention to. You’d be surprised by just how commonly we use them and just how drastically they can change how we think about an experience.
If you want to learn more about how important metaphors are to our everyday thinking, check out Metaphors We Live By. It will make you look at the relationship between “reality” and “language” in a new and insightful way.
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