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One of the tools I find to be highly useful in making intellectual connections with other people is the employment of metaphors, particularly at the start of a debate or a brainstorming process. Metaphors are a cognitive accelerant. They catch the attention of the reader or audience, raise the emotive level and instigate conceptual linking . People will react strongly against metaphors that appear to challenge their values or epistemological worldview, even if the offense merely involves a clever turn of phrase.

In other words, metaphors are useful because they are generative. They are a potential path to new insights.

There are many theories about metaphors – actually a tediously large number – but whatever the truth about how metaphors work, they are deeply involved in the breakthrough process in the sciences, capturing the phenomena as a mental model long before it can be experimentally proven true or the math worked out. That is to say, metaphors are most appropriate when coming to grips with a thing that is new and not yet well understood. They lend themselves well to simplifying complex systems down to a comprehensible essence.

Not least, in terms of memetic appeal, metaphors have the strength of a titan. They stick in our memory. Many of us are familiar with Isaiah Berlin’s Fox ” and “Hedgehog” but such metaphors are used all of the time by bloggers. Steve DeAngelis at ERMB recently wrote about a David Brooks column on relationships which ” Ecologists and Engineers” was the metaphor. Here is how that deceptively simple sounding phrase triggered a complex analysis from Steve:

“Other examples of engineers who have connected with ecologists are Bill Gates and Dean Kamen. The results of ecologist/engineer connections is almost universally beneficial. To be fair to Brooks, his column is about politicians (natural ecologists in that they appreciate the power of relationships) who turn into engineers once in office (believing that all problems can be solved by throwing enough resources at them). The result, Brooks writes, is often “policy failure.” To make his point, Brooks focuses on America’s failure to increase its percentage of college graduates despite having thrown billions of dollars at the challenge. He writes:

When politicians address this problem, they inevitably ignore the core issues — lack of preparedness, personal crises, disengagement, cognitive dissonance. They flee to the issue of tuition costs. They think like engineers.

In other words, even in domestic situations “disconnected defines danger.” In an earlier blog, I discussed Frans Johansson’s book The Medici Effect and noted what an intoxicating experience the Medici Effect can be. The Medici Effect is all about getting ecologists and engineers and artisans and scientists and so forth to connect. When that happens, great things result. I really think that is what Brooks is trying to say. He certainly can’t believe that ecologists promote better policies than engineers. Any myopic attempt to solve problems will result in bad policy. Resilient organizations understand that.”

I called the metaphor ” deceptively simple” because ” Ecologists and Engineers” is also a set of analogies ( another very important cognitive tool for stimulating insight) that have been presented using alliteration. The mind of the reader is being grabbed from several directions at once which may explain why Steve, busy CEO that he is, spent his limited time reading that column in the NYT. There were multiple ” hooks” in play with that metaphor that the brain finds naturally interesting, making ” Ecologists and Engineers” a dynamic concept for connectivity in itself. Good metaphors bridge domains, supercharge intellectual creativity and inspire new relationships.

Next time you have a meeting to attend or a blog post to write, try to open with a strong and artfully constructed metaphor. Then sit back and watch how people react. The results may surprise you.

4 Responses to “”

  1. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    From the Lind article you linked in a post above:

    “Operationally, Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on Israel are the matador’s cape.”

    But does that mean that we can think of Hezbollah as a matador and Israel as a bull?

    Same consideration applies to mixing “metaphor” with “connectivity.” The danger is in believing that just because we can find similarities between these two ideas, we can transfer other properties too, properties which really don’t apply to both. Specifically, there’s the very real danger of suggesting that just because our minds can “connect” two things, they must actually be connected. In which case, “connectivity” itself becomes a metaphor (so to speak) rather than an actual concrete connection of any type whatsoever.

  2. Larry Dunbar Says:

    “But does that mean that we can think of Hezbollah as a matador and Israel as a bull?”
    For such a smart guy, don’t you understand: It’s a trap. The cape has a sword behind it. I think that is a pretty good analogy. Or at least that is what Lind was trying to tell us, I agree.

  3. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    The cape may have a sword behind it, but is Israel the Bull incapable of knowing there is a sword behind the cape?

    That’s the problem and potential danger with metaphors: once our minds have found a similarity between two things (Israel/Bull), we transfer other properties and treat the two as identicals.

    But I meant my comments primarily to address the conflation of metaphor with connectivity. There is an unspoken dream, perhaps, that just because we can imagine a connection, via metaphor, that our imagination must equate to real connection. Then, whenever our minds conceive of connection, well, connection must exist! It is treating connectivity as a metaphor, probably from the hope that dreaming connection is enough to produce real connectivity.

  4. Larry Dunbar Says:

    “There is an unspoken dream, perhaps, that just because we can imagine a connection, via metaphor, that our imagination must equate to real connection.”

    I agree. Just because a person says something can happen, doesn’t mean it will or could happen. But the problem with war is that there is an element of chance to the equation. I am sure that any general will tell you that despite all the advance weapons, tactics, and training there is a chance you might lose a war.

    So when someone like William Lind says, “[Israeli war with Iran] could easily cost America the army it now has deployed in Iraq (http://www.d-n-i.net/lind/lind_7_18_06.htm)” or that Israel is falling into a trap (http://www.d-n-i.net/lind/lind_7_28_06.htm) I would listen very closely. Other wise you might says statements to the effect that no one could imagine (dream) flying planes into buildings, which was not true.

    “The cape may have a sword behind it, but is Israel the Bull incapable of knowing there is a sword behind the cape?”

    You are making the assumption that just because the bull sees the sword he is capable of doing anything about it. The use of the cape is to get inside the bull’s OODA loop.

    The bull learns to work with the cape and matador. The bull no longer moves as he wants to, but as the matador wants to (Boyd). Once the matador and bull are in the same loop, the matador simply replaces the sword with the cape. Even if Israel knows this is a trap there is not much they can do about it unless they are able to move out of their cognitive loop.

    An Army is a coherent force. To change, it would seem to me, that you would lose a certain amount of coherency. So the force is towards no-change, it can be done, but I don’t suppose its is easy. It is not something you would want to do unless you know for sure it is a trap, what is the sword and trip wire, and will it actually defeat your army or not. Sometimes you just have to go with what got you in the game to begin with.

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