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Metaphors as Catalyst and Scaffold

Via John Hagel, a particularly interesting NYT article on the neroscience of metaphors. I have always considered metaphors and analogies to be a “spark” or a “catalyst” to insight but they appear to be potentially structural organizers or “signal switches” of information processing:

This Is Your Brain on Metaphors

….Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.

And we even understand that June isn’t literally busting out all over. It would seem that doing this would be hard enough to cause a brainstorm. So where did this facility with symbolism come from? It strikes me that the human brain has evolved a necessary shortcut for doing so, and with some major implications.

….This potential to manipulate behavior by exploiting the brain’s literal-metaphorical confusions about hygiene and health is also shown in a study by Mark Landau and Daniel Sullivan of the University of Kansas and Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona. Subjects either did or didn’t read an article about the health risks of airborne bacteria. All then read a history article that used imagery of a nation as a living organism with statements like, “Following the Civil War, the United States underwent a growth spurt.” Those who read about scary bacteria before thinking about the U.S. as an organism were then more likely to express negative views about immigration.

Another example of how the brain links the literal and the metaphorical comes from a study by Lawrence Williams of the University of Colorado and John Bargh of Yale. Volunteers would meet one of the experimenters, believing that they would be starting the experiment shortly. In reality, the experiment began when the experimenter, seemingly struggling with an armful of folders, asks the volunteer to briefly hold their coffee. As the key experimental manipulation, the coffee was either hot or iced. Subjects then read a description of some individual, and those who had held the warmer cup tended to rate the individual as having a warmer personality, with no change in ratings of other attributes.

From this simple associative effect are the conditions from which a “eureka” moment of insight can crystallize, as it did for Archimedes in his bath:

Effect—-> Association —-> Orientation ——> Insight ——> Extrapolation/Generalization


Curtis has commented and expanded the discussion, though his comments seem to go into my akismet spam folder. Should be fixed now:


There is the potential not only for insight but also for deception, whether the deceivers are others in our milieu or we ourselves (and our brains) may be deceivers….

True. Metaphors and analogies can crystallize insughts but they can also become powerfully attractive distorions of reality – sort of “anti-models” or  “false models”.

….As a model of what might be called metaphorization, these similarities make sense.  The OODA in all its forms, including the WOODA which includes World, represents a dynamic process of cycling (although perhaps not always uniform and unidirectional cycling) of information.  The focal point of the A-OODA, Observe above, is the abstract locus of observation:  New information received from without comes into contact (abstractly speaking!) with previously built understandings, or Mental Constructs, and relatively newer insights, or Conditional Constructs.  These diverse abstract observations have, to some extent, already prepared the mind for interpretation of new information and, these observations taken as whole create an opportunity for triangulation (of a sort.)  Using Mark Safranski’s terminology, after the information is Associated, it is Oriented through analysis and synthesis, Insights may form the basis of new hypotheses which may either be conditional (re-looped into further observation w/ outside information and previous understandings) or may be accepted as finalized understandings about what one has observed (Extrapolation/Generalization).

Hmmmm…. I have read that “insight” as a neurocognitive event tends to occur in two brain regions, the lateral inferior prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. The associative work of insight correlates with the former region but the “combinatory play” cited by Einstein and referenced , if I recall, by Charles and leading to new hypothesis correlates with the latter.  I am not a neuroscientist, so I am now wondering if insight is a distributed, parallel processing, brain function or if we are really talking about two separate cognitive effects – an “Insight 1” and “Insight 2”?

Anyone who cares to weigh in here, feel free…..

12 Responses to “Metaphors as Catalyst and Scaffold”

  1. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks for this, Zen.  It’s a fascinating article, and ties in closely both with the series of HipBone Approach posts I’ve been posting recently, and with some work I was doing today on St Francis and his meeting with the Sultan Malik al-Kamil, sparked by a passage in Hoebericht’s Francis and Islam, my copy of which has been in storage for months and came back into my hands just recently…  More on this later. 

  2. J. Scott Says:

    I find the "scaffold" notion particularly compelling. NN Taleb has advanced the notion that everything is life is like stairs (scaffold works, too). More often than not our vision is obfuscated by our reluctance to "see" differently. Greg Berns’ book Iconoclast points out that iconoclasts "see" things differently, overcoming fear, and the social skills to act.  There are two great conversations over at the Boyd LinkedIn groups surrounding "observe" of OODA. 

  3. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    This potential to manipulate behavior by exploiting the brain’s literal-metaphorical confusions

    Happens all the time. .Your model,

    Effect—> Association —> Orientation —> Insight —> Extrapolation/Generalization

    matches up fairly well to what I once showed for the A-OODA, or abstract OODA for a modified OODA Loop–.Effect=C-Observe (Concrete Observe).Association=A-Observe (Abstract Observation, in which present sensory perceptions from C-Observe are combined with previous Mental Constructs (or, old information) and, er, associated..Orientation=A-Orient, or analysis & synthesis of these present and past observations..Insight=A-Decide; hypothesis etc. occur at this point..Extrapolation/Generalization=A-Act: Understandings, ideologies, long-term memories, and so forth occur here, leading to the creation of Mental Constructs that will be used later..Part of the reason we approach understanding this way, or interaction w/ our environment, is the simple fact that we only ever witness behaviors, whether of other persons in our environment or of the non-human environment.  We do not witness the internal operations (in humans, this would be their own A-OODA) but only actions, activities, and we must infer from these the whole human or whole environment.  So there is, to oversimplify things, a kind of triangulation between present observations and abstract computations built up over a lifetime..I’ve been trying to associate this approach w/ the subject of performativity and performance, lately. 

  4. david ronfeldt Says:

    for your amusement:  years ago, a friend in a cranky argumentative mood once said to me, “metaphors are for mental midgets.”  
    during lunch i’d remarked that our society was becoming fraught with too many bubbles and black holes, in metaphorical senses.  being of a literally scientific bent, he disputed my observation right away.  but then it became clear he didn’t know what a metaphor was.  so we changed the subject.  an hour later, just as i was opening the door to exit his car, he flung that zinger at me, in an effort to have the last word:  “ronfeldt, metaphors are for mental midgets.”  
    i still chuckle.  his epigram, which aimed to belittle the usage of metaphor, is itself inherently metaphorical.  he meant for it to mean that i was something of a mental midget.  he hadn’t noticed that his epigram automatically made him one too.
    this epigram is so confounding and amusing that i now think it deserves to be on a t-shirt at a cognitive science conference.  or at least in a comments section of a zenpundit post. . . .

  5. J. Scott Says:

    David, I agree:)) Great story!

  6. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    One of the problems with metaphorical relationshipping is that it compares identities; so there is no gradation or at least the possibility of missing gradation..For instance, certain pundits can equate real sexual molestation with airport frisking, in order to manipulate a polity.  That there might be some small similarity gets lost in the comparison.  So much for using metaphors to manipulate.  In poetry, it is used for better (morally) effect.

  7. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Well I might revise that last.  Poetry can express a bias as well as anything.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hey, Curtis:
    One of the reasons for my analytic approach (and the HipBone Games on which it is based) is a suspicion that we haven’t worked with metaphor and analogy with anything like the same rigor that we’ve applied to deductive and inductive logic. 
    I’m pretty sure the apprehension of analogy — pattern recognition, if you like — is a basic part of human functioning, but it’s not something we’ve focused in on so closely as to turn it into a tool.
    In my view, this would involve a two-stage process: in the first stage, one glimpses an analogy, in the second one "weighs" it for its equalities and inequalities — the rich connection set that it validly proposes, and the ways in which the terms are not equal but distinctly different, the ways in which the analogy does not hold water, if you like.
    It may be that this second phase can itself be accomplished in terms of analogy, and that an analogical "chain"  built along these lines would be the most powerful tool for sharpening our understanding of analogy in general and a given instance of analogy in particular.
    In any case, getting a better sense of the ways in which analogy can both deceive and enlighten us would certainly clear up many of the issues of "moral equivalency" that plague discussions of (eg) the Israeli-Palestinian question.
    And somewhere in there, there’s a kind of mental parallax to be dealt with — or perhaps a sense that it’s not always easy for us to see both the similarities and the differences between two highly charged and complex situations, in somewhat the same way that it’s hard for us to bear in mind both "views" of a Necker cube at the same time.

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    Your aphorism and story is deliciously Epimenidean!

  10. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Charles, I have expanded my thoughts at my blog.  The link on my name should take you there; I seem to have difficulty posting links here.

  11. Drs. Fernette and Brock Eide Says:

    Great post, zp. It’s a pretty wild idea that we’re constantly being bombarded by literal-metaphorical cross-talk and responding to it – although only dimly aware.

    Re: the localization question –  it really isn’t like this spot vs. that spot – although it can be pretty misleading how the studies are talked about. Instead it’s like reverberating networks that rise and fall in intensity. If you look at Marcel Just’s work here, lots of brain lights up. Lots of the areas are the ‘default network’ that’s so active with daydreaming.

    We had a great talk with Mark Jung-Beeman for our book on Dyslexia – he has some interesting thoughts about insight-based problem solving – here’s an article by Jonathan Lehrer where he’s interviewed.

  12. WOODA = C(OODA) + A(OODA) / 4GW & 5GW – Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    […] [“Metaphors as Catalyst and Scaffold”, Mark Safranksi, Zenpundit.] […]

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