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”.

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