Metaphorically Speaking

Metaphorically Speaking

November 7, 2011

The Eggs are Sunny Side Up and Raindrops Feel Like Butterfly Kisses

They’re everywhere.  That’s the beauty and poetry of metaphors.  (Oh, that’s two more!) Figures of speech yes, but so much more, they’re how we make sense of things and communicate.  James Geary reports in his book, I Is an Other, that we use metaphors every 10 to 25 words and some recent linguistic theories suggest all language is essentially metaphorical.  Communicating an idea with a metaphor is as natural as (insert any figure of speech you prefer that expresses that thought in a simple way).

Why We Can’t Shake Them

How is it that we’re so natural at metaphor making?  Each of us has about one hundred billion neurons, or nerve cells, in our brains.  They’re memory cells, really.  Every experience causes small clusters of neurons to activate, creating a neural pattern. Later, when we encounter something similar, those very same neural patterns activate again. When neural patterns activate they communicate amongst themselves and create thoughts.  These thoughts become mental models or schemata—the basic components of implicit memory—that help us to interpret what is happening in the moment and anticipate what’s probably coming next.  All of our experiences and thoughts are evaluated via the mental models encoded in our brains throughout our lives.

As our minds use mental models of the world to assess moment-to-moment information, metaphors become shorthand (oops, one more) that helps us to more rapidly connect and convey mental models.  The first time we see a dog shake water from his fur our brains create a neural pattern for that experience and access it throughout our lives as a representation of getting rid of something by “shaking it off.”  When someone says, “I can’t shake it,” the thought connects metaphorically and processes automatically.  Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t shake the mental processing or ignore the metaphor.  It works in the same way if just now I told you, “No matter what, don’t think of a pink elephant.”

A Pattern Recognition Machine

Because the human brain is so adept at storing our life experiences—one million billion bits of data—it has to be incredibly efficient at retrieving and making sense of such a vast amount of information.  Mental models help us to quickly interpret the enormous amounts of stimuli our brains process.  We access and reactivate patterns again and again until thousands of familiar mental models become automatic and metaphorical. Humans can’t run fast and we don’t have sharp teeth so we have to outwit our foes by instantly recognizing and responding to patterns in our world.  For this reason, the brain is really an enormous pattern recognition device.  Jeff Hawkins suggests, “Spoken and written words are just patterns in the world, as are melodies, cars and houses.  With language, we can take patterns that we learn in a lifetime and transmit them to our children and our tribe.”

And we wouldn’t want it any other way!  Our mental capacity to quickly assess and communicate whether something is as angry as a lion or as gentle as a kitten makes it easier to identify and faster to determine responses that help us to survive.  Once something becomes familiar—including a well-known brand–we rarely need to think about it.  In fact, it’s quite possible that if we had to think about everything, all the time, our heads would explode.

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