Scientists have used metaphors to conceptualize and understand phenomena since early Greek philosophy. Aristotle used many anthropomorphic ideas to describe natural occurrences, but the technology of the time, needing constant human intervention, offered little in the way of metaphors for the mind. Since then, theorists have compared the human mind to the clock, the steam engine, the radio, the radar, and the computer, all of increasing complexity.
Although the computational metaphor of the human mind has caused much debate and is inherently limited, we just can’t seem to shake it. The similarities have proven useful in the study of symbol manipulation systems, cybernetics, and mental representation. The computer — like the mind — is a system of such staggering complexity, yet one that can’t understand itself.
According to several linguists and cognitive scientists, it’s only natural that we use metaphors in an attempt to understand our minds. “To think is to grasp metaphor,” Steven Pinker writes in The Stuff of Thought (Viking, 2007), an idea also known as “The Metaphor Metaphor.” Its strongest advocate is metaphor guru George Lakoff. Pinker likes many of Lakoff’s ideas, but finds issue with many others, most of all his over-attributing of semantic framing. The following statement is from an experiment by Kahneman and Tversky and the most often cited example of framing (for example, it pops up in both Pinker’s book and Gary Marcus’s below):
“Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as, follows: If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two thirds probability that no people will be saved. Which of the two programs would you favor?”
As this example illustrates, it’s not difficult to feel the power of rhetorical/semantic framing when language like “people will be saved” is juxtaposed with “a two thirds probability that no people will be saved.” Problem being that the language used compares situations that are not synonymous.
While Pinker praises Lakoff, ultimately he finds Lakoff’s view of metaphor too relativistic, too ungrounded to be a foundation for thinking. Moreover, he finds it condescending and a smacking of elitism: “Lakoff states that ‘frames trump facts’ in the minds of citizens, and that the dominant frames are imposed by those in power to serve their interests. It’s a condescending and cynical theory of politics, implying that average people are indiscriminately gullible and that political debate cannot and should not be about the actual merits of policies and people” (p. 259). But frames don’t necessarily trump facts, as Pinker points out, especially since frames can be used in a manner consistent with the facts described. I think that both Pinker and Lakoff run a little too close to oversimplifying the situation, and that our minds operate somewhere in between the two.
“Don’t trust your mind, it’ll let you down
Don’t have a thing to go on…”
— Dinosaur Jr., “Blowing It”
For all of their strength and insight, all of our metaphors for the mind eventually break down. As does our mind itself — and no wonder! Like your average operating system, our brains are built out of other systems, layered on top each other — from the reptilian brain stem, to the Paleo-Mamalian limbic system, to the human neo-cortex (or, as Edward O. Wilson puts it, from “heartbeat,” to “heartstrings,” to “heartless”).
In Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), Gary Marcus illustrates in example after example how the mind is a hodgepodge of adaptations and mutations, a system of systems built on top of other systems — a kluge of the highest lack of order. Marcus leads us on a tour through everything from remembering names and numbers to believing weird thoughts and things. His metaphors for the mind run more along the lines of “grab bag,” “recalcitrant mess,” and “not a total train wreck,” with qualifiers such as “flawed,” “genuinely suboptimal,” and “mistakes were made.”
Marcus’s book is fun in a way that books about the brain often aren’t, and his guiding metaphor is apt (a kluge is “a clumsy or inelegant fix”), and it might be the best one yet — because the human brain is nothing if not an inelegant amalgam of leftover stuff. But, to paraphrase and poeticize Steven Johnson, trying to understand the brain is trying to understand ourselves.
Johnson, S. Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. New York: Scribner, 2004.
Lakoff, G. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Lakoff, G. & M. Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Marcus, G. Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
Mascis, J./Dinosaur Jr. Green Mind. New York: Blanco Y Negro/Sire, 1990.
Ortony, A. (Ed.). Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Pinker, S. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. New York: Viking, 2007.
Vroon, P. A. “Man-machine Analogs and Theoretical Mainstreams in Psychology.” In W. J. Baker, M. E. Hyland, H. van Rappard, & A.W. Staats (Eds.), Current Issues in Theoretical Psychology (pp. 393–141). New York: North-Holland, 1987.
Wilson, E. O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Random House, 1998.
Note: I realize that the mind and the brain are widely considered to be very different things, and I agree, but due to the level of abstraction in this piece, I decided to use the terms interchangeably.