How We Make Sense of Our Lives

Summary: 

Metaphors are not just linguistic devices. We can find them everywhere in our speech.
The human mind makes sense of new concepts by thinking metaphorically: we draw analogies between things we don't know and things we do know in order to understand the new concept. This is one reason why metaphors are so common in our language.
Metaphors can change the way we view ourselves, our relationships, and the world.

Like most people, I discovered the world of metaphors in English class. I must have been around 12 or 13. The teacher was Mrs. Turnbull, the text was Romeo and Juliet, and the metaphor was Juliet is the sun. Mrs. Turnbull explained that a metaphor was a linguistic device that compares two seemingly unrelated things: "Juliet is the sun tells us how important Juliet is to Romeo - she's as important as that celestial body that powers all life on earth." Next came Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken". Our class didn't quite get it and interpreted it literally - the guy is lost in some forest and he wants to know which way to go. Booor-ing. Well, not quite: "the poem says that life IS a journey and to have an interesting life you should do things that not many other people have done." Wow, who knew?

From those whiffs of metaphors I got in English class, I got the sense that there was something special about these linguistic devices. They had to be better than similes which uses like and as to draw comparisons. Romeo didn't say Juliet IS LIKE the sun, he said that Juliet IS the sun and that's a much stronger statement. For the decade plus after I first came across them, I treated metaphors merely as fancy ornaments to prose and poetry, the cherry on top a cake. (Yes, that is a metaphor for a metaphor and a shamefully bad one at that.)

Metaphors are everywhere

But it turns out that metaphors live outside the world of Shakespearean plays and Frostian poetry. Our speech and language are littered with expressions that are instances of particular metaphors. Here are some that I picked up just this past week.

On Monday, my aunt used the {IMPORTANT PEOPLE = LIGHT SOURCE} metaphor. She described her baby grandson as "the light of my life". This is a variant of the metaphor that Romeo uses when he calls Juliet the sun. And, my aunt is no poet.

On Tuesday, I heard an interviewer use the {LIFE = JOURNEY} metaphor when he asked his guest to "Tell me the story of how you got here". This is a variant of the metaphor that Frost uses in his poem.

On Wednesday, a friend of mine went through a breakup and despairingly used the {TIME = MONEY} metaphor. She moaned, "I invested a lot of time in him, but it was a waste of time. I wish I knew earlier that it wasn't worth my while".

On Thursday, my mother used the {MIND = MACHINE} metaphor. She said "I'm getting a little rusty these days, my mind just isn't operating in the same way."

On Friday, the disheartening feedback I received on an essay used the {ARGUMENT = STRUGGLE} metaphor. The reviewer said "most of the author's claims are difficult to defend (see references below which attack most weak points of the argument)." After re-reading what I've written, I sadly concluded that "the reviewer's comments were right on target."

On Saturday, I came across the {INFLATION = VILLAIN} metaphor as I continued with a lengthy book on the Great Depression. In the chapter that I read, business owners and politicians explained how "inflation is our greatest enemy - it's eating up our profits and attacking the foundations of our society".

Now, it's Sunday and all of this has made me care enough to say this: If language is a cake, metaphors are not the cherry on top, metaphors are the flour. THAT STUFF IS EVERYWHERE!

Yet, we overlook metaphors because they're so deeply embedded in our language that they no longer look like the cherry on top, they've become part of the cake. (I promise I will stop with the metaphors for metaphors after this.) The {TIME=MONEY} metaphor is so common that we almost need to be reminded that TIME and MONEY are not the same objects. They have different properties - you can't get your time back, but you can sometimes get your money back.

Metaphors help us understand new concepts

Why are metaphors everywhere in our language and speech? What does this say about how our minds work? In their book "Metaphors we live by" (1980), Psychologist/Philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that human thought processes are largely metaphorical. We come to understand new concepts by drawing analogies between the new concept and an older concept that we already understand - "the human conceptual system is metaphorically structured".  

Here's how it works. Metaphors highlight similarities between the thing you want to understand (the Source) and the thing you already understand (the Target). By drawing a parallel between the Source, a novel concept, with the Target, something we understand already - perhaps through direct experience with it through our physical bodies, we might get to grips with what the novel concept actually is all about.

Think about the way children learn new concepts. Children might not understand what an ARGUMENT is but they do understand what STRUGGLE is - it's throwing a tantrum when your parents say it's bedtime but you want to stay up ; it's wriggling to get out of stroller; it's their first fistfight. Children might not understand what INFLATION is. Nor what it means for prices to go up faster than your standard of living. But they do understand what a VILLAIN is - it's that bad guy in the film that wants to kill the superhero; it's the school bully on the playground; it's the monster under your bed. By drawing a parallel between the physical world and the conceptual world, these metaphors give us a glimpse into the essence of these new concepts.  

We also use metaphors as pedagogical tools to learn scientific theories. The {ATOM = SOLAR SYSTEM} metaphor describes atoms as consisting of a nucleus with a number of electrons that orbit around that nucleus, similar to the solar system. Most children don't know what an atom looks like but some have posters of solar systems in their bedrooms. The {DNA = CODE BOOK} metaphor is commonly used to describe the humane genome. This allows us to think of the human genome as a book consisting of instructions for how to create a human being. The {ANTIBODY and ANTIGEN = LOCK and KEY} helps us understand the immune system responds: antigens (the key) interacting with an antibody (the lock) that just fits the structure of the antigen.

Aristotle once said "Ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh" (Rhetoric 1410b). To make sense of things, we draw analogies between things we don't know and things we do know - that is to say, we think metaphorically.

Helpful vs. Unhelpful Metaphors

If some metaphors are helpful for understanding things, then it seems that other metaphors could be unhelpful or even lead us to misunderstand things. Here's where the power of metaphors truly lie.  

Let's think about this through two different metaphors for love: {LOVE = PHYSICAL FORCE} and {LOVE = JOINT CREATIVE PROCESS}. We often hear instances of the first metaphor in movies and in daily life. The breakup that my friend went through on Wednesday was preceded by a successful first date during which she "felt the electricity and sparks" between them. That first date was followed by a couple of months where they were "magnetically drawn to each other and no force could pull them apart". Instances of the second metaphor are less common. I have heard people say "I think I can create something amazing with him/her", but I've never heard anyone say "We're going to make progress on our painting together" for "we're going to work on our relationship to take it to the next level".

Metaphors are powerful because which metaphor you use to think about love can affect the way you approach your relationship. Here's why.

First, metaphors emphasize certain aspects of an experience over others. Calling LOVE a PHYSICAL FORCE highlights the impulsive nature of love but hides the fact that it requires effort. By emphasizing certain aspects of an experience, these metaphors make our brains pay attention to the highlighted bits and ignore the hidden bits.  

Second, we focus on the bits that the metaphor highlights and draw conclusions about our experiences based on them. The {LOVE = JOINT CREATIVE PROCESS} metaphor entails: love is work, love is action, love isn't something that happens to you, love is something you choose, love requires cooperation, love requires communication, love involves shared responsibility. In contrast, the {LOVE = PHYSICAL FORCE} metaphor entails: love is something beyond your control, love is a feeling, love is something that happens to you, love is instantaneous. Our interpretation of love looks different under these two metaphors because of what's been highlighted and hidden. Thinking about love as a JOINT CREATIVE PROCESS imbues LOVE with new meaning. Our relationship is a work of art, me and you are the artists, and our love is expressed through our collaboration in this project.

Third, our reasons for doing things depend on how we interpret the situation we find ourselves in. If metaphors can change how we interpret events and experiences, then they can also affect the way we act. If LOVE is a PHYSICAL FORCE, then there's little reason for me to actively do things that keep this relationship going. The sparks are either there or not, I can't buy fireworks to light it up. But if LOVE is a JOINT CREATIVE PROCESS that demands work and activity from both me and you, then I'm going to put in the effort, patience, and become co-creators with you to craft something great.

Choose your metaphors

If our brains are hardwired to think metaphorically, then understanding ourselves, our relationships, and the world is an act of finding metaphors to make sense of it all. So I promise myself to be conscious of the metaphors I use and to be explicit about the ways that those metaphors are highlighting and hiding things. And if I do find them limiting, I promise to go on a hunt for better metaphors to live my life by. Perhaps then we will be the authors and poet of this mysterious thing called life.

***

References

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago press.
Pinker, S. (2007). The stuff of thought: Language as a window into human nature. Penguin. (Chapter 5)
Taylor, C., & Dewsbury, B. M. (2018). On the problem and promise of metaphor use in science and science communication. Journal of microbiology & biology education, 19(1).