Analogy and Metaphors
Comparison is one pivotal strategy for evaluating and expressing what is
going on out there. You could argue that the basis of cognition is comparison.
Analogy is a fundamental process of reasoning. The association of a known entity
with an unknown simplifies the cognitive task of evaluating an ever-changing
field of experience. Recognition consists of comparing a new object or event
with remembered objects and events. Comparisons are made quickly without
conscious awareness by feature detectors in various parts of the brain.
Feature extraction and pattern recognition are both essential features of
subconscious cognitive processes. All animals make comparative decisions quickly
and easily, but not always correctly. The finding of similarity is important in
the determination of safe and effective paths to follow. Humans, like other
animals are naturally cautious or fearful of the new and unfamiliar. If a
comparison does not lead to recognition, then the new object or event feels
unfamiliar, strange and is potentially threatening. This comparative ability
extends deeply into the words and syntax of human languages. By placing two
cognitive domains side by side, the attributes of one overlap the other.
IQ tests include evaluation of reasoning by analogy, often using geometric
shapes that test both pattern recognition and comparison of pattern logic in the
brain. Letter combinations that do not require semantic recognition can also be
used. You can also test for sequence comparisons with shapes, letters and
numbers. You can readily solve pattern rule comparisons such as if aabbcc, then
In poetic terms, a metaphor is an implicit comparison; a word or phrase that
takes the place of another word or phrase, suggesting a likeness between the
two. The generic form of metaphor is analogy. In poetry, metaphors are allowed
to be loose analogies or even spurious analogies if they have pleasing
implications. A simile is an explicit comparison that is identified by the terms
like or as. Explicit comparisons are more easily identified and evaluated.
Metaphors are less easily identified and are common in statements humans make
every day. The validity of metaphors is seldom questioned and correction of
popular but misleading metaphors is seldom achieved.
Primary metaphors are findings of similarity that are readily accepted.
Extended or conceptual metaphors are systematic comparisons that are propagated
by copying, assembling, and elaborating primary metaphors. Dawkins term “memes”
refers to self-replicating phrases that spread through a population of minds.
Clichés are often repeated metaphors that spread as memes. Humans have to
exercise remarkable skills of observation and discipline in describing events to
avoid repeating metaphorical clichés, especially living in a world of multimedia
that thrives on the propagation of memes.
Perverse metaphors run amok in human discourse, verbal and written, and are
always misleading. Comparisons are fanciful and unregulated and extended
metaphors are designed to persuade, control and deceive. Metaphorical systems
tend to lead users far from the truth and leave them without references or means
of discovering the truth.
Lakoff and Johnson suggested that reason is largely metaphorical and depends
on descriptions of moving through spacetime. Reason, for example, is treated as
a force that moves the thinker from one point in the argument to the next point.
An irrational thinker wanders off topic, loses the point or gets lost in a
thicket of unrelated issues. Reason can also be treated as a map that guides you
from A to B; from premise to conclusion. Time is compared with a journey that
has a behind or past, a present and the future lies ahead on the path. But there
is no past and no future; the time path is a fictional metaphor.
Thinking is talking and talking is rooted in movement and body language.
Concepts are derived from body actions. When people talk they continue to make
these body movements, with head, hand and arm gestures.
Single comparison or metaphors are extended into models that are built from
systematic comparisons. One extended metaphor that I am using, for example,
compares brain operations with digital computing. In the past, mental operations
were compared with older technologies such as electrical wiring, relays and
telephone switchboards. The computer metaphor uses more sophisticated concepts
to account for information processing and operations that link input and output
Computer metaphors provide a common language for both theorists and practical
scientists to communicate their ideas. Cognitive psychologists describe humans
as information processors and computer terms such as input, output, processing,
information storage and retrieval are compared to information processing in the
As more humans use computers, the brain-computer extended metaphor makes
sense to a larger non-professional group of humans. Unfortunately, exaggerated
claims of “computer intelligence” carry the metaphor in the wrong direction and
confuse people who are not familiar with the limitations of digital computing.
Robots are mechanical metaphors that move and sometimes speak, using recorded
samples of human voices. Humans are easily fooled and start talking about
conscious robots. Simulations of humanoids appear in the movies, but in real
life the metaphor is nonsense.
Other metaphors mislead and confuse. The underlying comparison may be
fanciful or spurious. For example, the common metaphor for love is the heart.
The heart metaphor has been extended in many directions and includes the red
stylized heart symbol. Romance is represented by the heart symbol. Lovers pledge
their heart and grief-stricken ex-lovers suffer from a broken heart. If you have
a heart, you are empathetic. If you are heartless, you are cold and aloof,
sometimes cruel. The extended metaphor does run amok and misrepresents what is
actually going on.
What is actually going on are all functions of the brain and not the heart,
so that when the metaphor is taken literally, as metaphors often are, the whole
enterprise of describing feelings and the behaviors associated with bonding and
affiliation collapses into misunderstandings and confusion.
Meaningful conversation is the best way for most humans to think, but relying
on metaphors, repeating clichés, repetitive stories and case-making
conversations is not recommended.