The Power of Metaphor Gives Substance to Thought
Grounding the abstract in the concrete is the key to the way we communicate, think, feel, and decide
She’s got an explosive temper, he’s cold, and they’re both a bit shallow… but as they say, love is blind. Metaphors are ubiquitous in everyday speech. Question is, are such linguistic flourishes merely ornamental, or do they serve some higher purpose?
Though you may not be a poet, you likely utter a metaphor six times per minute and write five such expressions per hundred words of text (Gibbs, 1994; Pollio et al., 1990). The frequency with which you reach for a metaphor should clue you in: metaphor is essential to communication and, as I’ll prove to you, your thinking process too.
Consider bouba and kiki, imaginary names for the imaginary shapes below — not necessarily in that order. Intuitively you’d assume bouba is round while kiki is sharp and jagged, finding yourself in the company of 95–98% of the population (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001).
Moreover, if I were to tell you one shape tastes rather like milk chocolate and the other like 70% cocoa dark chocolate, assuming you have a sweet tooth, you’d be hankering for a bite out of bouba. I’d even go so far as to say that one shape appears to be more “friendly” than the other (kiki seems like a bit of a prickly character, unlikely to loan you any dosh).
It’s a sort of synaesthesia common to all of us, endowing us with the ability to recognise and transpose a common property of one sensory modality to another (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001). Our instinctive way of associating bouba’s appearance with a velvety taste and a mellifluous sound is illustrative of this, and underscores that object names, rather than being arbitrary, evolved from this way of conceptualising the world.
The bouba/kiki effect illustrates that language has deep roots in metaphor. And language structures the very way we think. We rely on metaphor with its transitive properties to communicate precisely because we rely on it to comprehend the world around us — so posits Conceptual Metaphor Theory.
‘If all abstract thought is metaphorical, and all metaphors are assembled out of biologically basic concepts, then we would have an explanation for the evolution of human intelligence. […] Metaphor allows the mind to use a few basic ideas-substance, location, force, goal-to understand more abstract domains.’
— Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
Numerous studies show that we associate love with spatial proximity and physical warmth to the point it manifests in our speech — we feel ‘close’ to our loved ones, and ‘warmly’ about them. We implicitly recognise that divinity is ‘up’, immorality is ‘down’ and ‘dirty’, and things that are significant are ‘big’ issues and ‘weighty’ matters (Landau, Meier, & Keefer, 2010).
By connecting abstract concepts such as the blossoming of love or the march of time with our motor and sensory systems we are able to ground them in easily understood concrete terms (Lakoff, 2014). As such, we liken the flow of time to the familiar bodily experience of moving through space (with the past behind us, and the future something to look forward to), and someone’s kind words to the warmth of their embrace, thus relating emotion to temperature.
The power of metaphor
Metaphors are not only used to grasp the abstract and complex, they can be leveraged to subtlety re-frame our worldview and affect our behaviours. For example, experiments show framing crime as a virus rather than a beast influences people to favour social reform over increased enforcement. After all, with a virus you ideally target the underlying cause rather than merely manage the symptoms (Thibodeau, Hendricks, & Boroditsky, 2017).
Incidentally, sometimes viruses are called beasts. A Victorian health official once referred to the ‘Indian’/Delta variant as ‘an absolute beast’ due to being more transmissible—and therefore presumably less deadly—after mutating. (Viruses face a trade-off between transmissibility and virulence given that spreading yourself around is difficult if your host perishes before they’ve had time to sneeze all over the salad bar.) Regardless, this level of hyperbole was deemed expedient and thus delivered to consumers of mainstream media using—you guessed it—the power of metaphor. (As for whether beasts are viruses, just ask Agent Smith.)
More examples: describing cancer as an ‘enemy’ engenders helplessness whereas characterising the brain as a ‘muscle’ encourages people to view intelligence as something within their control. A CEO can obviate personal responsibility by referring to a perfect ‘storm’ of unfavourable circumstances. Conversely, they can placate shareholders by convincing them that ‘climbing’ stock prices will continue to rise by imbuing them with human agency. Couples who are primed to view love as a ‘journey’ are less likely to be rocked by conflict than those who view it as a (static) ‘perfect union’, and so forth.
Metaphor is essential for reasoning, a means of expressing the ineffability of our inner worlds, and a way of grappling with the complex forces, social and cosmic, that shape our reality.
Where would the novelist be without pathetic fallacy, wherein the protagonist’s elation or dejection is expressed through the caprices of Mother Nature? The neurologist would surely be lost without her neural “highway”, and the lover quite despondent if he were not able to compare his beloved’s eyes to the sun (or her cheeks to roses damasked, red and white).
All food for thought… figuratively speaking, of course.
Please ‘heart’, share, and subscribe. Or even buy me a coffee—its warmth will convey your adoration through cross-modal whatsit.
Gibbs Jr, R. W., Gibbs, R. W., & Gibbs, J. (1994). The poetics of mind: Figurative thought, language, and understanding. Cambridge University Press.
Lakoff, G. (2014). Mapping the brain’s metaphor circuitry: Metaphorical thought in everyday reason. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 958.
Landau, M. J., Meier, B. P., & Keefer, L. A. (2010). A metaphor-enriched social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 136(6), 1045.
Pinker, S. (2007). The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. Penguin.
Pollio, H. R., Smith, M. K., & Pollio, M. R. (1990). Figurative language and cognitive psychology. Language and Cognitive Processes, 5(2), 141–167.
Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synaesthesia — a window into perception, thought and language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(12), 3–34.
Thibodeau, P. H., Hendricks, R. K., & Boroditsky, L. (2017). How linguistic metaphor scaffolds reasoning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21(11), 852–863.