Searching for Useful Metaphors of the Mind

comic_history_of_rome_p_173_hannibal_crossing_the_alpsIn 1930, Freud was awarded the Goethe Prize for Literature. His masterful use of metaphor, a talent that set him apart from many of this contemporaries, was a major consideration in the awarding of the prize.  Quoting Jonathan Edelson,

Though Freud was a superb writer, as a scientist he was writing not merely to entertain but to inform. Metaphor in Freud’s work is not a mere decorative flourish; it is a necessary part of Freud’s formulation and exposition of his scientific theories.

In light of that esteemed tradition, I occasionally come across mind metaphors that strike me as especially useful — more than just “mere decorative flourish.”  As a self-acknowledged metaphor junkie, I’m always on the lookout for these, though few and far between they may be.  I’ll talk about two below.

The first comes from the book Managing Your Mind, a comprehensive yet readable tour through practical cognitive therapy.  I’d call it a self help book except I think it’s several cuts above that description (no matter how the publisher marketed it).  This metaphor comes from the section of the book on time management:

An old Renault car ran as smooth as cream once it was going, but was a devil to get started, particularly in wet weather.  Most of us are like that car. The first rule of time management is to get to the task at hand. Do not spend time in the limbo of neither getting down to work, nor enjoying your leisure.

What I really like about that metaphor is that everyone has felt the limbo the writer describes – it’s a palpable paralysis.  Take exercise for example. For me, once I can get myself moving on a treadmill or in the weight room, then I’m moving and can keep moving with the routine.  But initially getting up and moving is extremely hard.  Same thing appllies to getting started on a project (at work, home, etc).  Simple metaphor, but effective.

The next one is exponentially more substantial, and the best way to really get the most from it is to go read Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis, where it’s discussed at length.  Here it is:

The mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does.   

Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about controlling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

Haidt says early in the book that he began writing thinking that the metaphor would work well for his chapter on “The Divided Self” (where the quote above comes from) but quickly realized that it was central to his entire book.  It’s most applicable to what he calls the fourth division of the self, controlled (rider) vs automatic (elephant) processes of the mind.  I recommend reading the book, but here’s the particular section in Google books if you’d like a preview.

I also like what Haidt has to say about metaphor overall and will close with this quote that sums up the subject well:

Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know. For example, it’s hard to think about life in general, but once you apply the metaphor “life is a journey,” the metaphor guides you to some conclusions: You should learn the terrain, pick a direction, find some good traveling companions, and enjoy the trip, because there may be nothing at the end of the road. It’s also hard to think about the mind, but once you pick a metaphor it will guide your thinking.



Filed under About Neuroscience, Books and Ideas

3 responses to “Searching for Useful Metaphors of the Mind

  1. zemblanity

    I ‘m just trying WordPress out for the first time. I like its “Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)”, which took me from my blog entry to your one here.

    The old Renault metaphor is a good one.

  2. Great site!

    Success comes to those people who can manage their time according to their priorities. It is due to the fact that they can finish doing important tasks at a certain period of time without rushing things and without becoming reckless.

  3. Great site, article!
    I have a question for metaphor junkie: how does one best search for metaphors? Is there a process you can recommend?
    I’m not talking about big life-defining metaphors like the elephant, but rather better ways to describe circumstances or people or ideas in one’s writing on any topic.

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