I Is an Other (2): Wired for Metaphor

Metaphors aren’t just clever comparisons. Metaphors are the way we think.

In I Is an Other James Greary (see previous blog here) demonstrates this by considering Rebecca. When she reads a headline that says, “Belt Tightening Lies Ahead,” or if someone says, “I’ll show you the ropes,” she has no idea what either means. She doesn’t wear a belt, and no one showed her any ropes. Rebecca is an extremely intelligent person who has Asperger’s syndrome. Her brain is virtually incapable of processing metaphors. She only understands what is literal (or metaphors whose meaning she has memorized).

Research shows that our brains are

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voracious pattern seekers. We look for similarities in life around us so we don’t become paralyzed analyzing everything we come across. If we see an object resting on the floor that has four legs supporting a horizontal platform about eighteen inches high and a vertical panel attached to one side of the platform–we know it’s a chair, even if we haven’t seen this particular model of chair before. Without pattern recognition, we’d have to take time to think through and analyze whether anything slightly new was a threat or benign. We could be somebody’s lunch before we were half done figuring things out.

When children play pretend, they are actually engaging in a very complex kind of pattern recognition. Greary writes, “From a cognitive point of view, saying ‘My job is a jail’ is a lot like pretending that a banana is a telephone” (p. 52). People like Rebecca also have difficulty with playing pretend. Scientists have traced the ability to pretend and understand metaphors to a certain category of neurons in our brain. For people with Asperger’s, these neurons malfunction.

The patterns our brains form do not always follow strict logic or mathematical exactitude. (If they did, Rebecca’s literal mind would be able to decode what others were saying.) Our brains seem to require more latitude and flexibility to deal with life in all its messiness and complexity, if not randomness. This too may be a survival mechanism. The more supple our minds, the better we can cope with the unexpected. For the brain, precision and specificity are important but apparently not the highest values. Rather creativity, breadth, connection and pattern are more central.

That’s the literal truth.

Next Installment: I Is an Other (3): It’s the Metaphors, Stupid!

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

One thought on “I Is an Other (2): Wired for Metaphor”

  1. Metaphors and other figures of speech remind us of the subtleties of language and communication. I was studying a passage, Zeph.2:10-12, for several years, reading it every morning as the first item in devotions and prayer. In that passage as time passed I found irony. Imagine being awesome to the gods of the earth which are nothing. And then there was the epigram, vs. 12, “You Ethiopians (Cushites) also, you shall be slain by my sword.” Many have taken that verse as a prophecy of slaughter, but we find a new kind of slaying in the New Testament, a slaying by the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. If such be what the prophet has in mind in our text, then our statement in verse 12 is an epigram. Following that we have a metaphor, and it took me to this hour to realize that the prophetic statements of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Arnold Toynbee, that the African Americans could be the means to the renewal of Western Civilization, might well show the metaphorical nature of how the former slaves served to identify the new Israel of God, the people God calls out of lowly, miserable, and wretched situations to be His people.

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