Is metaphor who we are?

Love thinkingMetaphor isn’t just a poetic way to make language more interesting. It’s also a vital mechanism for abstract thought and an efficient method for communicating abstract concepts.

It’s also claimed that it plays a major part in the way we understand ourselves and the world we live in.

But why do we think metaphorically? What’s the point of abstract thought?

What happened to create this symbolic way of thinking, and what purpose does it serve in evolutionary terms?

We’re not the only creatures who think, reason and understand. In many ways we use our brains in the same way as other species do. We still have the reptilian and earlier mammalian parts of our brain that function on an unconscious level and govern a large part of our existence and survival.

But at some point the human brain evolved further; it began to think of one thing in terms of another i.e. symbolically – and so developed the ability to think in terms of the abstract.  

This doesn’t mean to say that our ancestors didn’t also experience thought and consciousness. However it seems that their brains were percept-based, meaning that they could only deal with and respond to information received directly from the senses.

So what was it that caused the transition to abstract conceptual thinking?

It probably wasn’t an increase in brain size. The brains of our ancestors had already reached the size that ours are today hundreds of thousands of years previously. The Neanderthals who were alive at the same time had brains at least as large, if not larger than those of our direct ancestors.

It probably wasn’t a straightforward increase in intelligence either. It is thought that rather than becoming more intelligent, there was a transition to a different type of intelligence, i.e. abstract thinking, caused by a change in the workings of the brain.

It is suggested that prior to this development, the literal-thinking brain was segregated into modules that were each separately concerned with different aspects of life. The brain would deal with issues such as tools, fire, hunting, and social activities as isolated occurrences in the brain. There was no communication between the different parts of the brain that dealt with these various subjects.

To be able to think symbolically the brain had to adapt in some way to allow interaction between these different areas so that information relating to one aspect of life could be interpreted in terms of something else. i.e. the brain needed to become more ‘fluid’ so that previously independent regions of the brain could interact with each other.  (Mithens 1996 1998, cited by Kovecses 2005).

So what was the reason behind the evolutionary development, which would lead to symbolic and therefore abstract, thinking?

Why did metaphorical thinking evolve at all?

Over a period of evolution spanning millions of years, the earths climate and terrain had changed drastically.

A period of global warming had meant that there was no longer the same degree of protection from trees and so the earlier species of human were forced to learn new methods of survival to enable them to live on the more open Savannah plains.

This need led to an increased use of tools, which over time became more and more sophisticated.

At some point they also learnt to manipulate fire, which led to larger social groups as extended families gathered together around the fire for protection from predators.

When they learnt that fire could be used for cooking, a wider variety of plant life became available as food and it also meant that meat could be preserved for longer.

As social groups continued to grow in size they began to hunt in coordinated groups, which required cooperation and increased communication.

A combination of all these factors meant that life was growing more complicated and it was becoming increasingly difficult for the literal-thinking brain to manage such vast amounts of information. The existing methods of communication, such as gesture and limited vocal sound were inadequate for the intricacies of their developing social structures.

Logan (2000) proposes that these factors were responsible for the emergence of speech and abstract thought because at some critical point life became just too complex for the literal thinking brain, which was still only processing physical information received directly from the senses.

He suggests that to manage the information overload, the brains of our ancestors developed the ability to think conceptually and began to use symbols to represent actions, thoughts and feelings.

This development would have meant that by using words as symbols our ancestors could now represent huge amounts of information with minimum effort which greatly improved the brain’s ability to store information, to categorize and to access memories.

For example think of the word water.  This one word acts as a point of reference for the brain to access every memory associated with the concept it represents. It is a symbol representing rainfall, lakes, rivers, and the experience of drinking.

Vocalised speech provided an efficient method of communication and meant that concepts that were not physically available to the senses could still be communicated. For example the word representing water accompanied by a gesture or another word could pass on the information that water was available in a certain distant location.

The metaphorical birth of metaphorical thought

As this new ability grew, language became more sophisticated and truly abstract concepts could develop as our ancestors began to use their experience of tangible physical events, things and actions as a point of reference to allow them to think in terms of the symbolic.

This evolutionary process was the beginning of metaphor.

It enabled our ancestors to teach, to barter and to pass knowledge down through the generations.

All these changes meant that social groups were becoming increasingly complex and, in evolutionary terms, gave these early humans a massive advantage over every other species.

In time it led to the beginning of agriculture and later to commerce, neither of which would be possible without the ability to think metaphorically.

For example they may have used their physical experience of moving forward from one place to another as a basis for developing the concept of  ‘the future ’.

As mentioned in chapter one, we generally think of the future as being ahead of us. It seems to make sense that as we normally face forwards when we walk or run that we would also think of the passage of time, (or the future) as being ahead of us too.

Being able to consider the future meant that they would have been able to think ahead. This would have given them the advantage of being able to plan coordinated hunting expeditions and later would have been a factor in the transition from hunter-gather to agriculture due to the forward planning needed for crop growing.

Likewise commerce could not have developed without the symbolic concept of money.

So how important is metaphor for us as a species?

Although other species do of course think and communicate through gestures, body language and vocal sounds, none are believed to have the complex, abstract quality of language that we do.

Logan claims that with the development of speech and abstract thought came the beginning of the human mind as we ourselves experience it.

He defines mind as ‘brain plus speech‘, and even goes so far as to say that:

‘This transition was the defining moment for the emergence of the fully human species Homo sapiens sapiens’

The abstract concept of mind.

Of course the mind is in itself an abstract concept and one that continues to fascinate and elude us. By it’s very nature it’s paradoxical. We cannot study the qualities of ‘mind’ without a mind to study it with, and as it’s an abstract concept we can’t study it at all unless we do so metaphorically.

And if, as discussed earlier, metaphor actually plays a major part in moulding our sense of reality, it follows that the metaphors we use to think about our own mind will also play a major part in shaping the reality of the mind itself.

We have no way of knowing what the first metaphor would have been when we as humans began to think about the concept of mind. However, unsurprisingly, the metaphors we have used through the ages have tended to coincide with the social ideologies of the times.

Over the previous centuries the mind has been described as being amongst other things, a hydraulic device, a mill, a clockwork mechanism, an electric dynamo, a telegraph network, a pressurised steam engine and a telephone switchboard.

Nowadays we have various metaphors that we use to help us think about, understand and talk about the mind. A common one is to think of it as a ‘container’ within which we store our thoughts, memories and ideas. We say things like:

I can’t get it out of my mind.

I’ll keep it in mind.

It’s at the back of my mind.

If someone says ‘I’ve got a mind like a sieve’ we understand that they have a bad memory because we know that a sieve is a container-like object that allows substances to flow through its holes.

We also think of the mind as a machine and this metaphor is expressed in comments such as:

The cogs are turning.

I’m having a mental breakdown.

She’s got a screw loose.

I need to get my brain in gear.

Over the last few decades computer use and terminology have pervaded society and since the 1960 ’ s the predominant metaphor used in psychology to represent the mind has been the computer.

So then, back to the title of this chapter. ‘ Is metaphor who we are?’

I think it makes sense to say that it is.

If abstract thought and speech emerged together as an evolutionary response to information overload, …

and …

if this led to the emergence of what we perceive as ‘mind’, …

and …

if this was the transition that defined the emergence of our species, homo sapiens sapiens, …

and …

if all abstract thought is metaphorical, …

then …

it follows that we began to think metaphorically at the exact point in time that we evolved into the species we are today, the modern human, homo sapiens sapiens.

L'volution - 3d

It was metaphor that first enabled us to create the abstract concept of mind and it is metaphor that shapes the various realities through which we view ourselves, the world around us and the metaphorical concept of mind itself.


Kovecses Z. Metaphor in Culture, 2005, Cambridge University Press

Robert Dilts and Judith Delozier Encyclopaedia of NLP

Logan Prof R K The extended mind: Understanding Language and Thought in Terms of Complexity and Chaos Theory

Silvester T, Module One The Quest Institute

Stibel   Jeff The Internet, the Brain, and the Future of Business – HBR IdeaCast – Harvard Business Review Accessed 8/3/12

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