If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. Lewis Carroll.

wooden signpost in forest

Have you ever felt that your life was off track or felt stuck in a rut? Do you find that you frequently get side-tracked?

Or maybe you feel that life happens to you instead of being lived by you? Have you ever felt swept along on a tide of inevitability? Do you often feel as if circumstances are outside of your control?

The reason for this might be the metaphor you’re living.

We all use metaphor constantly to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Most of the time we’re unaware of it happening, but in fact we continually think and communicate metaphorically.

Far from being just a fancy way of speaking, it actually plays a huge part in the way we make sense of ourselves and the world in which we live.

Some researchers of the human mind go so far as to say that metaphor plays a major role in defining our sense of reality.

From birth we live in a physical body in a physical world. We eat, drink, feel pain, learn to walk, feel hot, feel cold, enjoy physical closeness with other people, touch things, hold things, throw things and have countless other physical experiences in common with each other.

So it’s quite straightforward to understand each other when we talk about physical events. For instance we immediately understand when someone says something along the lines of, ‘I was punched on the nose and now it hurts and it’s bleeding’.

This is because we understand what punching is, we know what it is to have physical pain and we know that blood will flow out of us if we cut ourselves or receive a blow to the nose.

However suppose we want to tell someone about an emotional experience rather than something physical.

When we experience something that causes us to have unpleasant emotional feelings we use metaphorical expressions like the following:

I’m still reeling from the blow

My heart is broken

It’s a kick in the teeth

He’s hurt my feelings

It’s a sore subject

 I’ve taken a battering

 None of the above statements refer to a physical experience but we know what they mean because we’ve had the experience of physical pain and injury. To explain our emotions without the use of metaphor would be a lengthy and complicated business. The same applies to any abstract concept.

Researchers of linguistics and the human mind believe that it would be virtually impossible to think about abstract concepts if we did not have metaphorical language. Lakoff and Johnson talk about this in their book, ‘Metaphors we live by’.

The results of their studies demonstrate how, by and large, we’re only able to understand and communicate abstract concepts because we have, in common, an underlying set of what they call ‘conceptual metaphors’.

Conceptual Metaphors

Cognitive linguists say that conceptual metaphors are unconscious systems of thought created by the brain to make sense of the way we exist in the world.

They enable us to define abstract concepts by linking them in our brains with a corresponding physical concept.

For example, the process of ‘life’ is an abstract concept, which of itself doesn’t have a substance. However, we know we’re alive and so we know it exists, but to be able to make sense of the process the brain needs to compare it to something more tangible.

There are many different conceptual metaphors that exist to define the process of life but a major one in many cultures is the ‘life is a journey’ metaphor.

Like a journey, a life has a beginning and an end. Both concepts involve different stages and events.

For example when people talk about their lives they regularly say things like:

I’ve reached a dead end

I’ve been down this road before

It’s been a bumpy ride lately

I’m stuck in a rut

I’m back on track

Our paths have crossed

It’s an uphill struggle

I feel a bit lost

Living in the fast lane

A listener will know what these expressions mean because of the largely unconscious conceptual metaphor that influences us to think of our life as if it were a journey.

If we hear someone say ‘I’m at a crossroads in my life’, the neural connections in our brain relating to being at a crossroads will begin to fire. The unconscious mind will make a search for everything in our memory that relates to being at a crossroads.

Because of our existing knowledge of physical crossroads, we need no further explanation that the speaker is telling us he has a choice to make, the outcome of which will have an impact upon his life.

We know that ‘an uphill struggle’ means a difficult time because we know that travelling uphill takes effort.

It could be argued that we only know what is meant by the above expressions because they are so familiar and widely used.

However even when unfamiliar expressions are created we still instinctively know what is meant because the phrases correspond with the underlying conceptual metaphor.

For example, a character in ‘The tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Bronte uses the ‘life is a journey’ conceptual metaphor to give advice on child rearing:

‘You must not attempt to clear the stones from his path, but teach him to walk firmly over them – not insist upon leading him by the hand, but let him learn to go alone.’

We understand what is meant because in the brain there are neurological connections between the parts of the brain that deal with physical journeys and those that deal with aspects of a persons life.

The ‘life is a journey’ metaphor is so ingrained that it’s become an automatic way of thinking. The same applies to many other conceptual metaphors.

For example:

‘Emotions are weather conditions’

Her face clouded over

I feel like there’s a dark cloud hanging over me

When she walks into the room the sun comes out

He stormed out of the room

She had a face like thunder

There was a stormy atmosphere

‘Understanding is seeing’

I see what you mean

Look at it from my point of view

Let me just point something out to you

I’ve got a whole new perspective on it now

You need to look at the big picture

I see where you’re coming from

You’ve got a different outlook to me

We need to focus on what’s important

Once you become aware of these metaphors you begin to notice them more and more frequently. When I began listening out for them I soon began to wonder whether we ever have any conversations that don’t include them. (It doesn’t seem we do).

It can be interesting to listen in on conversations and work out which conceptual metaphor is being expressed. For example if someone says I’m being attacked from all angles, then they’re using the conceptual metaphor ‘argument is war’ and if you hear the expression I’m feeling blue, then the underlying conceptual metaphor is ’emotions are colours’

It’s a handy trick at parties if you’re cornered by the most boring person there. They think you’re fascinated by what they’re saying. Instead you’re identifying their metaphors.

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