More about metaphor

If you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there… Lewis Carroll

wooden signpost in forest

Traditionally, metaphor has been thought of as a poetic way of speaking, a way to make language more colourful and interesting.

Well of course it is that, but it’s also much more.

Although most of the time we’re unaware of it happening, we actually rely heavily on the use of metaphor to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. 

Far from being just a fancy way of speaking, some researchers of the human mind go so far as to say that metaphor plays a major part in defining our very sense of reality.

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

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

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.

Metaphor and emotion

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

To convey our emotions we use symbolism and metaphor.

For instance when we experience something that causes us to have unpleasant emotional feelings we say things like:

My heart is broken

I’m still reeling from the blow

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 it would be virtually impossible to think about abstract concepts if we didn’t 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 talk about 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.

Life is a journey

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 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

I’ve turned a corner now

I’m 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’, all 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.

Some might say that we only know what’s meant by the above expressions because they’re so familiar and widely used.

However even when unfamiliar expressions are created we still instinctively know what’s 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 conceptual 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

You’ve got a different outlook to me

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).

Sometimes it’s fun 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 will be emotions are colours.

Because a conceptual metaphor works on an unconscious level it affects the way we think, behave and react without us realising. Politicians and marketing agencies use this to manipulate us to their advantage. By being consciously aware of what’s happening we can have more control over our own thought processes and choices.
bird leaving cage

Better still, by recognising and then changing your own metaphors you can alter your perceptions and take more control of your life in general.

Find out how you can change your life with the help of Transcending Therapy.




Kovecses, Z., Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. Oxford University Press. New York. 2002.

Kovecses, Z., Metaphor and Emotion. Cambridge University Press. New York. 2003.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M., Metaphors We Live By. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago and London. 2003.