The last project I was working on before leaving my Toastmaster clubs in Canada was a study of metaphor. This followed on from the study of non-verbal aspects of communication. Speeches on gestures, voice, expressions, postures etc. had been given many times with different lengths and emphasis so that I had a family of presentations and many ways to create additional ones. I was starting similar work on the verbal side of communication – metaphor was the first subject I tackled. Below is my last major Toastmaster speech.
Alan Kay said, A picture is worth a thousand words but a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures. Well, I have been thinking about metaphors ever since the truth of that remark settled into my head.
So, today we are going to take a journey andsee what we can find out about metaphors. There – I used the journey metaphor. Now you can expect a starting point and a destination, a path that is one of many, progress along the path, obstacles along the way, a mode of transport and on and on. I have given you a way to organize what I am saying. On the other hand, I could say that metaphor is the key to understanding many things about language. This is another well-used metaphor, the container metaphor; it implies that something valuable is not available until you have a key to unlock its hiding place. Now you would expect me to explain some new concept about language and how the idea of metaphor helps to illuminate it. Oh, oh, there I have used the light metaphor. Now I am asking you to interpret that I say as if I was shining a light on something that is in the dark. Actually if you really try to speak without using any metaphors, you will find it difficult.
Let me give you a little roadmap for todays presentation. Our journey will show that metaphor is important in speaking because (1) it gives fast accurate communications (2) it is very effective communication (3) itis natural communication and (4) it is creative communication.
First a little definition:I am not just talking about what is strictly, grammatically a metaphor but all the metaphoric devices or figurative language formssuch as simile, analogy, allegory, comparison, parable and proverb etc. The idea is the same, just size and complexity differ. One thing is described in terms of another.
Our first stop is fastand accurate communication. Suppose someone is teaching me something about the way a computer works. They could try my patience with explanations of binary arithmetic, transistors etc. Or they can talk about addresses. I know that word and I get out my mental map of the postal system. I can understand almost instantly, because I know how letters are delivered, that each piece of information in the computer has a unique named location.
If we think of people as having a cupboard filled with maps of this that and most everything, and by and large our mapsare similar for the same concept. We can now converse quickly and clearly by both referring to our version of the map we are using. We keep the structure more or less the same but we rename some of the points. It is really difficult to imagine how much time and frustration is saved by using this device of metaphor.
When speaking, finding an appropriate metaphor can be the most important thing you do to make the communication work so that the listener goes away with a memory of what you said and a positive attitude. Their patience has not been tried by difficult descriptions.
Stop number two is effective communication. What makes people change their minds? They come to see things differently. They start to use a different map. Here is an example. After 9/11 the Americans took to using the metaphor of war for their situation. They saw the war on terror. The Europeans had had recent terrorist problems (IRA, Red Brigade, etc, etc.) and so they saw the situation in terms of both politics and crime. One group looked outside their societies and wanted protection by their army. The other looked within their borders and wanted protection by the police.What these countries did with very similar threats was different and the difference was due to a difference in metaphor. If you want to change someones mind about something – you have to change the metaphor they are using to think with.
Great speeches that have great effects use great metaphors: Churchills iron curtain, King Jrs promissory note, and TC Douglas’ mouse land. What a great metaphor does is to establish rapport with the audience by reference to shared culture, to appeal to the emotions of the audience by the colour and feel of the metaphorical vehicle, and to assist understanding by supplying a conceptual model.
If those that believe in legal abortions are ever going to convince those that dont or vice versa, then one or the other will have to find a new metaphor. The current metaphors justroll off the opponents back. The pro-life metaphors do not ring true to the pro-choice sideand the pro-choice metaphors do not ring true to the pro-lifeside. If you want to be convincing and want to be an effective speaker, you need to find metaphors that have the right emotional appeal to the audience, metaphors that work with your audience.
Stop number three is an examination of how deeply natural is the metaphor. If you look up the word go in the dictionary, there are 35 distinct but related meanings like: depart, travel, point, in harmony, moving etc. Most of these are what is called dead metaphors – metaphors that have been used so often that they became permanently part of the meaning of words. They are no longer metaphoric but they were once upon a time. Go is even used as a grammatical helper. I am going to read that book, has go implying a future intention (like the destination of the journey, maybe).
In fact a look through the dictionary shows that dead metaphors are a prime source of word meanings. These metaphors are dead, not because they are no longer used, but because they are used so often that they are not metaphoric any more. We no longer hear the metaphor and therefore we come to feel a literal meaning instead.
The importance of metaphor has dawned on linguists. It is not just a few of the 100 or so rhetorical devices used in our languages. The metaphor is one of the most important ingredients of language. To understand language, you have to understand metaphor. There is an explosion of scholarly interest in figurative, poetic, metaphoric language. Why? Because of the continuing interest in computer software that will communicate with humans in natural languages. This great prize has been just around the corner since the 50s (like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow). The quest has sparked interest in a great many areas. Now it is the turn of metaphor to be interesting to the scholars.
It turns out that metaphor is more than a figure of speech, more than a way in which word meanings are coined, more than an effective communication tool. It is a key to how our minds work. As the scholars put it, Metaphor is a conceptual rather than a linguistic entity. We use metaphor to think. Let us take our computer address example. We understand computer retrieval in terms of the postal system. But we originally understood the postal system in terms of the journeys of letters. The address was the destination. But the journey metaphor is just a special case of a very deeply understood idea of movement. A child learns about movement by learning how to do it and then can build on that skill to nest thousands of metaphors. When I say, we are on the right track here. You can get out your train metaphor map which was built on your journey map, built on your movement map, which was built on actual movement. In all these related maps: states are locations, changes are movements, causes are forces, purposes are destinations, and means/methods are paths.All can be traced back to us having intentions and moving to achieve those intentions.
If you take the sum total of the metaphoric maps that we share, that is our culture. To communicate, people have to share a language and that means they have to share a culture. They have to share sources of metaphor: Cinderella, income tax, gravity, 1812, Rockies, Bart Simpson, slap shot, the call of the loon, parade, the Good Samaritan and so on. The fewer shared concepts, the more difficult the communication. That is why metaphor is now a hot topic. In order for computers to converse with us, they will have to be given the ability to create and understand metaphor and that means they will have to be given the components of our culture. They need the mapsand the skill to manipulate them.
Whether we like it or not, we think and we remember and we understand and we communicate in metaphor. The trick is to find the most useful metaphors.
Now we come to our final stop, creativity.We use metaphor in invention and discovery, in funand entertainment and in poetry and eloquence.
Oneform of joke is the mixed or inappropriate metaphor. We will not be stampeded into stagnation. Solar technology cannot be introduced overnight. Comedians often use metaphors to point out the ridiculousness of a situation.They get a laugh.
Poets use metaphor. In fact, some say that it is the most identifying aspect of poetry. Frost took the old and maybe overworked journey metaphor and made it newand interesting in the Road not Taken:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Metaphors are often called Poetic Language. It is not surprising. Poetry is compact, it is concrete and it has emotional power. These are also the attributes of metaphor. Metaphors have a sharpness of detail and concreteness of expression with layers of emotional context. Poets use metaphor to achieve so much meaning with so few words.
Of course orators use metaphor.
Many whole books are based on a complex analogy. Again the journey metaphor is the bases of Pilgrims Progress, the Odyssey, and countless tales.
When we use a metaphor we are sometimes shown new aspects of the situation or of the map we are translating with. Thus a scientist makes an analogue between water flowand electrical current. He understands electricity in a wire as if it was water in a pipe. Later some other scientist is try to understand the hydrodynamics of ships hulls, and finds it is easiest if he thinks of it using an electrical analogy. So it goes, new theories and insights often come from using new metaphors, or using old ones backward.
To sum up: to be a better speaker – use metaphor, use metaphor and then use more metaphor. Choose your metaphors carefully. Use a metaphor that is easy to follow and comfortable rather than obscure, but not one that is boring and passe. Use a metaphor that really encapsulates what you want to say, one that fits well. Use a metaphor with the right emotional appeal, positive or negative, and which resonates with the audience. Use a metaphor that is entertaining or beautiful -treat your audience to a little inventiveness and not the same-old-same-old. Toastmasters material advises us to use vivid, concrete imagery. One of the best ways to do this is to use metaphor.
Now we are at the end of our journey and I would like to hear your comments, contributions and questions.
The Edge site has a piece by Alva Noe, The Problem of Consciousness. (here) I find many of the ideas interesting but have a suspicious feeling that the whole thing is just too wooly. It is hard to tell from such a small sampling of his approach. Below are a couple of places where the ideas appealed to me.
A useful analogy is life. What is life? We can point to all sorts of chemical processes, metabolic processes, reproductive processes that are present where there is life. But we ask, where is the life? You don’t say life is a thing inside the organism. The life is this process that the organism is participating in, a process that involves an environmental niche and dynamic selectivity. If you want to find the life, look to the dynamic of the animal’s engagement with its world. The life is there. The life is not inside the animal. The life is the way the animal is in the world.
.In many ways, the new thinking about consciousness and the brain is really just the old-fashioned style of traditional philosophical thinking about these questions but presented in a new, neuroscience package. People interested in consciousness have tended to make certain assumptions, take certain things for granted. They take for granted that thinking, feeling, wanting, consciousness in general, is something that happens inside of us. They take for granted that the world, and the rest of our body, matters for consciousness only as a source of causal impingement on what is happening inside of us. Action has no more intimate connection to thought, feeling, consciousness, and experience. They tend to assume that we are fundamentally intellectualthat the thing inside of us which thinks and feels and decides is, in its basic nature, a problem solver, a calculator, a something whose nature is to figure out what there is and what we ought to do in light of what is coming in.
We should reject the idea that the mind is something inside of us that is basically matter of just a calculating machine. There are different reasons to reject this. But one is, simply put: there is nothing inside us that thinks and feels and is conscious. Consciousness is not something that happens in us. It is something we do
Occams razor (make fewest assumptions, eliminate the unnecessary, the simplest is best, postulate the fewest entities) is a rule of thumb for science. Another rule of thumb is that general theories that cover large amounts of data are preferable to a number of smaller theories covering the same data.
So what can we make of a recent article (here) in the New Scientist where Henry Nicholls reviews attitudes towards the idea of animals having the ability to time travel through their memories and imagined futures and are not confined to just living in the present.
The issue is getting researchers of human and animal minds rather hot under the collar. Critics argue that what looks like memory or forward thinking is nothing more than instinct or learned behaviour, and insist that there is no convincing evidence that non-human animals can remember their past or contemplate the future. As a result, every paper claiming to demonstrate the ability in animals is fiercely debated.
The article reports on a number of experiments that appear to show memory or foresight and then reports the criticisms. The same disagreements occur fairly often in the areas of animal communication, use of symbols and concepts, calculations, self awareness etc. Sometimes the critics seems to me to be right but more often they appear to be putting forward ideas that do not pass the Occams razor test and postulate one theoretical framework for animals and another for humans, with no reason to justify the difference.
Some would say that there is another principle to keep in mind dont anthropomorphize. When I look at a chimp and I say he is standing on his legs and waving a branch with his arms, I am not criticized for using the same word for the chimps legs and mine or the chimps arms and mine. We are allowed to say that an animal is angry or frightened. We recognize homologous features in different animals and ourselves. But if we talk about animals having concepts, we are said to have crossed a line and are anthropomorphizing. This is a circular argument: first we have to define something as a human-only attribute and then we are anthropomorphizing if we use a human-only attribute in the context of an animal. If the attribute had not been defined as uniquely human in the first place then there would be no anthropomorphizing.
There are a number of reasons to avoid failing into the trap of exaggerating the differences between us and animals (especially the intelligent and social ones) and therefore defining ahead of investigation that some explanations only apply to humans.
1.There are experiments that can be done with animals but not humans and vice versa. We can understand both better if we consider what we know about the other.
2.The same reasons that behaviourism is no longer convincing for humans can be applied to animals.
3.The brains of many animals are similar to human brains. There is the same chemistry and physics and biology, the same evolutionary history until very recently, and very similar basic behaviour. There is no enough difference evident to justify two types of explanation. It is not good science to burn bridges or lock doors ahead of experimental evidence.
4.A difference in degree can be large enough to look like a difference of kind.
5.No explanation of human neurobiology is complete without an evolutionary narrative of how it evolved from common ancestors with other primates. This would need to show the steps that connect human thought to animal thought difficult if there are different mechanisms put forward for what appears to be the same abilities.
6.Humans are unique but so are all species (it is sort of the definition of a species). Humans may even be uniquely unique but I doubt that they are the only species that could be called that. But uniqueness is not an important criterion for understanding how brains/minds work whether an explanation fits depends on the explanation and not on its uniqueness.
7.Science should be protected with other agendas. Part of the motivation for separate explanations for humans and animals is prompted by agriculture, religion, and various philosophical or pragmatic vested interests.
The New Scientist site had an article by Douglas Fox, The Secret life of the Brain, Nov 5 2008 (here). It is about the default network of the brain.
The brain areas in the network were known and previously studied by researchers. What they hadn’t known before was that they chattered non-stop to one another when the person was unoccupied but quietened down as soon as a task requiring focused attention came along. Measurements of metabolic activity showed that some parts of this network devoured 30 per cent more calories, gram for gram, than nearly any other area of the brain.
All of this poses the question – what exactly is the brain up to when we are not doing anything? When Raichle and Shulman outlined the default network, they saw clues to its purpose based on what was already known about the brain areas concerned.
One of the core components is the medial prefrontal cortex, which is known to evaluate things from a highly self-centred perspective of whether they’re likely to be good, bad, or indifferent. Parts of this region also light up when people are asked to study lists of adjectives and choose ones that apply to themselves but not to, say, Britney Spears. People who suffer damage to their medial prefrontal cortex become listless and uncommunicative. One woman who recovered from a stroke in that area recalled inhabiting an empty mind, devoid of the wandering, stream-of-consciousness thoughts that most of us take for granted.
Parts of the default network also have strong connections to the hippocampus, which records and recalls autobiographical memories such as yesterday’s breakfast or your first day of kindergarten.
To Raichle and his colleague Debra Gusnard, this all pointed to one thing: daydreaming. Through the hippocampus, the default network could tap into memories – the raw material of daydreams. The medial prefrontal cortex could then evaluate those memories from an introspective viewpoint. Raichle and Gusnard speculated that the default network might provide the brain with an “inner rehearsal” for considering future actions and choices.
. Daydreaming may sound like a mental luxury, but its purpose is deadly serious: Buckner and his Harvard colleague Daniel Gilbert see it as the ultimate tool for incorporating lessons learned in the past into our plans for the future. So important is this exercise, it seems, that the brain engages in it whenever possible, breaking off only when it has to divert its limited supply of blood, oxygen and glucose to a more urgent task.
. In support of this idea, Raichle points out that the default network constantly chatters with the hippocampus. It also devours huge amounts of glucose, way out of proportion to the amount of oxygen it uses. Raichle believes that rather than burning this extra glucose for energy it uses it as a raw material for making the amino acids and neurotransmitters it needs to build and maintain synapses, the very stuff of memory. “It’s in those connections where most of the cost of running the brain is,” says Raichle.
This medial pre-frontal cortex involvement is interesting. I can remember a time when I was very ill with radiation sickness; I sat all day and stared at a blank wall with practically no thoughts. I can understand the lady with the blank mind. What an apt expression. My default network must have shut down temporarily.
A paper by Tosoni, Galati, Romani, and Corbetta is reported in Science Daily (here). The research shows that once a task is learnt, the frontal lobes are not involved in decision making.
In Nature Neuroscience, scientists report that a simple decision-making task does not involve the frontal lobes, where many of the higher aspects of human cognition, including self-awareness, are thought to originate. Instead, the regions that decide are the same brain regions that receive stimuli relevant to the decision and control the body’s response to it.
Other researchers had already demonstrated the same principle in primates. But many still assumed that the more complex human brain would have a more general decision-making module that involved the frontal lobe independently of the neural systems for perception and action.
Maurizio Corbetta, M.D., the Norman J. Stupp Professor of Neurology. “We like to think of our decisions as willful acts, but that may be an illusion. Many decisions may be much more directly and automatically driven by what our brain is sensing.”
trained volunteers to perform a task that involved discriminating between an image of a face and an image of a building. Varying degrees of noise obscured the image during the brief time it was visible. Volunteers were asked to indicate which type of image they believed they had seen by either moving their eyes in a particular direction if they had seen a face or pointing their hand in the same direction if they had seen a building.
“This decision is not automatic,” Corbetta says. “It requires both attention to the stimuli and control of the response.”
Researchers took functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of subjects’ brains as they performed the task To help distinguish between the influx of sensory information and the decision to move the eye or hand, subjects had to wait for 10 seconds after seeing the image before indicating which type it was.
“This suggests that these regions in the parietal lobe processed all the sensory, decision and motor signals necessary to make and act on the decision,” Tosoni says. “In contrast, no area in the frontal lobe, thought to be involved in decision-making, significantly increased its activity at the time of decision.”
The training period that preceded the scans could have involved the frontal lobes, Corbetta notes. Those areas may have delegated responsibility for the decision to premotor brain regions as the volunteers learned the task. But once the task was learned, the frontal lobes were silent.
“Even for arbitrary and somehow complex visual decisions, it seems to be purely a matter of the amount of sensory information pushing the brain toward one choice or another ” he says.
There was another thing that really caught my eye in Baars and McGovern, Cognitive views of consciousness: What are the facts? How can we explain them? (here) They give a list of metaphors that have been used over the years for consciousness.
1.The Threshold Metaphor a stimulus above a certain value automatically enters consciousness.
2.The Tip-of-the-Iceberg Metaphor consciousness emerges from the bulk of unconscious processes.
3.The Novelty Metaphor consciousness is concerned with what is new or unexpected.
4.The integration Metaphor sensory data is passes from low-level processes to higher-level ones and consciousness is the highest and most integration perceptions.
5.The Executive Metaphor consciousness produces the self that is controlling.
6.The Searchlight Metaphor the focus of attention is basic to consciousness.
7.The Theater in the Society of Mind Metaphor access by all parts of the brain to shared information is the function of consciousness.
All of these metaphors have more than a large grain the truth to them, or they would not have lasted so long. But they also each have gaps and problems.
What I noticed, of course, was that my favorite metaphor was missing.
8. The Working Model Metaphor consciousness is the best-fit scenario of the information available to the brain to model reality.
In this post I have the definition of fringe consciousness from Baars and McGovern in Cognitive views of consciousness: What are the facts? How can we explain them? (here)
There is an interesting class of phenomena that are not quite conscious nor unconscious, but which are nevertheless very important for our normal mental functioning. William James thought the fringe conscious events were at least as important as focally conscious experiences. Indeed, he thought that perhaps one-third of our conscious lives may be spent in subjectively active but vague states of mind. Fringe events include feeling of rightness, beauty, coherence, anomaly, familiarity, attraction, repulsion and the like. Most people are sure of their judgment when they experience something as beautiful. But is the experience by beauty specifiable in detail, like the sight of a red toothbrush? Surely not for most people, even when they are very sure about the experience. The combination of high certainly, high accuracy, and low experienced detail defines a fringe conscious state.
Mangan has developed James ideas about fringe consciousness in modern terms, suggestion that fringe phenomena may not be subject to the classical capacity limitations of conscious experiences. The claim is that feelings of familiarity or coherence can be simultaneously present in consciousness along with perceptual contents, for example .The fringe may be, in Mangans terms, a radical condensation of unconscious information in consciousness. Fringe states seem very useful. There is evidence that they are involved in accurate decision-making, predict resolution of tip-of-the-tongue states, and give a sense of availability of a memory even before it comes to mind .
Research on fringe consciousness is still in its early stages. We can however suggest a useful operational definition for fringe conscious events, as those experiences that: (a) can be reported by all normal subjects in similar tasks, (b) with verifiable accuracy and high confidence; and (c) which can be voluntarily acted upon, (d) but which are not claimed to have differentiated perceptual, imaginal or semantic content; even (e) under optimal reporting conditions.
It seems a good definition. In the discussion leading to the definition, I have trouble with the continual use of states. I have never been comfortable with the implied static nature of a state of mind and have always thought of mental processes as dynamic. But that is nit-picking as event is used rather than state in the definition.
There was an interesting item in Discover site by Nina Bai on Oct 28. Apparently tennis refs are biased in the direction of their calls. They make many more mistaken out calls than in calls. This is the result of an illusion. The refs like everyone else anticipate the motion of an object. Dr. David Whitney had the idea of testing the calls while watching Wimbledon.
The visual system is sluggish It takes a hundred or more milliseconds for us to become aware of an image that strikes our retina. If the object is moving fast, the brain produces an illusion that the object has moved slightly further than it actually has in order to overcome this lag.
This is another example of our consciousness predicting into the very near future.
Another part of the interview with Llinas is about the primacy of movement. (Encephalon 57 on Mind Hacks has a link to a video interview of Rodolfo Llinas (video)).
If you look at biology in general, you find that suddenly in evolution, something very interesting happens which is macroscopic animals appeared. And what I mean by that is that a whole bunch of cells that had lived for almost 3 billion years as individuals suddenly came together to form an entity that is larger than any one of them .OK so then you have a set of cells and this set of cells can solve the problem of existing in two very basic ways. One solves this problem by the universe coming to you; you cannot go to the universe. Those particular entities require no nervous system and have no nervous system plants dont have a nervous system. The other solution is to move actively, to be able to displace yourself. Now in order to survive the dynamics of moving, you have to have some idea of where you are moving to. Now the advantages to moving are huge because you can run away from danger. This is non-trivial. The problem with motricity, with the ability to move, is that you have to have three important properties. First you have to have the ability to move, to be able to displace yourself. Secondly, youre going to have to have some prediction of where youre moving, so you need a sensory system that tells you And the third one, and the most profound, is called intentionality. To decide. If you have the ability to move and you have the ability to predict but you dont have the desire to move, you dont.
If you are going to move actively, you need a brain. Now the opposite is also the case. Any animal that moves, however primitive, has a nervous system, and as you know it happened almost as an explosion, in an explosive way, a lot of different types of animals appeared with a lot of different types of nervous systems. And by the way when you look at neurons, theyre almost exactly the same regardless what animal you are. Part of the tissue becomes the nervous system that generates motricity by activating muscles, has motricity pattern so you can go forwards or backwards or whatever and has a desire to move intentionality. That is present in all of them .Now because it is so closely related to prediction and so closely related to intentionality then we make an impossible statement and say, you know what, thinking may be nothing else by internalized movement What it (the brain) does is generate pre-motor acts, inside it generates pre-motor events, all that we can do as human beings with our brain is activation of motor neurons, that is the only output.
So I would assume that Llinas would not be surprised that our thinking, words and concepts are so often based on a movement metaphor.He is going further than just metaphor.
Encephalon 57 on Mind Hacks has a link to a video interview of Rodolfo Llinas (video). There are many interesting ideas in this hour long discussion. The part I am quoting from the transcript is Llinas self-experimentation on the subject of free-will.
I understand that free will does not exist; I understand that it is the only rational way to relate to each other, this is to assume that it does, although we deeply know that it doesnt. Now the question you may ask me is how do you know? And the answer is, well, I did an actually lovely experiment on myself. I was extraordinary really. There is an instrument used in neurology called a magnetic stimulator its an instrument that has a coil that you put next to the top of the head and you pass a current such that a big magnetic field is generated that activates the brain directly, without necessary to open the thing. So if you get one of these coils and you put it on top of the head, you can generate a movement. You put it in the back, you see a light, so you can stimulate different parts of the brain and have a feeling of what happens when you activate the brain directly without, in quotes, you doing it. This of course is a strange way of talking but thats how we talk. So I decide to put it on the top of the head where I consider to be the motor cortex and stimulate it and find a good spot where my foot on the right side would move inwards. It was *pop* no problem. And we did it several time and I tell my colleague, I know anatomy, I know physiology, I can tell you Im cheating. Put the stimulus and then I move, I feel it, Im moving it. And he said well, you know, theres no way to really know. I said, Ill tell you how I know. I feel it, but stimulate and Ill move the foot outwards. I am now going to do that, so I stimulate and the foot moves inwards again. So I said but I changed my mind. Do it again. So I do it half a dozen times (it always moved inward) So I said, oh my god, I cant tell the difference between the activity from the outside and what I consider to be a voluntary movement. If I know that it is going to happen, then I think I did it, because I now understand this free will stuff and this volition stuff. Volition is whats happening somewhere else in the brain, I know about and therefore I decide that I did it In other words, free will is knowing what you are going to do. Thats all.