Folk neuropsychology

I find the traces of old theories in our language intriguing. We still talk about heat in ways that hark back to the phlogiston theory – we talk of the flow of heat like it was a fluid. We talk of the sun rising, as if Galileo had never been, although we all know it is the earth that is turning. The language always carries fossils of long-gone beliefs. So it will be with our theories of thought and behavior; the old phrases will remain along side newer understandings.


In our minds we have a simplified version of how the world works. For example infants have a folk physics. They can roughly estimate the path of a falling object. We have the ‘theory of mind’ that gives us a rough understanding of what goes on in the heads of others (and ourselves). We all have a folk psychology that we have built up over the years from what we have read and what we have experienced as a refinement of our theory of mind. Even than it is still a rough estimate of how brains work. It seems we are now creating a folk neuropsychology. Paul Rodriguez has studied this emerging folk ‘knowledge’ using its effect on language (see citation below). This is brought to my attention by an item in the Mind Hacks blog (here).


Rodriguez studied ordinary language in ordinary situations, not the language of experts, and looked for the metaphors and metonymies in use – the method of cognitive semantics. He found that in many statements, ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ were interchangable.

I will argue that for the most part “brain” and “mind” are used in similar ways with similar meanings, but whereas “mind” may have an aspect of subjectivity, “brain” has a concrete and physical dimension.

Examples are given.

THE MIND IS A CONTAINER: in my mind, clear your mind – THE BRAIN IS A CONTAINER: in my brain but not yet on paper, stuff that sticks in our brain

THE MIND IS A MACHINE: crank out ideas – THE BRAIN IS A MACHINE: her brain was churning, my brain wasn’t switched on

THE MIND IS A RECORDING MEDIUM FOR MEMORY (LIKE A COMPUTER): my mind was blank, etched in my mind – THE BRAIN IS A RECORDING MEDIUM: etched onto the brain, imprinted on the brain

THE MIND IS A MUSCLE: mental leaps, mental exercise – THE BRAIN IS A MUSCLE: flex your brain

IDEAS ARE FOOD: hard to swallow, chewing over – THE BRAIN NEEDS IDEAS FOR NOURISHMENT: feed your brain

UNDERSTANDING IN GRASPING: get a handle on, grasp the concept – THE BRAIN CAN UNDERSTAND CONCEPTS BY GRASPING: trying to wrap my brain around it


But there are differences between the metaphoric use of the two words.

Despite the possible overlap in meaning between mind and brain, they are not completely interchangeable. One trivial example is that “mind” can be a verb related to thinking, as in “never mind.” More interestingly, there are common phrases about the mind as a noun that do not seem to apply so easily to the brain. Consider the following examples: “I want to give you a piece of my brain” versus “I want to give you a piece of my mind,” “Will you change your brain?” versus “Will you change your mind?” “Open your brain” versus “Open your mind.”


The nature of some metaphors can be quite reductionist. Here are some examples:

THE BRAIN AS AGENT AND/OR LOCUS OF IDEAS: songs sped from brain to paper

THE BRAIN AS AGENT AND/OR LOCUS OF TRUE KNOWLEDGE: my brain knows what to do but me body won’t do it, they know in their brain but can’t vertalize

THE BRAIN AS AGENT AND/OR LOCUS OF DELIBERATION: how hard it is to ignore the famous even when your brain tells you to.

THE BRAIN AS EXPERIENCER OF PERCEPTIONS: this menu is confusing my brain


If you are as interested in language as you are in neuroscience, I recommend that you read the original paper and enjoy its many insights. It is very readable. You will be able to see the scope of this research from the papers conclusion:

In summary, I have shown that brain and mind have overlapping referents, brain and mind are conceptualized similarly, reporting brain states can be substituted for reporting mental states, and brain images engender new shared cultural symbols that characterize mental phenomena. The use of these brain references to talk about mental states and mental experiences is a reductionist mode of explaining behavior. In that sense, it is a rudimentary folk neuropsychology.

I have also applied a cognitive semantic analysis to the use of metaphors, speech acts, jokes, advertisements, and other images to the ordinary language of “brain.” Other work in the public understanding of genetics, or science and technology more generally, has also examined metaphors, such as frequency and types in popular media or development and change of analogies over time in popular science. For an analysis of lay understandings, some work has used interview techniques to evaluate how science is assimilated. Some analyses of culture and science have also focused on the nature of science narratives and their impact on policy discussions, legal decisions, and personal attitudes. The cognitive semantic analysis of metaphor, speech acts, and imagery in ordinary language is complementary to all these approaches because it focuses on the network of conceptual schemas underlying common sense understanding. As well as identifying and categorizing metaphors as a whole unit, deconstructing the meanings of cultural symbols, or situating social perspectives, a cognitive semantic analysis decomposes the underlying concepts that organize and structure the way we conceive and talk about things. The cognitive semantic analysis helps reveal the source of entailments, generalizations, inferences, discourse effects and social meanings involved in everyday language. This kind of analysis seems especially crucial for the public understanding of neuroscience because the mind is something abstract that we know subjectively, theories of brain function are still immature, and the dualist sense that the mind is not physical makes this a difficult matter to talk about in purely objective terms.

Rodriguez, P. (2006). Talking brains: a cognitive semantic analysis of an emerging folk neuropsychology Public Understanding of Science, 15 (3), 301-330 DOI: 10.1177/0963662506063923

One thought on “Folk neuropsychology

  1. I have never really thought about all those common phrases using brain and how they actually convey specific images of what the brain is. Do you think that this is a problem, as in it is actually fostering incorrect assumptions about the brain? or do you think it is just an interesting thought about language?
    I particularly love “I’m going to give you a piece of my brain” … ew. no thanks.

    JK: Thanks for the comment. My opinion is that you cannot have language without much of it being metaphor. No metaphor – no communication of new ideas. They are born, get old and become fossils. Brand new ones have brand new meanings, they become conventional so the meaning is still there but is losing its power and then finally we not longer see it as a metaphor. “Take heart” would have gone from an encouragement to be brave and embracing life with heart being a metaphor for life and courage, then it would slowly become a stock saying and finally we say “take heart” without even thinking about a beating heart. It is only relatively new metaphors that have the power to affect how we see the world. So I would think that some metaphors are fostering incorrect assumptions, some are fostering more correct assumptions then we had, and some are just interesting quirks of language that no longer affect our thinking in a figurative way but only in a literal way. Thanks again for commenting.

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