A large body of research has been conducted into what is termed by cognitive scientists as metaphor. So as not to muddy the waters, think of metaphor as a template or lens through which you view the world. Cognitive scientists have been systematically unpacking the significance of conceptual metaphor in our daily lives since the sixties.
Those scholars propose that metaphors are not simply playthings of the mind, but are a "natural outgrowth of the manner in which our minds are constituted". What that means is that conceptual metaphors are product of your neurophysiology, that you have a genetic predisposition to attribute meaning to things by way of metaphor.
George Lakoff is professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California at Berkely and he asserts that metaphor rules almost all of our thinking:
"We may not always know it, but we think in metaphor. A large proportion of our most commonplace thoughts make use of an extensive, but unconscious, system of metaphorical concepts, that is, concepts from a typically concrete realm of thought that are used to comprehend another, completely different domain. Such concepts are often reflected in everyday language, but their most dramatic effect comes in ordinary reasoning.
Because so much of our social and political reasoning makes use of this system of metaphorical concepts, any adequate appreciation of even the most mundane social and political thought requires an understanding of this system. But unless one knows that the system exists, one may miss it altogether and be mystified by its effects".
On the conscious level metaphor can create shortcuts to understanding: cognition as the crow flies. Say, you have a complex idea you need to get across. The choice is yours: you can take your audience on a energy-sapping trek through the terrain, cross raging rivers of data, scale each conceptual obstacle as you come to it and finally, if you're lucky, arrive at your destination. Or, you can invite them to take flight, fix their bearings and make their way to journey's end on the wing of a metaphor.
The above is a crude metaphor for the complex internal processes involved in learning something new by linking it to something you already know or something universally known. It's also an example of a surface metaphor. You understand the hitherto unknown by associating it or joining it to something familiar. You're aware of a metaphor being used and you recognise how the metaphor was constructed to illustrate why metaphor can be the shortest way to explain difficult concepts. These types of metaphors are described as superficial, or surface, although they may draw on deeper conceptual metaphors.
Many people imagine metaphor as a by-product of the mastery and creative use of language. Metaphors are viewed as cute linguistic toys and playthings of speech, as tools for those who perhaps fall victim to ornamental expression, often in place of plain talk. Surface metaphor, however, if used appropriately can create powerful shortcuts to comprehension, but it's important to make a distinction between the two types of metaphor. Conceptual metaphor describes a much deeper process, as you will see.
Researchers have built up a formidable body of linguistic research that proposes that deep metaphoric concepts govern what you perceive, how you negotiate the world and how you communicate with people. They prescribe the way you function right down to the minutiae of daily life. Conceptual systems are generally beyond consciousness and that's why you may not be aware of how you structure your meaning and how you apply conceptual metaphors.
In the late seventies, Lakoff and Johnson embarked on a project to develop linguistic evidence to point out deficiencies in contemporary theories of meaning. Within weeks of the decision to collaborate, they discovered that Aristotlean logic (what Edward deBono describes as Rock Logic) didn't allow them to legitimately or in scientific terms raise the type of issues they wanted to address.
Like Korzybski had observed before them, the stumbling block was the two- thousand-three-hundred-year-old notion of objective and subjective reality. They subsequently developed an alternative theory of metaphorical concepts that placed human experience and understanding at the centre of their model of meaning.
Lakoff and Johnson pioneered new theories that took into account how people experience meaning in their lives. They identified a deeply embedded conceptual framework and argued that most of our conceptual system is metaphorically structured.
But who cares what a renowned linguist and a prominent philosopher cooked up between them? Of what relevance is it to the pursuit of charismatic communication? Why is it important to know about conceptual metaphors, and what do you do with the knowledge once you've got it? Well, think about it. Conceptual metaphors are generally beyond consciousness and you're not aware of them governing your thinking or behaviour.
What do you think would happen if someone applied a conceptual metaphor in a speech, conversation, or debate, entrapped you within it and slipped in a few self-serving suggestions? Because metaphor is part of the way you unconsciously make sense of the world, you'd be oblivious to what was happening and may be subject to covert influence without ever knowing it.
Some conceptual metaphors when used as a deliberate technique by your opponents have the power to embroil you in a cycle of self-destructive behaviour that can damage your reputation and credibility. Some unethical communication specialists teach these as a technique to public figures as a means of manipulating their opponents into showing their so-called "true colours". Experts call the technique 'conceptual entrapment' and it can be a frighteningly devious way of triggering the more primitive elements of your personality.
Remember, conceptual metaphors may well play a pivotal role in defining everyday realities. They help structure what you do and help you understand what you're doing when you're doing it. While you have a genetic predisposition to consciously and unconsciously process information by way of metaphor, the brain software you use to do it is not content free. What this means is that much of the metaphor software in your brain is culturally or experientially biased - has a lot of content.
Conceptual metaphors can be deliciously seductive, so much so that they can obscure all other kinds of possible conceptions, options, ideas and viewpoints that exist outside of them. People can become so entrapped within a conceptual metaphor that no amount of pleading to view things from another perspective will register. In politics, office environments, social policy debate and even in the home this may have extremely dangerous implications.
In my next article we will review some of the more toxic of these metaphors.
(C) Desmond Guilfoyle 2004 - 2006