Language and Thinking
  • Analogy and Metaphors

    Comparison is one pivotal strategy for evaluating and expressing what is going on out there. You could argue that the basis of cognition is comparison. Analogy is a fundamental process of reasoning. The association of a known entity with an unknown simplifies the cognitive task of evaluating an ever-changing field of experience. Recognition consists of comparing a new object or event with remembered objects and events. Comparisons are made quickly without conscious awareness by feature detectors in various parts of the brain.

    Feature extraction and pattern recognition are both essential features of subconscious cognitive processes. All animals make comparative decisions quickly and easily, but not always correctly. The finding of similarity is important in the determination of safe and effective paths to follow. Humans, like other animals are naturally cautious or fearful of the new and unfamiliar. If a comparison does not lead to recognition, then the new object or event feels unfamiliar, strange and is potentially threatening. This comparative ability extends deeply into the words and syntax of human languages. By placing two cognitive domains side by side, the attributes of one overlap the other.

    IQ tests include evaluation of reasoning by analogy, often using geometric shapes that test both pattern recognition and comparison of pattern logic in the brain. Letter combinations that do not require semantic recognition can also be used. You can also test for sequence comparisons with shapes, letters and numbers. You can readily solve pattern rule comparisons such as if aabbcc, then gghhii.

    In poetic terms, a metaphor is an implicit comparison; a word or phrase that takes the place of another word or phrase, suggesting a likeness between the two. The generic form of metaphor is analogy. In poetry, metaphors are allowed to be loose analogies or even spurious analogies if they have pleasing implications. A simile is an explicit comparison that is identified by the terms like or as. Explicit comparisons are more easily identified and evaluated. Metaphors are less easily identified and are common in statements humans make every day. The validity of metaphors is seldom questioned and correction of popular but misleading metaphors is seldom achieved.

    Primary metaphors are findings of similarity that are readily accepted. Extended or conceptual metaphors are systematic comparisons that are propagated by copying, assembling, and elaborating primary metaphors. Dawkins term “memes” refers to self-replicating phrases that spread through a population of minds. Clichés are often repeated metaphors that spread as memes. Humans have to exercise remarkable skills of observation and discipline in describing events to avoid repeating metaphorical clichés, especially living in a world of multimedia that thrives on the propagation of memes.

    Perverse metaphors run amok in human discourse, verbal and written, and are always misleading. Comparisons are fanciful and unregulated and extended metaphors are designed to persuade, control and deceive. Metaphorical systems tend to lead users far from the truth and leave them without references or means of discovering the truth.

    Lakoff and Johnson suggested that reason is largely metaphorical and depends on descriptions of moving through spacetime. Reason, for example, is treated as a force that moves the thinker from one point in the argument to the next point. An irrational thinker wanders off topic, loses the point or gets lost in a thicket of unrelated issues. Reason can also be treated as a map that guides you from A to B; from premise to conclusion. Time is compared with a journey that has a behind or past, a present and the future lies ahead on the path. But there is no past and no future; the time path is a fictional metaphor.

    Thinking is talking and talking is rooted in movement and body language. Concepts are derived from body actions. When people talk they continue to make these body movements, with head, hand and arm gestures.

    Single comparison or metaphors are extended into models that are built from systematic comparisons. One extended metaphor that I am using, for example, compares brain operations with digital computing. In the past, mental operations were compared with older technologies such as electrical wiring, relays and telephone switchboards. The computer metaphor uses more sophisticated concepts to account for information processing and operations that link input and output states.

    Computer metaphors provide a common language for both theorists and practical scientists to communicate their ideas. Cognitive psychologists describe humans as information processors and computer terms such as input, output, processing, information storage and retrieval are compared to information processing in the brain.

    As more humans use computers, the brain-computer extended metaphor makes sense to a larger non-professional group of humans. Unfortunately, exaggerated claims of “computer intelligence” carry the metaphor in the wrong direction and confuse people who are not familiar with the limitations of digital computing. Robots are mechanical metaphors that move and sometimes speak, using recorded samples of human voices. Humans are easily fooled and start talking about conscious robots. Simulations of humanoids appear in the movies, but in real life the metaphor is nonsense.

    Other metaphors mislead and confuse. The underlying comparison may be fanciful or spurious. For example, the common metaphor for love is the heart. The heart metaphor has been extended in many directions and includes the red stylized heart symbol. Romance is represented by the heart symbol. Lovers pledge their heart and grief-stricken ex-lovers suffer from a broken heart. If you have a heart, you are empathetic. If you are heartless, you are cold and aloof, sometimes cruel. The extended metaphor does run amok and misrepresents what is actually going on.

    What is actually going on are all functions of the brain and not the heart, so that when the metaphor is taken literally, as metaphors often are, the whole enterprise of describing feelings and the behaviors associated with bonding and affiliation collapses into misunderstandings and confusion.

    Meaningful conversation is the best way for most humans to think, but relying on metaphors, repeating clichés, repetitive stories and case-making conversations is not recommended.

  • Dr. Gislason wrote: "In this brief reflection I describe some basic truths about languages that are aspects of human nature most likely to endure. I feature storytelling and selftalk as the two most important features of the human use of language. I consider how languages fit in the larger scheme of intelligence and human interactions. Interesting challenges emerge when language is used to describe itself. Spoken language is an innate ability of humans that emerges in all human groups. Spoken language is the key to interaction among humans. There are several thousand languages in human groups that enhance group cohesion and at the same time separate groups that cannot communicate. I trace the evolution of sound communication from animals who have lived on earth for hundreds of millions of years to computer programming that uses condensed forms of cryptic languages that are received and expressed by electronic circuits."

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