Like a moth to a flame, we’re drawn to metaphors to explain ourselves

Kenan Malik at The Guardian: “The selfish gene. The Big Bang. The greenhouse effect. Metaphors are at the heart of scientific thinking. They provide the means for both scientists and non-scientists to understand, think through and talk about abstract ideas in terms of more familiar objects or phenomena.

But if metaphors can illuminate, they can also constrain. In his new book, The Idea of the Brain, zoologist and historian Matthew Cobb tells the story of how scientists and philosophers have tried to understand the brain and how it works. In every age, Cobb shows, people have thought about the brain largely in terms of metaphors, drawn usually from the most exciting technology of the day, whether clocks or telephone exchanges or the contemporary obsession with computers. The brain, Cobb observes, “is more like a computer than like a clock”, but “even the simplest animal brain is not a computer like anything we have built, nor one we can yet envisage”.

Metaphors allow “insight and discovery” but are “inevitably partial” and “there will come a point when the understanding they allow will be outweighed by the limits they impose”. We may, Cobb suggests, be at that point in picturing the brain as a computer.

The paradox of neuroscience today is that we possess an unprecedented amount of data about the brain but barely a glimmer of a theory to explain how it works. Indeed, as the French neuroscientist Yves Frégnac has put it, making ample use of metaphor, it can feel as if “we are drowning in a flood of information” and that “all sense of global understanding [of brain function] is in acute danger of being washed away”.

It’s not just in science that metaphors are significant in shaping the ways in which we think. In 1980, the linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson set off the modern debate on this issue with their seminal work, Metaphors We Live By. Metaphors, they argued, are not linguistic flourishes but the fundamental building blocks of thought. We don’t simply talk or write with metaphors, we also think with them….(More)”