January 17, 2012

The Edge Question 2012: Cognitive scientists explain how our brains sees the world in metaphors


On Sunday, Edge posted 192 responses to their annual question. This year’s query, suggested by Steven Pinker, was “WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?”

 The responses—from CEOs, artists, inventors, journalists, and scientists of all kinds—are rich and diverse. You’ll find the usual famous examples (relativity, Corgito ergo sum, Occam’s razor, evolution, etc.) and less familiar ones, such as The Collingridge Dilemma.

While full of thought-provoking delights, the contributions of fiction writers was a bit underwhelming. Novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein skates nimbly around the question by questioning the relationship between beauty and truth. The novelist Douglas Coupland responds with some truly inane babble about how every person has exactly two “déja vu” moments a year—a notion that is almost certainly false—and how this shows that our lives “have meaning.”

Literary element arise elsewhere in the Edge answers however. Actor Alan Alda cites Hamlet’s “There are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamed of in your philosophy,” as his favorite “explanation,” though his subsequent musing (“It answers the unspoken question, ‘WTF?'”) hardly illuminates his choice. More interestingly, Statistics Professor Victoria Stodden‘s uses a reference to Tolstoy as an example of people’s common misconceptions regarding chance, a misconception which all too often leads us to see perfectly explicable events as “amazing” coincidences and “freak” occurrences. She writes:

Tolstoy was skeptical of our understanding of chance. He gave an example of a flock of sheep where one had been chosen for slaughter. This one sheep was given extra food separately from the others and Tolstoy imagined that the flock, with no knowledge of what was coming, must find the continually fattening sheep extraordinary—something he thought the sheep would assign to “chance” due to their limited viewpoint. Tolstoy’s solution was for the sheep to stop thinking that things happen only for “the attainment of their sheep aims” and realize that there are hidden aims that explain everything perfectly well, and so there is no need to resort to the concept of chance.

Finally, however, the most intriguing literary element offered to the Edge questions come from two cognitive scientists who both chose the same concept as their favorite deep explanation: “Metaphors are in the mind.” Simone Schnall, the Director of the Cambridge Embodied Cognition and Emotion Laboratory, explains that “embodied metaphors,” or metaphors that relate to our physical body, “provide one common language of the mind”:

 The concrete experience of verticality serves as a perfect scaffold for comprehending abstract concepts, such as morality: Virtue is up, whereas depravity is down: Good people are “high minded” and “upstanding” citizens, whereas bad people are “underhanded” and the “low life” of society….Further, those in power are conceptualized as being high up relative to those down below over whom they hover and exert control, as shown by Thomas Schubert. All the empirical evidence suggests that there is indeed a conceptual dimension that leads up, both literally and metaphorically.

Amazingly, she notes that studies found that “people in a shopping mall who had just moved up an escalator were more likely to contribute to a charity donation box than people who had moved down on the escalator.”

Cognitive science professor Benjamin K. Bergan provides further examples: “Morality is cleanliness: ‘That was a dirty trick.’ And understanding is seeing: ‘New finding illuminates the structure of the universe.'” Moreover, he writes, “Metaphorical expressions are also coherent with one another.” Seeing is repeatedly and consistently used by people as a metaphor for understanding. Why? Bergan continues:

 You don’t just talk about understanding as seeing; you think about understanding as seeing. You don’t just talk about morality as cleanliness; you think about morality as cleanliness. And it’s because you think metaphorically—because you systematically map certain concepts onto others in your mind—that you talk metaphorically….[T]he conceptual metaphor explanation helps to explain how it is that we understand abstract concepts like affection or morality at all—by metaphorically mapping them onto more concrete ones.

Here, at last, the role of fiction, novels, and literature properly enters the Edge conversation. Because once we see (and only now do I notice how often I’ve used the sight/understanding metaphor in this post) that metaphorical thinking is intricately mapped into the human brain and that metaphors are not merely decorative or descriptive, but absolutely essential to our understanding of abstract thought (psychopaths, Schnall notes, do not have the same up/down, good/evil association as other people), metaphorical language takes on an awesome new significance. Metaphorical language is not merely aesthetically appealing, it is necessary for us to directly interact with the great abstraction of human reality.