Metaphors are literally in the mind

This is going back to this beautiful book that I read over the summer, by John Brockman who curates Smart People’s (Professors, Doctors, Candle Stick Makers) answers to extremely fascinating questions. I want to talk about this book, 2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?  and specifically throw my two cents in on top of  Benjamin K. Bergen entry.

His entry explains that beyond poetry, art or music, most of what we do and say is metaphorical. In our basic conversations, in all languages metaphors exist in how speak. There are things we say without thinking, for example morality is cleanliness: “That was a dirty trick.” And understanding is seeing: “New finding illuminates the structure of the universe.”

He points out that Aristotle and your English Teachers have told you to construct a proper metaphors you compare two things that are similar to each other in an overarching way.  So “Juliet is the sun” works because they are both radiant.

But Bergen points out the work George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in the book, Metaphors We Live By, and says all of that is bogus. Metaphoric language isn’t random and based on similarity at all, it is much more deep, elegant and yet simple.

I’m going to outline his logic for you:

What metaphors are: abstract things that you describe in terms of concrete things. ie Morality is more abstract than cleanliness. He’s clean= he has no criminal record. BUT, You cannot reverse this. Concrete things can’t be the explanation for abstractions. Metaphors don’t work like this: He’s moral= doesn’t mean he’s bathed. In semiotics, the red dress stands for sexual liberation, but sexual liberation can never stand for the red dress.

Not being able to reverse the logic suggests that there is some spooky stuff going on in here…
Metaphorical expressions stay consist regardless of the words you use. Check out this example of seeing (concrete thing) for understanding (the abstract thing): I see what you mean,” and “Let’s shed some light on the issue,” and “Put his idea under a microscope and see if it actually makes sense.” These are all different metaphors that work- ad none of the words are the same. Because there is a MAP that exists, that we DID NOT create ourselves. We’re using different language to reiterate the same psychological road map that seeing and understanding are related.
There is nothing inherently similar between “to see” and “to see understand” yet our minds think metaphorically, and these two abstractions are linked, so we can build metaphors surrounding these two ideas regardless of the language we use to describe them in. Let me go back to the Juliet example,  we can see how Juliet is the sun- where they are both “radiant”- but most metaphors are a lot more hugely complex than these similar undertones of two things. Instead, they are rooted in having two separate parts, one concrete and one abstract, that exist as road-maps in our minds, despite not having anything similar about them inherently, at all.  Metaphors become access points to describe a large idea with something tangible- and those two things are linked but not because they are similar, but because they are unconsciously and intrinsically associated in our minds with one another.
While the Juliet is the “sun” metaphor works- it isn’t as complex as these metaphors we actually use all the time. The sun metaphor is a really surface phenomena- because our brains think way beyond that. Lakoff and Johnson argue that our ability to understand the world is metaphorical where Bergen says, “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.”

So here are my two cents on the whole thing…


Metaphors uncover how we think.  It’s not just one thing standing for something more complicated. It is that in discovering that something can stand for something else we discover how we think, and develop a road map of the way we think. We all think metaphorically- and it is because we systematically map certain concepts onto others in your minds that we talk metaphorically. So this ability to point out these ideas as one standing for another, is just a really complicated way of showcasing the way our brains are already mapped out. So nobody actually writes metaphors, instead we discover them.

So metaphors work because they tap into a structured mapping between the two conceptual domains in people’s minds. So metaphors are way more than a linguistic device based on similarity- they are the ability to create paths which we literally UNDERSTAND/(see- (pun intended)) the world in. 

This is where I think poetry is insurmountably important, by creating new metaphors and that work, we are uncovering how life is thought of in our collective consciousness. I think that is pretty amazing. Poets literally become people that are writing out the puzzles to how humanity functions. It is a process of decoding and revealing these maps that for one reason or another already exist in everybody’s minds. It is a beautiful process of explaining, the otherwise unexplainable and gesturing to a code of humanity with your words. Creating metaphors that work, is one step closer to identifying how we process and understand the world. Poets are literal explorers of the mind, discovering and writing the map for us all.

Shatter and Build

I began my daily attempt at exorcising my anxiety:

I don’t have hobbies aside from writing in this Moleskin.

My fingers clung onto the torn leather. I sit on couches in Cafe Trois Lunes everyday. I roast my anguish by the idiot fire. Cafe Trois Lunes, located in a crack in the wall in between the dirtiest parts this city, has a gleaming light peaking through its windows. Among the alleys of graffiti and kids getting high, it stands tall. It stands paint-peeling, signs broken, rugs stolen, sticky wall- beautiful. The couch I sat on, had my imprint and a sharpie smiley face. I don’t have much, but at least I have this couch, this smiley face and this journal. I took a sip of my Tuesday drink, Vanilla-steamed milk.

I prefer a blank page that is always open and home that closes at 5pm on Sundays to what I what I had before.

I pursed my lips. I wondered if any men or ladies were trying to catch my eye. Jordan, the weekly MC of the Open Mic at Cafe Trois Lunes, assembled the microphone and speakers. When the poetry is too diary entry, I’ll stand outside and light a cigarette and scratch the skin under my turtleneck and he’ll try to hit on me.

Today, I was out of cigarettes. I focused on my journal ignoring the first poet, whose poetry was literary device debris. I stopped writing when the second poet came onto the stage.

“I’m Kyle.”

He had forest eyes and a smile that could slice. He recited a piece poking fun at teenage literature. I snapped and laughed.

Kyle sat down next to some girls that looked like Febreeze commercial models. I hated their boring cashmere button ups and perfectly combed hair. They eat oatmeal for breakfast with their mothers. They think water is interesting.

I belong to a dysfunctional family and all I have is this cafe, writing and vanilla milk but I’m superior to those cashmere sweater, velvet headband girls who think boarding gaming with a Palm Bay in hand at the community centre is an exciting night out.

I looked back at Kyle. I glanced down to my Moleskine. I’m sure those girls would drop their jaws at my stunning work. After months of writing in my journal here, maybe it was time to go on stage. The idea never pleased me, but not much does. I gestured at Jordan.

My red pumps moved me like a cheetah to the stage. I stayed to wink at Kyle. I placed the pen behind my ear and cleared my throat.

Then, twenty heartbeats of staring blankly into the audience. I was malleable. I began to speak, but god knows if it was English. I rushed through, stuttered, and fought back nervous tears.

“Home that closes at 5pm on Sundays..”

 I recalled my mother. I recalled how easy it was to lie to myself that this café is all I need. I found it difficult to focus on the ink on my page. The lights grew brighter. I recalled that underneath my lipstick and smirk was fear, six times bigger than my body. I gasped. I stared into the audience.

I fumbled back to my seat. One clap, two claps, three claps- silence. I drank the tiny drop of Vanilla steamed milk left. I did not look up until I heard the voice.

“Hey, that was really cool of you.”

If honey could talk, that would be noise of this voice.

“I’m an awful writer. I bombed.”

“Keep writing, some day you’ll build something beautiful.”

My façade stuck back onto me. I said he should kiss me. He blushed. He sliced me a smile. He said he was gay. He walked back to the velvet headband cashmere girls.

I decided to shatter myself again next Tuesday. This time, for myself.