Metaphors for the Mind

In my current composition course on reading metaphors, students identify metaphors and conceptual sets in our culture. In this lesson on metaphors of the mind, we work to historicize these metaphors somewhat as well.

Directions: First, name the metaphor in the following quotes: the mind equals what? Next, analyze and critique the metaphors. What does the metaphor usefully tell us about the mind? What does it problematically imply about the mind?

At the end, consider all the metaphors as a type of set, a conceptual metaphor as George Lakoff calls them. More generally, what two things are compared in all of these examples. What is the A = B for the overall set?

Now, think about these metaphors in their historical context, what do you notice about each individual metaphor and the context in which it was created? In other words, why these particular metaphors at these particular times? Can you make a larger statement or argument about how people create metaphors of the mind?

1. Galen, physician and scientist during Roman Empire, 200 A.D. (quote from  Rebecca Schwarzlose "Modernity, Madness, and the History of Neuroscience")

“pneuma fills the brain cavities called ventricles and circulates through pathways in the brain and nerves in the body just as water flows through a tube”

2. Julien Ofray de La Mettrie, L’Homme Machine, 1747

On the human brain and body: “a machine that winds its own springs—the living image of perpetual motion . . . man is an assemblage of springs that are activated reciprocally by one another”

3. Metaphor popular during the Industrial Revolution, usually dated as approximately 1760-1820; quote from Nicholas Carr The Shallows

There was a “metaphor that represented the brain as a mechanical contraption. Like a steam engine or an electric dynamo, the nervous system was made up of many parts, and each had a specific and set purpose that contributed in some essential way to the successful operation of the whole.”

4. Allen Newell, Herbert A. Simon, and John C. Shaw “Empirical Explorations of the Logic Theory Machine” (352), 1964

They describe a “functional equivalence between brains and computers . . . Our theory is a theory of the information processes involved in problem-solving and not a theory of neural or electronic mechanisms.”

5. Christiane Paul, “Neural Networks vs. Computer-Networked Environments” 2002

The neural network of the brain exhibits the same fundamental structure as that of social or computer networks. The brain can be understood as an assembly of distinct modules, each of them responsible for different tasks, such as speech, language, vision. In neuroscience labs, magnetic resonance imaging techniques — which use radio waves to probe the pattern of blood flow in the brain, revealing how much oxygen its various parts are using at any moment — are used to see these modules in action. This process reflects the level of neural activity.

6. Lisa Feldman Barrett, "How to Become a 'Superager'" The New York Times 2016

The triune brain became (and remains) popular in the media, the business world and certain scientific circles. But experts in brain evolution discredited it decades ago. The human brain didn’t evolve like a piece of sedimentary rock, with layers of increasing cognitive sophistication slowly accruing over time. Rather (in the words of the neuroscientist Georg Striedter), brains evolve like companies do: they reorganize as they expand. Brain areas that Dr. MacLean considered emotional, such as the regions of the “limbic system,” are now known to be major hubs for general communication throughout the brain. They’re important for many functions besides emotion, such as language, stress, regulation of internal organs, and even the coordination of the five senses into a cohesive experience.

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