The Basic Idea
You’re the apple of my eye. I’m feeling blue. His words cut deeper than a knife. We often don’t realize it, but we constantly embellish our speech with metaphors. Let’s take a closer look at “You’re the apple of my eye”. If someone tells you that you look as sweet as apple taste, they’re likely calling you attractive. Of course, they could’ve just said “You’re attractive,” but the meaning is nowhere near as vivid or evocative as the comparison between your appearance and an apple. Therein lies a common reason people rely on metaphors: to imbue words with descriptive power. Indeed, the word metaphor consists of two Latin roots: ‘meta’ meaning ‘over’, and ‘pherein’ meaning ‘to carry or to bear’. The essence of metaphor, then, lies in the carryover of meaning from one word to another.
Metaphors are used to compare different things, making them seem indistinguishable from similes and analogies. Despite their similarity, there are key differences. Unlike similes, which make indirect comparisons by referring to an object as like or as another thing, metaphors are direct. The world is a stage. My mother-in-law is a demon.
Metaphors can also seem like analogies, but they’re also slightly different. Analogies don’t just show that things are alike but use a comparison to explain a concept. For example, consider the popular analogy in Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get”. Forrest compares life to a box of chocolates to make a point that life is unpredictable. On the other hand, metaphors don’t require an explanation: that test was murder!
Metaphor: A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.
Embodied cognition: The theory that features of cognition are shaped by aspects of the body.
In his 330 BCE book Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle described the metaphor as a secondary type of language, built on what Aristotle deemed the “true nature” of language – literal speech. Based on Aristotle’s ideas, early language theories posited that metaphoric thinking occurred in two steps1. First, metaphors are processed as literal statements. Then, once the brain discovers that the context doesn’t allow for the statement to work literally, they’re processed as metaphors. Consider the statement “Sam is a pig.” Because this statement is literally false (Sam is obviously a human), two-process models state we’ll re-interpret it metaphorically: Sam is as filthy as a pig. One implication of this view is that comprehending the nonliteral meanings requires more time and conscious effort than comprehending literal meanings. This view also implies that whether we interpret something metaphorically is optional, since it requires conscious effort.
Despite its early relevance, the two-step model of metaphors was debunked in an experiment by Princeton Psychology professor Sam Glucksberg and his colleagues.1 Participants read three types of statements: those that were literally true (“Some birds are robins”), those that were literally false but “anomalous” (i.e. they couldn’t easily be interpreted metaphorically, as in “Some birds are apples”), or metaphorical (“Some lawyers are sharks”). Participants were asked to judge whether the statements were literally true, and their reaction time was measured.
What they found revolutionized the way we conceive of metaphoric thinking: participants were automatically interpreting the metaphorical statements metaphorically, whereas the subsequent literal interpretation required more time to process. This finding ruled out the view that the statements must be interpreted literally first, prior to any metaphorical interpretation.
Following Glucksberg and his colleague’s findings, linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published a seminal book entitled Metaphors We live By in 1980, arguing that metaphors aren’t just linguistic embellishments – the nature of human cognition is metaphorical2 . We need metaphors to think clearly. Think of abstract concepts like time, freedom, or love. Metaphors illuminate these abstractions by grounding them in familiar, concrete things that we can sense. For example, when we say that time is money, we imply that time is something finite and not something we’d want to waste. When we say that an atom is a solar system, it’s easier to picture its structure: the nucleus is the sun and the orbiting planets the electrons and neutrons. For this reason, metaphoric language pervades the hard sciences, mathematics, and even technology. Ever wonder why Google’s ‘Unable to connect to the Internet’ screen has a T-Rex? Because having no Wi-Fi is like being in the dinosaur age!
Sam Glucksberg is a Canadian professor in the Psychology Department at Princeton University in New Jersey, known for his works on figurative language, particularly metaphors, irony, sarcasm, and idioms. Known as a pioneer in the field of experimental psycholinguistics, his research focuses on understanding how people recognize and understand these parts of figurative speech. He served as editor of two of the most prominent psychology research journals: Journal of Experimental Psychology: General and Psychological Science.
George Lakoff is an American cognitive linguist and philosopher, best known for his thesis that people’s lives are significantly influenced by the conceptual metaphors they use to explain complex phenomena. The conceptual metaphor thesis, introduced in his and Mark Johnson’s 1980 book Metaphors We Live, has been widely applied in politics, literature, and philosophy. One of his most famous lectures is known as “Framing 101: How to Take Back Public Discourse”, where he reveals how politicians use language to nudge people into thinking a certain way. For example, think of the metaphorical term “tax relief,” first introduced when George W. Bush arrived in the White house. For there to be relief there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction and is therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent relief. In other words, when Democrats use this terminology they’re implicitly bolstering Conservatives’ argument that taxation is a bad thing.
Metaphors don’t just elucidate complex concepts; they can change the way we think. In a 2011 study by cognitive scientists Thibodeau and Boroditsky, participants read a story about a crime-ridden city3. How “crime” was portrayed was different among participants. Half of the participants read about crime described as a beast preying upon innocent citizens, whereas the other half read about crime described as a disease that plagued the town. Surprisingly, the type of metaphor presented influenced the participants’ strategy to solve the crime. Those who read the animal metaphor suggested control strategies like increasing police presence or imposing stricter penalties while those who read the disease metaphor suggested treatment strategies, like seeking out the root cause of the crime.
In addition to metaphors being critical to how we think, they are also critical in how we behave. Embodied cognition, a growing field in the cognitive sciences, suggests that metaphors are represented physically in our neural circuitry – so, in a sense, how we behave is metaphoric. When you call someone warm, you probably mean they’re nice and friendly, not physically warm. Yet, this new research suggests our brains actually can’t distinguish between the two, as metaphors are linked to physical sensations. In a study by Yale psychologist John Bargh, participants who held warm cups of coffee were more likely to judge a confederate as trustworthy, compared to those holding cold cups of coffee4. In another study, subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with memories of acceptance judged the room to be, on average, 5 degrees warmer than those who remembered being snubbed5. Physical warmth, then, can translate to interpersonal warmth.
One issue with using metaphors in science is that they can oversimplify or misrepresent complex ideas, which can reinforce outdated scientific paradigms or contribute to public misunderstanding. For example, the outdated concept of genes as “blueprints” has guided research in molecular biology for decades. When scientists made that early comparison, they were suggesting that genes are rigid designs that determine which molecules our body should create. This view reinforced the ideas of biological determinism (the idea that we can’t escape our genetic destiny) and a unidirectional relationship between the gene and the environment, meaning our genes determine which environments we end up6 .
Recent advances in developmental biology and epigenetics suggest this “blueprint” viewpoint is inaccurate. Certain genes can switch “on” or “switch” due to life events, such as in response to trauma or contracting certain diseases. Contrary to our idea that our genetic material is immutable, then, our genes can respond to environmental stimuli6 . Furthermore, the blueprint metaphor implies there’s a 1-to-1 mapping between each individual gene and a specific part of the body or function. In reality, one gene can contribute to many different types of proteins needed by many parts of the body. Clearly, the “gene as blueprint” metaphor is outdated. Sociology professor Barbara Katz Rothman suggests that envisioning genes as “recipes” is more accurate, as it allows for the incorporation of time, growth, and the environment to hold sway on the “final product.”
Another issue with using metaphors to describe scientific phenomena is that they can reflect the social and political values of the individuals who construct them, thereby embedding these beliefs into society under the guise of “science”. In her highly influential article, “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles,” sociocultural anthropologist Emily Martin argues that gendered personifications (a type of metaphor) have crept their way into biology textbooks, affixing the social roles of men and women within them7.
To illustrate this point, Martin examines descriptions of fertilization in biology textbooks: the still, passive egg relies on the sperm to deliver its genes by penetrating the zona (the outer surface of the egg). Note how this description personifies the egg as stereotypically feminine: passive, docile, and dependent on the male (the sperm) to fulfill its function. Counter to the common metaphor, research demonstrates that eggs are actually far more involved in the fertilization process. Using their adhesive molecules, they capture the sperm like a tight net to compensate for the weak mechanical force of the sperm’s tail. Will the public understand this nuance if we keep personifying eggs as passive females? Probably not. Ultimately, we need to be careful with how metaphors are used to describe science, as they might be masquerading hidden beliefs as scientific fact.
Related TDL Content
Read this article to delve deeper into a closely related term to the metaphor: analogy. You’ll notice that analogies are more often used in argumentation than metaphors, and they require an explanatory purpose.
Another related linguistic concept is the syllogism: a type of logical reasoning used to craft a valid argument. If you like to strip sentences down to their premises and arguments, have a read!
- Glucksberg, S., Gildea, P., & Bookin, H. (1982). On understanding nonliteral speech: Can people ignore metaphors?. Journal Of Verbal Learning And Verbal Behavior, 21(1), 85-98. doi: 10.1016/s0022-5371(82)90467-4
- Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2017). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press
- Thibodeau, P., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. Plos ONE, 6(2), e16782. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0016782
- Zhong, C., & Leonardelli, G. (2008). Cold and Lonely. Psychological Science, 19(9), 838-842. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02165.x
- Williams, L., & Bargh, J. (2008). Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth. Science, 322(5901), 606-607. doi: 10.1126/science.1162548
- Taylor, C., & Dewsbury, B. (2018). On the Problem and Promise of Metaphor Use in Science and Science Communication. Journal Of Microbiology & Biology Education, 19(1). doi: 10.1128/jmbe.v19i1.1538
- Martin, E. (1991). The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. Signs: Journal Of Women In Culture And Society, 16(3), 485-501. doi: 10.1086/494680