Today’s Guardian has a nice article on the realtion between metaphor as understood by cognitive science and as used in literature: What’s on your mind?. It serves as an introduction to modern thinking on the importance of metaphor in human thought, and of the embodied nature of human cognition. Excerpt:
No professional group is more interested in the workings of the human mind than writers of fiction. Novelists as different as David Lodge, Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan have turned to the language of neuroscience in exploring venerable ideas about human experience. Even those writers without any overt interest in the mind sciences face the daily challenge of representing human consciousness on the page. The problem with mental states, for writers as much as for psychologists, is that they are unobservable. Confronted with the task of portraying the unportrayable, writers do what scientists do: they build models and reason from analogy. Writers’ most powerful tool in this respect has been metaphor, the likening of mental processes to non-mental, usually physical, entities. But have these metaphors kept pace with the advances made by cognitive scientists? Can literary metaphors of mind shed light on our unspoken assumptions about what goes on in our brains?…
The mind-as-container metaphor would certainly look familiar to many modern psychologists. The computer scientist John Barnden has collected together some common mind-metaphors in his online databank (www.cs.bham.ac.uk/~jab/ATT-Meta/Databank), a glance at which suggests that physical, static conceptions (such as of ideas as possessions, or as graspable external entities) still dominate contemporary talk about the mind. But psychologists now argue that we possess a wealth of knowledge of which we do not have conscious awareness, such as the procedural skills necessary to ride a bike, or the ability to draw on previous experiences without consciously recollecting them. It is not that these chunks of knowledge are temporarily lost in inaccessible spaces – rather, they belong to an entirely different system for storing knowledge to that which underpins our “explicit” memory for facts, names, phone numbers and so on.
In making this distinction between explicit and implicit memory, psychologists have replaced Plato’s thought-box with a metaphor from linguistics: the difference between your “known” knowns and your unknown ones is the difference between what you say and what your body language says for you….
Modern novelists’ fondness for first-person storytelling, brilliantly exemplified in the embedded narratives of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, has often served as an excuse for writers merely to render thought, rather than getting to grips with its dynamics and complex simultaneities. For all their limitations, metaphors of mind give writers a handle on the ineffable qualities of cognition. When thought becomes no more than unspoken speech, fiction’s gleaming reputation as a mirror of human consciousness will inevitably begin to tarnish.
October 15th, 2005