October 9, 2012
I Is an Other (2): Wired for Metaphor
Metaphors aren't just clever comparisons. Metaphors are the way we think.
In I Is an Other James Greary (see previous blog here) demonstrates this by considering Rebecca. When she reads a headline that says, "Belt Tightening Lies Ahead," or if someone says, "I'll show you the ropes," she has no idea what either means. She doesn't wear a belt, and no one showed her any ropes. Rebecca is an extremely intelligent person who has Asperger's syndrome. Her brain is virtually incapable of processing metaphors. She only understands what is literal (or metaphors whose meaning she has memorized).
Research shows that our brains are voracious pattern seekers. We look for similarities in life around us so we don't become paralyzed analyzing everything we come across. If we see an object resting on the floor that has four legs supporting a horizontal platform about eighteen inches high and a vertical panel attached to one side of the platform--we know it's a chair, even if we haven't seen this particular model of chair before. Without pattern recognition, we'd have to take time to think through and analyze whether anything slightly new was a threat or benign. We could be somebody's lunch before we were half done figuring things out.
When children play pretend, they are actually engaging in a very complex kind of pattern recognition. Greary writes, "From a cognitive point of view, saying 'My job is a jail' is a lot like pretending that a banana is a telephone" (p. 52). People like Rebecca also have difficulty with playing pretend. Scientists have traced the ability to pretend and understand metaphors to a certain category of neurons in our brain. For people with Asperger's, these neurons malfunction.
The patterns our brains form do not always follow strict logic or mathematical exactitude. (If they did, Rebecca's literal mind would be able to decode what others were saying.) Our brains seem to require more latitude and flexibility to deal with life in all its messiness and complexity, if not randomness. This too may be a survival mechanism. The more supple our minds, the better we can cope with the unexpected. For the brain, precision and specificity are important but apparently not the highest values. Rather creativity, breadth, connection and pattern are more central.
That's the literal truth.
Next Installment: I Is an Other (3): It's the Metaphors, Stupid!