If you described your life as a “game,” how would you “play” it? If you looked at your life as a “ship” on a “journey,” how would you “sail” it? And if you saw “education” as an “investment,” then how much do you want to “profit” from it? Game, ship, investment – these are examples of metaphors we recruit to express our relationship with day-to-day living. How has our thinking or approach to anything been shaped by the thought imagery that we assign to it?
I am a writer, so metaphors are my second skin. That itself is a metaphor – I do not have a second epidermal layer lined out with neatly written metaphorical phrases. But you get what I mean right away.
My mother is a well of metaphors when it comes to raising her children. She used to refer to us as “seeds” and when she spots a bad influence among our friends, she calls them “weeds.” She also used to cite her edge over us in terms of experience, saying, “You are just beginning your path while I am on my way back.” I used to have a big problem with that – I thought no one had a monopoly on all kinds of paths and maybe some of my and my siblings’ were different and so maybe she could also learn from our experiences. But of course, when I got older, I understood that the “path” she referred to mostly had to do with the metaphorical clock of life. But even if I mistook it for a different metaphor, I, like all children, get raised on nutrition, school, and metaphors. It is part of our lives.
My Dad had a different bag of metaphors. He used humorous stuff. He once called the spoiled kids of one of our relatives as “mushrooms,” as they just sprouted not very far from their “host” (their parents) and remained under the “shade” of their parents even as parents themselves. In later years, when I was a grown woman, he and I tacitly agreed to look at the Bay Bridge in San Francisco as the space that linked us, as our relationship at some point needed some re-making and re-branding like that bridge.
But could metaphors significantly affect the way we approach problems? I was intrigued by this field of study and one of the leading researchers in this field is Dr Lera Boroditsky. I first listened to her TED talk on how language shapes the way we think and became interested in the research she had done and cited. For instance, she shared that an aboriginal community called the Kuuk Thaayorre referred to the coordinates of everything not with their bodies as points of reference but with cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. They even greeted each other “hello” in a way that translates to “where are you going?” Destination is their metaphor for their “state of being” probably much like “Kumain ka na ba (Have you eaten)?" for Filipinos when we greet each other. “Orientation” is pivotal in their language and it was a deeply entrenched part of their expression of existence, that Dr Boroditsky even said that they would refer to an insect crawling on their leg to be “northwest of their leg.” I know many people who were born and raised, and lived in the same house but still could not tell from which side of their house the sun rises.
So now, it becomes easier to imagine how language could knead our minds to view certain things in certain ways. So maybe the way we imagine something to be in terms of thought imagery could also influence the way we reason out? And Dr Boroditsky’s research has put this to the test. They tested people on how they would think about the issue of “crime” if it were framed as a “virus” or a “beast” particularly in thinking of crime-solving or crime-reducing strategies. And indeed, the conclusion was, after 5 related experiments, that people reasoned out according to the metaphor by which they viewed “crime.” Those who saw it as a “virus” wanted to get to the root of the problem and explore the other aspects of the “contagion” – such as social reform. Those who saw it as a “beast” was committed to reasoning more in terms of a “hunt” focusing on "entrapment” and “punishment” and “law enforcement.”
What was even more intriguing about the results of the experiment is that the subjects were not conscious that they were looking at crime according to the metaphor that framed it for them. When asked, they would cite the same statistics that were present in the situationer given to them, which was the same regardless of whether the crime was a virus or a beast. Even more, the research showed that it did not even matter whether the metaphor was introduced right away to frame crime. It had the effect as long as it fit the narrative even if it was introduced later on. Now, we can better understand why “War on Drugs” elicits the kind of behavior from the populace and from law enforcers themselves.
And this is why slogans matter. Metaphors are not tools only of the sophisticated. They are part and parcel of the way we think and live. They live in our proverbs, in our humor, in our everyday conversations, in the lyrics of our music. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is not an ode to your epidermis. “Moon River” is not about a lunar body of water. “Ang Huling El Bimbo” is not the last dance in human history. “Ngayon at Kailanman” is not about the accelerating expansion of spacetime.
James Geary studies metaphors and in his Ted Talk, I love the way he balls up the nature of metaphors and throws it for us to catch and to juggle in our heads. He recruits whom he calls “one of the greatest philosophers and metaphorians” of history, Elvis Presley. Elvis sang “I’m all shook up” instead of another metaphor “I’ve fallen in love,” which in turn is also a metaphor for “my hormones have achieved a state of intense attraction akin to madness.” Geary uses Elvis’ metaphor to strengthen a correction that he makes of Descartes’ famous “I think therefore I am.” Geary thinks that this is an inaccurate translation because “Cogito Ergo Sum” comes from “co” (“together”) and “gito” ( from “agitare”) which means”to agitate.” He thinks “we shake things up, therefore we are.” Humans shake things up – not only when we act. It could start with how we think about something. What will be your metaphor for the day, for the week, for this chapter in your life? – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.