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"Everything you can imagine is real."— Pablo Picasso



Age of information
Artificial intelligence
Cognition, perception, relativity
Cognitive science
Collective intelligence
Human being
Mind & Brain
Science & Art
Self improvement
The other


A Box Of Stories
Reading Space




The time machine in our mind. The imagistic mental machinery that allows us to travel through time


Our ability to close our eyes and imagine the pleasures of Super Bowl Sunday or remember the excesses of New Year’s Eve is a fairly recent evolutionary development, and our talent for doing this is unparalleled in the animal kingdom. We are a race of time travelers, unfettered by chronology and capable of visiting the future or revisiting the past whenever we wish. If our neural time machines are damaged by illness, age or accident, we may become trapped in the present. (…)

Why did evolution design our brains to go wandering in time? Perhaps it’s because an experience is a terrible thing to waste. Moving around in the world exposes organisms to danger, so as a rule they should have as few experiences as possible and learn as much from each as they can. (…)

Time travel allows us to pay for an experience once and then have it again and again at no additional charge, learning new lessons with each repetition. When we are busy having experiences—herding children, signing checks, battling traffic—the dark network is silent, but as soon as those experiences are over, the network is awakened, and we begin moving across the landscape of our history to see what we can learn—for free.

Animals learn by trial and error, and the smarter they are, the fewer trials they need. Traveling backward buys us many trials for the price of one, but traveling forward allows us to dispense with trials entirely. Just as pilots practice flying in flight simulators, the rest of us practice living in life simulators, and our ability to simulate future courses of action and preview their consequences enables us to learn from mistakes without making them.

We don’t need to bake a liver cupcake to find out that it is a stunningly bad idea; simply imagining it is punishment enough. The same is true for insulting the boss and misplacing the children. We may not heed the warnings that prospection provides, but at least we aren’t surprised when we wake up with a hangover or when our waists and our inseams swap sizes. (…)

Perhaps the most startling fact about the dark network isn’t what it does but how often it does it. Neuroscientists refer to it as the brain’s default mode, which is to say that we spend more of our time away from the present than in it. People typically overestimate how often they are in the moment because they rarely take notice when they take leave. It is only when the environment demands our attention—a dog barks, a child cries, a telephone rings—that our mental time machines switch themselves off and deposit us with a bump in the here and now. We stay just long enough to take a message and then we slip off again to the land of Elsewhen, our dark networks awash in light.”

Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Essay: The Brain: Time Travel in the Brain, TIME, Jan. 29, 2007. (Illustration for TIME by Jeffery Fischer).

Kurt Stocker: The time machine in our mind (2012)

                                          (Click image to open research paper in pdf)


"This article provides the first comprehensive conceptual account for the imagistic mental machinery that allows us to travel through time—for the time machine in our mind. It is argued that language reveals this imagistic machine and how we use it. Findings from a range of cognitive fields are theoretically unified and a recent proposal about spatialized mental time travel is elaborated on. The following novel distinctions are offered: external vs. internal viewing of time; “watching” time vs. projective “travel” through time; optional vs. obligatory mental time travel; mental time travel into anteriority or posteriority vs. mental time travel into the past or future; single mental time travel vs. nested dual mental time travel; mental time travel in episodic memory vs. mental time travel in semantic memory; and “seeing” vs. “sensing” mental imagery. Theoretical, empirical, and applied implications are discussed.”

"The theoretical strategy I adopt is to use language as an entree to a conceptual level that seems deeper than language itself (Pinker, 2007; Talmy, 2000). The logic of this strategy is in accordance with recent findings that many conceptualizations observed in language have also been found to exist in mental representations that are more basic than language itself. (…)

It is proposed that this strategy helps to uncover an imagistic mental machinery that allows us to travel through time—that this strategy helps us to uncover the time machine in our mind.

A central term used in this article is “the imagery structuring of time.” By this I refer to an invisible spatial scaffolding in our mental imagery across which temporal material can be splayed, the existence of which will be proposed in this article. At times it will be quite natural to assume that a space-to-time mapping in the sense of conceptual metaphor theory is involved in the structuring of this invisible scaffolding. (…)

It is thus for the present investigation more coherent to assume that mental time is basically constructed out of “spatialized” mental imagery—“spatialized” is another central term that I use in this article. I use it in the sense that it is neutral as to whether some of the imagery might be transferred via space-to-time mappings or whether some of the imagery might relate to space-to-time mappings only in an etymological sense. An example of temporal constructions that are readily characterized in terms of spatialized temporal imagery structuring are the conceptualizations underlying the use of before and after, conceptualizations that are often treated as having autonomous temporal status and as relating only etymologically to space.

The current investigation can refine this view somewhat, by postulating that spatialized temporal structures still play a very vital role in the imagery structuring underlying before and after. (…)

The theoretical strategy, to use linguistic expressions about time as an entree to conceptual structures about time that seem deeper than language itself, has been applied quite fruitfully, since it has allowed for the development of a rather comprehensive and precise conceptual account of the time machine in our mind. The theory is not an ad-hoc theory, since linguistic conceptualizations cannot be interpreted in a totally arbitrary way—for example language does not allow us to assume that a sentence such as I shopped at the store before I went home means that first the going home took place and then the shopping. In this respect the theory is to some degree already a data-guided theory, since linguistic expressions are data. However, the proposal of the theory that language has helped us to uncover a specific system of spatialized imagery structuring of time can only be evaluated by carrying out corresponding psychological (cognitive and neurocognitive) experiments and some ideas for such experiments have been presented. Since the time machine in our mind is a deeply fascinating apparatus, I am confident that theoretical and empirical investigations will continue to explore it.”

— Kurt Stocker, The time machine in our mind (pdf), Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA, 2012

See also:

☞ T. Suddendorf, D. Rose Addis and M C. Corballis, Mental time travel and the shaping of the human mind (pdf), The Royal Society, 2009.

Abstract: “Episodic memory, enabling conscious recollection of past episodes, can be distinguished from semantic memory, which stores enduring facts about the world. Episodic memory shares a core neural network with the simulation of future episodes, enabling mental time travel into both the past and the future. The notion that there might be something distinctly human about mental time travel has provoked ingenious attempts to demonstrate episodic memory or future simulation in nonhuman animals, but we argue that they have not yet established a capacity comparable to the human faculty. The evolution of the capacity to simulate possible future events, based on episodic memory, enhanced fitness by enabling action in preparation of different possible scenarios that increased present or future survival and reproduction chances. Human language may have evolved in the first instance for the sharing of past and planned future events, and, indeed, fictional ones, further enhancing fitness in social settings.”

☞ George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language (pdf), The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 77, 1980.
Our sense of time is deeply entangled with memory
Time tag on Lapidarium notes


George Lakoff on metaphors, explanatory journalism and the ‘Real Rationality’


Metaphor is a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects. Because such metaphors structure our most basic understandings of our experience, they are “metaphors we live by”—metaphors that can shape our perceptions and actions without our ever noticing them. (…)

We are neural beings, (…) our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything – only what our embodied brains permit. (…)

The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.”

George Lakoff, cited in Daniel Lende, Brainy Trees, Metaphorical Forests: On Neuroscience, Embodiment, and Architecture, Neuroanthropology, Jan 10, 2012.

"For Lakoff, language is not a neutral system of communication, because it is always based on frames, conceptual metaphors, narratives, and emotions. Political thought and language is inherently moral and emotional. (…)

The way people really reason — Real Rationality — coming new understandings of the brain—something that up-to-date marketers have already done. Enlightenment reason, we now know, was a false theory of rationality.

Most thought is unconscious. It doesn’t work by mathematical logic. You can’t reason directly about the world—because you can only conceptual what your brain and body allow, and because ideas are structured using frames.” Lakoff says. “As Charles Fillmore has shown, all words are defined in terms of conceptual frames, not in terms of some putative objective, mind-free world.”

“People really reason using the logic of frames, metaphors, and narratives, and real decision making requires emotion, as Antonio Damasio showed in Descartes’ Error.” 

“A lot of reason does not serve self interest, but is rather about empathizing with and connecting to others.”

People Don’t Decide Using ‘Just the Facts’

Contemporary explanatory journalism, in particular, is prone to the false belief that if the facts are presented to people clearly enough, they will accept and act upon them, Lakoff says. “In the ‘marketplace of ideas’ theory,  that the best factually based logical argument will always win. But this doesn’t actually happen.”

“Journalists always wonder, ‘We’ve reported on all the arguments, why do people vote wrong?’” Lakoff says. “They’ve missed the main event.”

Many journalists think that “framing” a story or issue is “just about choices of words and manipulation,” and that one can report factually and neutrally without framing. But language itself isn’t neutral. If you study the way the brain processes language, Lakoff says, “every word is defined with respect to frames. You’re framing all the time.” Morality and emotion are already embedded in the way people think and the way people perceive certain words—and most of this processing happens unconsciously. “You can only learn things that fit in with what your brain will allow,” Lakoff says.

A recent example? The unhappy phrase “public option.”

“When you say public, it means ‘government’ to conservatives,” Lakoff explains. “When you say ‘option,’ it means two things: it’s not necessary, it’s just an ‘option,’ and secondly it’s a public policy term, a bureaucratic term. To conservatives, ‘public option’ means government bureaucracy, the very worst thing you could have named this. They could have called it the America Plan. They could have called it doctor-patient care.”

According to Lakoff, because of the conservative success in shaping public discourse through their elaborate communication system, the most commonly used words often have been given a conservative meaning. “Tax relief,” for example, suggests that taxation is an affliction to be relieved.

Don’t Repeat the Language Politicians Use: Decode It

Instead of simply adopting the language politicians use to frame an issue, Lakoff argues, journalists need to analyze the language political figures use and explain the moral content of particular words and arguments.

That means, for example, not just quoting a politician about whether a certain policy infringes or supports American “liberty,” but explaining what he or she means by “liberty,” how this conception of liberty fits into the politician’s overall moral outlook, and how it contrasts with other conceptions of liberty.

It also means spelling out the full implications of the metaphors politicians choose. In the recent coverage of health care reform, Lakoff says, one of the “hidden metaphors” that needed to be explored was whether politicians we’re talking about healthcare as a commodity or as a necessity and a right.

Back on the 2007 presidential campaign trail, Lakoff pointed out, Rudy Giuliani called Obama’s health care plans “socialist,” while he himself compared buying health care to buying a flatscreen tv set, using the metaphor of health care as a commodity, not a necessity. A few liberal bloggers were outraged, but several newspapers reported his use of the metaphor without comment or analysis, rather than exploring what it revealed about Giuliani’s worldview. (…)

A Dictionary of the Real Meanings of Words

What would a nonpartisan explanatory journalism be like? To make nonpartisan decoding easier, Lakoff thinks journalists should create an online dictionary of the different meanings of words—“ not just a glossary, but a little Wikipedia-like website,” as he puts it. This site would have entries to explain the differences between the moral frameworks of conservatives and progressives, and what they each typically mean when they say words like “freedom.” Journalists across the country could link to the site whenever they sensed a contested word.

A project like this would generate plenty of resistance, Lakoff acknowledges. “What that says is most people don’t know what they think. That’s extremely scary…the public doesn’t want to be told, ‘You don’t know what you think.’” The fact is that about 98 percent of thought is unconscious.”

But, he says, people are also grateful when they’re told what’s really going on, and why political figures reason as they do. He would like to see a weekly column in the New York Times and other newspapers decoding language and framing, and analyzing what can and cannot be said politically, and he’d also like to see cognitive science and the study of framing added to journalism school curricula.

Ditch Objectivity, Balance, and ‘The Center ‘

Lakoff has two further sets of advice for improving explanatory journalism. The first is to ditch journalism’s emphasis on balance. Global warming and evolution are real. Unscientific views are not needed for “balance.”

“The idea that truth is balanced, that objectivity is balanced, is just wrong,” Lakoff says. Objectivity is a valuable ideal when it means unbiased reporting, Lakoff argues. But too often, the need for objectivity means that journalists hide their own judgments of an issue behind “public opinion.” The journalistic tradition of “always having to get a quote from somebody else” when the truth is obvious is foolish, Lakoff says.

So is the naïve reporting of poll data, since poll results can change drastically depending on the language and the framing of the questions. The framng of the questions should be part of reporting on polls.

Finally, Lakoff’s research suggests that many Americans, perhaps 20 per cent, are “biconceptuals” who have both conservative and liberal moral systems in their brains, but apply them to different issues. In some cases they can switch from one ideological position to another, based on the way an issue is framed. These biconceptuals occupy the territory that’s usually labeled “centrist.” “There isn’t such a thing as ‘the center.’ There are just people who are conservative on some issues and liberal on others, with lots of variations occurring. Journalists accept the idea of a “center” with its own ideology, and that’s just not the case,” he says.

Journalists tell “stories.” Those stories are often narratives framed from a particular moral or political perspective. Journalists need to be more upfront about the moral and political underpinnings of the stories they write and the angles they choose.

Journalism Isn’t Neutral–It’s Based on Empathy

“Democracy is based on empathy, with people not just caring, but acting on that care —having social as well as personal responsibility…That’s a view that many journalists have. That’s the reason they become journalists rather than stockbrokers. They have a certain view of democracy. That’s why a lot of journalists are liberals. They actually care about how politics can hurt people, about the social causes of harm. That’s a really different view than the conservative view: if you get hurt and you haven’t taken personal responsibility, then you deserve to get hurt—as when you sign on to a mortgage you can’t pay. Investigative journalism is very much an ethical enterprise, and I think journalists have to ask themselves, ‘What is the ethics behind the enterprise?’ and not be ashamed of it.” Good investigative journalism uncovers real facts, but is done, and should be done, with a moral purpose.

To make a moral story look objective, “journalists tend to pin moral reactions on other people: ‘I’m going to find someone around here who thinks it’s outrageous’…This can make outrageous moral action into a matter of public opinion rather than ethics.”

In some ways, Lakoff’s suggestions were in line with the kind of journalism that one of our partners,  the non-profit investigative journalism outlet ProPublica, already does. In its mission statement, ProPublica, makes its commitment to “moral force” explicit. “Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ‘moral force,’” the statement reads. “We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

He emphasized the importance of doing follow-ups to investigative stories, rather than letting the public become jaded by a constant succession of outrages that flare on the front page and then disappear. Most of ProPublica’s investigations are ongoing and continually updated on its site.

Cognitive Explanation:’ A Different Take on ProPublica’s Mission 

But Lakoff also had some very nontraditional suggestions about what it would mean for ProPublica to embark on a different kind of explanatory journalism project. “There are two different forms of explanatory journalism. One is material explanation — the kind of investigative reporting now done at ProPublica: who got paid what by whom, what actions resulted in harm, and so on. All crucial,” he noted. “But equally crucial, and not done, is cognitive and communicative explanation.”

“Cognitive explanation depends on what conceptual system lies behind political positions on issues and how the working of people’s brains explains their political behavior. For example, since every word of political discourse evokes a frame and the moral system behind it, the superior conservative communication system reaches most Americans 24/7/365. The more one hears conservative language and not liberal language, the more the brains of those listening get changed. Conservative communication with an absence of liberal communication exerts political pressure on Democrats whose constituents hear conservative language all day every day. Explanatory journalism should be reporting on the causal effects of conservative framing and the conservative communicative superiority.”

“ProPublica seems not to be explicit about conflicting views of what constitutes ‘moral force.’ ProPublica does not seem to be covering the biggest story in the country, the split over what constitutes morality in public policy. Nor is it clear that ProPublica studies the details of framing that permeate public discourse. Instead, ProPublica assumes a view of “moral force” in deciding what to cover and how to cover it.

“For example, ProPublica has not covered the difference in moral reasoning behind the conservative and progressive views on tax policy, health care, global warming and energy policy, and so on for major issue after major issue.

“ProPublica also is not covering a major problem in policy-making — the assumption of classical views of rationality and the ways they have been scientifically disproved in the cognitive and brain sciences.

“ProPublica has not reported on the disparity between the conservative and liberal communication systems, nor has it covered the globalization of conservatism — the international exportation of American conservative strategists, framing, training, and communication networks.

“When ProPublica uncovers facts about organ transplants and nursing qualifications, that’s fine. But where is ProPublica on the reasons for the schisms in our politics? Explanatory journalism demands another level of understanding.

“ProPublica, for all its many virtues, has room for improvement, in much the same way as journalism in general — especially in explanatory journalism. Cognitive and communicative explanation must be added to material explanation.”

What Works In the Brain: Narrative & Metaphor

As for creating Explanatory Journalism that resonates with the way people process information, Lakoff suggested two familiar tools: narrative and metaphor.

The trick to finding the right metaphors for complicated systems, he said, is to figure out what metaphors the experts themselves use in the way they think. “Complex policy is usually understood metaphorically by people in the field,” Lakoff says. What’s crucial is learning how to distinguish the useful frames from the distorting or overly-simplistic ones.

As for explaining policy, Lakoff says, “the problem with this is that policy is made in a way that is not understandable…Communication is always seen as last, as the tail on the dog, whereas if you have a policy that people don’t understand, you’re going to lose. What’s the point of trying to get support for a major health care reform if no one understands it?

One of the central problems with policy, Lakoff says, is that policy-makers tend to take their moral positions so much for granted that the policies they develop seem to them like the “merely practical” things to do.

Journalists need to restore the real context of policy, Lakoff says, by trying “to get people in the government and policy-makers in the think tanks to understand and talk about what the moral basis of their policy is, and to do this in terms that are understandable.”

George Lakoff, American cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, interviewed by Lois Beckett in Explain yourself: George Lakoff, cognitive linguist,, 31 January, 2011 (Illustration source)

See also:

Professor George Lakoff: Reason is 98% Subconscious Metaphor in Frames & Cultural Narratives
Timothy D. Wilson on The Social Psychological Narrative: ‘It’s not the objective environment that influences people, but their constructs of the world’
The Difference Between Online Knowledge and Truly Open Knowledge. In the era of the Internet facts are not bricks but networks, Lapidarium notes
☞ Metaphor tag on Lapidarium notes


The Mind is a Metaphor ☞ interactive, solidly constructed collection of mental metaphorics

                                                            (Click image to explore)

"The Mind is a Metaphor, is an evolving work of reference, an ever more interactive, more solidly constructed collection of mental metaphorics. This collection of eighteenth-century metaphors of mind serves as the basis for a scholarly study of the metaphors and root-images appealed to by the novelists, poets, dramatists, essayists, philosophers, belle-lettrists, preachers, and pamphleteers of the long eighteenth century. While the database does include metaphors from classical sources, from Shakespeare and Milton, from the King James Bible, and from more recent texts, it does not pretend to any depth or density of coverage in literature other than that of the British eighteenth century.”

See also:

The first version, 2007
☞ C. John Holcombe, Theories of metaphor
James Geary, metaphorically speaking, TED talk, 2009
Metaphor tag on Lapidarium notes
Metaphor tag on Lapidarium


The conduit metaphor

Marten van Valckenborch, Tower of Babel (c.1600)
“Alleviating social and cultural difficulties requires better communication. And the problem that faces us is, how do we improve our communication? It will not do to set out posthaste to “solve the problem” of inadequate communication. The most pressing task is rather to start inquiring immediately about how that problem presents itself to us.” — (Michael J. Reddy, The Conduit Metaphor - A case of Frame Conflict in Our Language about Language, (pdf) 1979)
The Conduit metaphor operates whenever people speak or write as if they “insert” their mental contents (feelings, meanings, thoughts, concepts, etc.) into “containers” (words, phrases, sentences, etc.) whose contents are then “extracted” by listeners and readers. Thus, language is viewed as a “conduit” conveying mental content between people.

The Conduit metaphor paradigm states that communication failure needs explanation, because success should be automatic. Conversely, the toolmakers paradigm states that partial miscommunication is inherent and can only be fixed by continuous effort and extensive verbal interaction. (Wiki)
“The conduit metaphor is leading us down a technological and social blind alley. That blind alley is mass communications systems coupled with mass neglect of the internal, human systems responsible for nine-tenths of the work in communicating. We think we are “capturing ideas in words,” and funneling them out to the greatest public in the history of the world. But if there are no ideas “within” this endless flood of words, then all we are doing is replaying the myth of Babel—centering it, this time, around a broadcasting tower.” — (Michael J. Reddy, The Conduit Metaphor - A case of Frame Conflict in Our Language about Language, (pdf) 1979)
(tnx jamreilly)

Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning

                                                       Vladimir Kush, Atlas Of Wander

"The way we talk about complex and abstract ideas is suffused with metaphor. In five experiments, we explore how these metaphors influence the way that we reason about complex issues and forage for further information about them. We find that even the subtlest instantiation of a metaphor (via a single word) can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve social problems like crime and how they gather information to make “well-informed” decisions. Interestingly, we find that the influence of the metaphorical framing effect is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as influential in their decisions; instead they point to more “substantive” (often numerical) information as the motivation for their problem-solving decision. Metaphors in language appear to instantiate frame-consistent knowledge structures and invite structurally consistent inferences. Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes, metaphors have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues. We find that exposure to even a single metaphor can induce substantial differences in opinion about how to solve social problems. (…)

Even fleeting and seemingly unnoticed metaphors in natural language can instantiate complex knowledge structures and influence people’s reasoning in a way that is similar to the role that schemas, scripts, and frames have been argued to play in reasoning and memory. (…)

We find that the metaphors were most effective when they were presented early in the narrative and were then able to help organize and coerce further incoming information. (…)

Through analogical transfer in this way, systems of metaphors in language can encourage the creation of systems of knowledge in a wide range of domains. Our reasoning about many complex domains then can be mediated through these patchworks of analogically-created representations. A final question is how strong the influence of metaphorical framing really is? Focusing on a real-world social issue like crime allows us to compare the effects of metaphor we observe in the lab with the opinion differences that exist naturally in the population. People with different political affiliations hold different opinions on how to address societal problems like crime. (…)

Analysis reveals a striking effect of metaphor as measured against real-world differences in opinion that exist in the population and impact policy-making. Interestingly, we found that self-identified Republicans were also less likely to be influenced by the metaphors than were Democrats and Independents. (…)

The studies presented in this paper demonstrate that even minimal (one-word) metaphors can significantly shift people’s representations and reasoning about important real-world domains. These findings suggest that people don’t have a single integrated representation of complex issues like crime, but rather rely on a patchwork of (sometimes disconnected or inconsistent) representations and can (without realizing it) dynamically shift between them when cued in context.

Metaphor is incredibly pervasive in everyday discourse. By some estimates, English speakers produce one unique metaphor for every 25 words that they utter. Metaphor is clearly not just an ornamental flourish, but a fundamental part of the language system. This is particularly true in discussions of social policy, where it often seems impossible to “literally” discuss immigration, the economy, or crime. If metaphors routinely influence how we make inferences and gather information about the social problems that confront us, then the metaphors in our linguistic system may be offering a unique window onto how we construct knowledge and reason about complex issues. (…)

We find that metaphors can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve complex problems and how they gather more information to make “well-informed” decisions. Our findings shed further light on the mechanisms through which metaphors exert their influence, by instantiating frame-consistent knowledge structures, and inviting structurally-consistent inferences. Interestingly, the influence of the metaphorical framing is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as an influential aspect in their decisions. Finally, the influence of metaphor we find is strong: different metaphorical frames created differences in opinion as big or bigger than those between Democrats and Republicans.”

Paul H. Thibodeau, Lera Boroditsky, Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA, Published: February 23, 2011.


Professor George Lakoff: Reason is 98% Subconscious Metaphor in Frames and Cultural Narratives

Notes: Metaphor and Embodiment

In Metaphors We Live By George Lakoff, a linguist, and Mark Johnson, a philosopher, suggest that metaphors not only make our thoughts more vivid and interesting but that they actually structure our perceptions and understanding.

"We are neural beings, (…) our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything - only what our embodied brains permit. (…) The Mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.”

Philosophy In The Flesh” - A talk with George Lakoff, EDGE 3rd Culture, 3.9.1999

"We think with our brains. There is no other choice. Thought is physical. Ideas and the concepts that make them up are physically “computed” by brain structures. Reasoning is the activation of certain neuronal groups in the brain given prior activation of other neuronal groups. Everything we know, we know by virtue of our brains. Our physical brains make possible our concepts and ideas; everything we can possibly think is made possible and greatly limited by the nature of our brains. (…)

Each neuron has connections to between 1,000 and 10,000 other neurons. (…) The flow of neural activity is a flow of ions that occurs across synapses – tiny gaps between neurons. Those synapses where there is a lot of activity are “strengthened” – both the transmitting and receiving side of active synapses become more efficient. Flow across the synapses is relatively slow compared to the speed of computers: about five one-thousandths of a second (5 milliseconds) per synapse. A word recognition task – Is the following word a word of English? – takes about half a second (500 milliseconds). This means that word recognition must be done in about 100 sequential steps. Since so much goes into word recognition, it is clear that much of the brain’s processing must be in parallel, not in sequence. This timing result also shows that well-learned tasks are carried out by direct connections. There is no intervening mentalese.”

— George Lakoff in Raymond W. Gibbs, Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, Chapter I: The Neural Theory of Metaphor, Cambridge University Press 2008, p. 18.

"Primary metaphorical thought arises when a neural circuit is formed linking two brain areas activated when experiences occur together repeatedly. Typically, one of the experiences is physical. In each experiment, each subject has the physical experience activating one of the brain regions and another experience (e.g., emotional or temporal) activating the other brain region for the given metaphor. The activation of both regions activates the metaphorical link. Thus, if the metaphor is Future Is Ahead and Past Is Behind, thinking about the future will activate the brain region for moving forward. If the metaphor is Affection is Warmth, holding warm coffee will activate the brain region for experiencing affection.”

George Lakoff, Why “Rational Reason” Doesn’t Work in Contemporary Politics,, Feb 21, 2010

Metaphor as “imaginative rationality”

“Many of our activities (arguing, solving problems, budgeting time, etc.) are metaphorical in nature. The metaphorical concepts that characterize those activities structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality. This can begin to happen when we start to comprehend our experience in terms of a metaphor, and it becomes a deeper reality when we begin to act in terms of it. If a new metaphor enters the conceptual system that we base our actions on, it will alter that conceptual system and the perceptions and actions that the system gives rise to. Much of cultural change arises from the introduction of new metaphorical concepts and the loss of old ones. For example, the Westernization of cultures throughout the world is partly a matter of introducing the TIME IS MONEY metaphor into those cultures. (…)

It is reasonable enough to assume that words alone don’t change reality. But changes in our conceptual system do change what is real for us and affect how we perceive the world and act upon those perceptions.

The idea that metaphor is just a matter of language and can at best only describe reality stems from the view that what is real is wholly external to, and independent of, how human beings conceptualize the world—as if the study of reality were just the study of the physical world. Such a view of reality—so-called objective reality— leaves out human aspects of reality, in particular the real perceptions, conceptualizations, motivations, and actions that constitute most of what we experience. But the human aspects of reality are most of what matters to us, and these vary from culture to culture, since different cultures have different conceptual systems.

The reason we have focused so much on metaphor is that it unites reason and imagination. Reason, at the very least, involves categorization, entailment, and inference. Imagination, in one of its many aspects, involves seeing one kind of thing in terms of another kind of thing—what we have called metaphorical thought. Metaphor is thus imaginative rationality. Since the categories of our everyday thought are largely metaphorical and our everyday reasoning involves metaphorical entailments and inferences, ordinary rationality is therefore imaginative by its very nature. Given our understanding of poetic metaphor in terms of metaphorical entailments and inferences, we can see that the products of the poetic imagination are, for the same reason, partially rational in nature.

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally: our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness. These endeavors of the imagination are not devoid of rationality; since they use metaphor, they employ an imaginative rationality.

An experientialist approach also allows us to bridge the gap between the objectivist and subjectivist myths about impartiality and the possibility of being fair and objective. (…) Truth is relative to understanding, which means that there is no absolute standpoint from which to obtain absolute objective truths about the world. This does not mean that there are no truths; it means only that truth is relative to our conceptual system, which is grounded in, and constantly tested by, our experiences and those of other members of our culture in our daily interactions with other people and with our physical and cultural environments.”

George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

See also:

George Lakoff on metaphors, explanatory journalism and the ‘Real Rationality’
James Geary, metaphorically speaking,, Dec 2009
☞ Paul H. Thibodeau, Lera Boroditsky, Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA
☞ Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion: How the Brain Creates Identity, May, 2012