Thinking about thoughts

metaphor.JPGIs yours a box or a Swiss army knife? Last Saturday’s Guardian carried an essay by Charles Fernyhough comparing the use of mind metaphors by psychologists and novelists.

In fiction, the mind is often conceived as a container, be it an aviary confining the wildlife of human cognition, as in Plato’s Theaetetus, or the ante-rooms and winding passages of a character’s mind in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. But, Fernyhough writes, the mind as container metaphor fails to account for the idea of inaccessible procedural knowledge, such as the ability to ride a bike, or to capture the dynamic, flowing nature of thought. By implying a fixed boundary between what is in mind and what is not, the container metaphor also fails to encapsulate the idea of embodied cognition “which sees mental processes as shaped by the mutual interactions of mind, body and world” Fernyhough says.

Fernyhough suggests the mind as container metaphor continues to appeal despite its failings because “it fits with our cherished beliefs about the primacy of the unitary, indivisible self”, in contrast with cognitive psychology’s conception of the mind as a “Swiss army knife bristling with separate information-processing modules”.

Novelists have, however, adopted cognitive psychology’s metaphor of the mind as a machine. Fernyhough gives the example of a passage from Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore: “I crunch along the gravel, the mercury light beating down on me, and try to get my brain in gear. Throw the switch, turn the handle, get the old thought processes up and running. But it doesn’t work – not enough juice in the battery to get the engine to turn over”.

Fernyhough ends by suggesting that imperfect metaphors are better than none. The tendency for contemporary novelists to write in the first-person allows them to convey thoughts as they would speech “rather than getting to grips with its dynamics and complex simultaneities” he says, before concluding: “When thought becomes no more than unspoken speech, fiction’s gleaming reputation as a mirror of human consciousness will inevitably begin to tarnish”.

Link to full Guardian essay
Link to online databank of mind metaphors

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