The Psychologist has just made an article available online that examines the history of how novelists have used metaphors to describe the human mind. The article also tackles how this has reflected our understanding of the mind itself.
Mind-metaphors have always reflected dominant scientific ideas, and psychologists and cognitive scientists have always used metaphors in building their theories (Leary, 1990). During the heyday of behaviourism, when theorising about internal states was more-or-less taboo, the incidence of metaphors of mind in published psychological research dropped away accordingly (Gentner & Grudin, 1985). Metaphors of mind, both literary and scientific, can act as ‚Äòguide fossils‚Äô in reflecting the prevailing scientific orthodoxies of the eras in which they are found (Draaisma, 2000). What if these metaphors turn out to be wrong? What if the mind doesn‚Äôt work that way?
A book that has looked at metaphors for psychology in more detail is Metaphors of Memory by dutch psychologist Prof Douwe Draaisma.
He notes that psychological theories have often been inspired by technology, so we understood the mind as being a system of pneumatic and hydraulic forces in the 1800s, while we now use metaphors of information processing as computers have become the dominant technology.
It’s interesting to think that our understanding of ourselves might be limited by our ability to build technology.
It’s also interesting to wonder whether the move to incorporate more biological function into technology will mean we are less bound by restrictive metaphors in future cognitive science.
In The Psychologist article, Charles Fernyhough argues that fiction may be a rich source of metaphors, and work in developing more poetic approaches to understanding the mind may make important contributions to theory building in psychology.
Link to article ‘Metaphors of Mind’.
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I’d also like to add a plug for an excellent article on the same subject by Roddy Roediger (of the Wash. U. Psychology Dept.):
Roediger, H.L. (1980). Memory metaphors in cognitive psychology. Memory & Cognition, 8, 231-246.
A PDF of the article can be downloaded from his web page. Well worth checking out for those interested in the role of metaphors in cognitive models.