People have always learned through analogy
When my grandfather first saw a car, he didn’t think “automobile.” He thought, “That’s a carriage that moves without a horse — it’s a horseless carriage.”
He added to his knowledge by comparing the new concept to something he already understood. In other words, he learned through metaphor.
“Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature,” write George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By.
In other words: Metaphor is how we think.
We use metaphor all the time. As Lakoff and Johnson point out, we compare:
- Arguments to war (Attack your position. Claims are indefensible. Criticisms were right on target. Shoot down arguments.)
- Time to money (spending time, wasting time, saving time, investing time, costing time)
- Computers to offices (desktops, files, folders, documents, notepads)
In our brains, love is a journey, problems are puzzles and the Internet is a city.
Metaphors work because they compare the concept to something more familiar: cars to horse-drawn carriages, for instance. That helps people understand new, complex or conceptual information — computers, the Internet, love — by means of something they already understand.
And that makes metaphors shortcuts to understanding.
Compare complex concepts
If metaphor is how we think, then writers can help people think through metaphor.
That’s the approach Richard Preston used in The Demon in the Freezer to help people wrap their brains around the science of smallpox:
“Variola particles are built to survive in the air. They are rounded-off rectangles that have a knobby, patterned surface — a gnarly hand-grenade look. Some experts call the particles bricks. The whole brick is made of a hundred different proteins, assembled and interlocked in a three-dimensional puzzle. Pox bricks are the largest viruses. If a smallpox brick were the size of a real brick, then a cold-virus particle would be a blueberry on the brick. But smallpox particles are still extremely small; about three million smallpox bricks laid down in rows would pave the period at the end of this sentence.”
Why does this work?
“Human thought processes are largely metaphorical,” write Lakoff and Johnson. “The human conceptual system is metaphorically structured and defined. … Metaphor is as much a part of our functioning as our sense of touch, and as precious.”
Bottom line: If you’re communicating technical,
scientific or complicated information, use metaphor.
Sources: George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980
Richard Preston, The Demon in the Freezer, Random House, October 2002