Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Metaphors And How The Brain Works

There was book review in the WSJ last week called Beyond Compare: Metaphor is crucial to the way the brain works. Is it also dangerous? by Eric Felten. He reviewed the book I is an Other by James Geary. This is important because metaphors are important in mythology (see below). The books says that:

"Metaphor works, most obviously, when we recognize a similarity between two different things. It is a matter of "pattern recognition," which may be more important in the working of the brain than logic. "Early human thought proceeded by metaphor," according to Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Gerald Edelman. And this imprecise sort of figurative thinking is "a major source of imagination and creativity in adult life.""

"He [Geary] is impressed with research demonstrating that, in laboratory experiments, people exposed to certain metaphors were more open to certain behaviors, an effect called "priming." "Subjects primed with words relating to cooperation," Mr. Geary says, "cooperated more on test tasks than those who were not primed.""

Now here is something about metaphors from the Wikipedia page on Joseph Campbell:

"Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor (2001) — An exploration of the myths and symbols of the Judeo-Christian tradition

The first title in the series, this book compiled many of Campbell's ideas on the mythic underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In it he writes, "Mythology is often thought of as other people's religions, and religion can be defined as mis-interpreted mythology." In other words, Campbell did not read religious symbols literally as historical facts, but instead saw them as symbols or as metaphors for greater philosophical ideas. Campbell had previously discussed this idea with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth:

CAMPBELL: That would be a mistake in the reading of the symbol. That is reading the words in terms of prose instead of in terms of poetry, reading the metaphor in terms of the denotation instead of the connotation.

MOYERS: And poetry gets to the unseen reality.

: That which is beyond even the concept of reality, that which transcends all thought. The myth puts you there all the time, gives you a line to connect with that mystery which you are."


  1. It would have been interesting to see what Campbell would have made of the advances of science and psychology, how he would have incorporated it into his examination of how mythology shapes and informs our lives and what detriment there is to the quality and meaning of our lives when we are not connected to something grander, larger, and deeper than ourselves. Mythology and modern day metaphors act as primers allowing the individual to take on the primary mask of the culture.

  2. Kim

    Thanks for commenting. Your the first to do so on this blog! That means if you are ever down here in SA let me know so I can buy you coffee or a beer.

    Anwyay, yes I think it would have been great to know what he thought of all these advances. He said something in "The Power of Myth" about how he was having trouble with his computer and that computers can only work with a certain language. Then (IIRC) that we have to use the right programming or myth for our culture. So I think he liked to work in modern developments when ever he could.

    Not sure what your last sentence means but I think he said things like the individual has to find their own mythical meaning since we have had so much fragmentation (mythological rubbish is lying all about). And Jung said that we each need to discover what myth we are living by.

    Thanks again for dropping by!