January 6, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

Building bridges in mind, language and society

On 2 January Mo Costandi tweeted: “’Be the neurotransmitter in your world. Diffuse ideas & human connections.’ Talking, the new world changing concept”. The quote within the tweet was taken from an article by David Rowan, Editor of Wired, in response to the 2017 question posed by Edge: What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known? Rowan argued that it should be ‘synaptic transfer’.

Metaphor and synapses

When I read the article on ‘synaptic transfer’ more closely, I came across a little gem. “We need to celebrate the synapse for its vital role in making connections, and indeed to extend the metaphor to the wider worlds of business, media and politics. In an ever-more atomized culture, it’s the connectors of silos, the bridgers of worlds, that accrue the greatest value. And so we need to promote the intellectual synapses, the journalistic synapses, the political synapses—the rare individuals who pull down walls, who connect divergent ideas, who dare to link two mutually incompatible fixed ideas in order to promote understanding. …But as we promote the metaphorical sense of synaptic transfer, we can afford to be looser in our definition. Today we need synapse-builders who break down filter bubbles and constrained world-views by making connections wherever possible.”

Reading this led me to make a series of connections with an eclectic mix of older literature on the brain/mind, social interaction and metaphor. In this post I’ll follow that stream of thought. There is nothing earth-shattering here, but I do think these early reflections on metaphors, mind and people link up with Rowan’s musings on synapses/metaphors as ‘bridgers of worlds’ and to our collective responsibility to promote mutual understanding.

Metaphor and mind

Metaphors as rhetorical figures have been discussed for millennia. Metaphors as cognitive and social phenomena have been investigated for about two or three centuries, a tradition one can perhaps link back to Giambattista Vico and his Scienza Nuova of 1725. As Marcel Danesi has pointed out, one of Vico’s important insights was “that mind, culture, and language evolved from the uniquely human faculty known as fantasia (‘the imagination’)”.

Thinking about metaphor and other tools of the imagination flourished in Europe in the 18th and 19th-centuries. Such general philosophical reflections then made their ways into psychology, linguistics and literary criticism, and led to further research and exploration. By the 1930s, mind and metaphor were established topics of inquiry across a number of fields.

Let’s just quote from two books written during that time. One is Ivor Armstrong Richards‘ seminal Philosophy of Rhetoric in which he wrote: “The mind is a connecting organ, it works only by connecting and it can connect any two things in an indefinitely large number of different ways. Which of these ways it chooses is settled by reference to some larger whole or aim, and, though we may not discover its aim, the mind is never aimless.” (Richards, 1936: 125). The other book is by John Middleton Murry, a writer and critic, entitled Countries of the Mind: Essays in Literary Criticism (1931). Murry wrote: “Metaphor is as ultimate as speech itself, and speech as ultimate as thought. … Metaphor appears as the instinctive and necessary act of the mind exploring reality and ordering experience.” (Murry, 1931: 1-2). More recently, some metaphor researchers  have gone so far as to say: “Metaphor and other analogical tropes, when they compare aptly, create new synapses in the mind and new relations between language, thought, and reality.” (Friedrich, 1991: 53)

Metaphor and reality

In his Philosophy of As If the German philosopher Hans Vaihinger, writing at the end of the 19th century, called metaphors ‘indispensable fictions’ and stated that “All cognition is the apperception of one thing through another.” (1924: 29). Metaphors are tools by which we grasp the world around us, make it understandable and make it amenable to human action. For Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the famous 19th-century English poet, about whom Richards had written an in-depth study in 1934, imagination is “a creative, connective power that unites nature and the poet” or as I’d say nature and people – and, of course, metaphor is part of this connecting process.

Metaphor and people

While it is true to say that the brain/mind is, as Richards pointed out, a connecting organ, one should not forget that we, as humans are also connecting people. A good metaphor reaches parts of the brain that other cognitive mechanisms cannot reach, but it also reaches out to other minds. Metaphors create cognitive (and possibly synaptic) bonds or bridges between conceptual or mental domains (although it’s all a bit more complicated than that), but they also create and entrench social bonds. Sharing a metaphor, just as sharing a joke, brings people together in text and talk (it might, of course, also exclude others….).

Another early philosopher of language and society, Valentin Voloshinov wrote: “Signs emerge, after all, only in the process of interaction between one individual consciousness and another. And the individual consciousness itself is filled with signs. Consciousness becomes consciousness only once it has been filled with ideological [semiotic] content, consequently, only in the process of social interaction.” (Voloshinov 1986[1929]: 11)

Metaphor and ethics

Metaphor is, metaphorically speaking, “the cognitive fire that ignites when the brain rubs two different thoughts together” (States 2001: 105). It also is the fuel that fires up talk, social interaction, story telling and story sharing. However, like all ‘technologies’, from fire onwards, metaphor as a cognitive and social technology has risks and benefits; it can illuminate but also inflame. This means we should use it wisely. In the world we live in today, which is way beyond the imaginations of early metaphor thinkers discussed in this post, we need to create and use metaphors for the common good.

To return to Rowan’s article on ‘synaptic transfer’ and metaphor: “Be the neurotransmitter in your world. Diffuse ideas and human connections. And help move us all beyond constrained thinking.” New thinking only works through making new connections, both in the brain and with other people. One way to make these connections is through talk. So, as Mo Costandi tweeted: “Talking, the new world changing concept”. Let’s do it, let’s talk, make connections and give our synapses a work-out. Let’s build bridges, not walls!

PS This article by Philip Ball explores the link between language and imagination – from 2021


Image: Iron Bridge, October 2016



Posted in Metaphors