Bill Harrison


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"Language is fossil poetry," said Emerson. Can we use metaphor to de-fossilize thought?

For many people, language is too often habitual thought. We can speak and write intelligently and coherently without necessarily seeing vivid pictures in our mind's eye, or feeling the strong feelings words are meant to convey.

Yet, TEDster James Geary has persuasively argued that language, and in particular, metaphor, plays a strong role in shaping the way we think, and by extension the way we feel and behave.

Geary elaborates upon this idea in his book, I is an Other, which I recommend highly:

In his book, Geary suggests that the formula for metaphor, X = Y, is an effective method of communication, because "neurons that fire together wire together," so our brains make new connections as we compare/contrast two ideas in our minds, which "shakes up" unconscious fossil poetry.

My question is, can you apply the formula X = Y to connect two ideas/disciplines or "shake up" the way you and other people see/experience the world? What makes the metaphor interesting and effective?

For example:
"All men are brothers." If you think of how you see family members and how you see strangers, it's an interesting dichotomy, given that people everywhere are far more similar than we are different. Various religious traditions (and the UDHR, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) use the language of "brothers and sisters" or "brotherhood" in order to expand an in-group (those we easily empathize with and care about) beyond immediate family.

You can use the word "brother" or "sister" unthinkingly, unconscious of the meaning, or you can think of the relationship you have with a sibling and juxtapose that with the way you see a stranger, a member of a different race, or a person with whom you disagree vehemently.

Maybe that's a bad example. But can you use X = Y to come up with a creative metaphor and/or analogy to improve how we see/experience the world?

  • Apr 8 2011: Agree! Thanks for James Geary Ted talk and your comments that confirm my own discovery. I think we should rediscover poetry and the power it has to shape our lives and our world. We are challenged by poetry and it touches everybody even those who think they would not be touched by it. It gives us freedom and freedom is a prerequisit in order to be able to create anything worth, innovative and meaningfull in our lives and in the others. I have tried this power myself. But it is very rewarding to listen to these people as Sarah Kay, James Geary and you support my own discoveries from different angles and reflect on them.I would like to share a few lines of great poet who mainly write metaphores! K. Gibran. Letters of fire
    The air bear every sigh and every smile that arises from our heart
    and stores away the voice of every kiss whose source and spring is Love.
    Angels make account of every tear that dropped by saddness from ours eyes
    and fill the ears of wanderring spirits with a song created by our hidden joys.
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    Apr 12 2011: David Brooks has a piece on this in the NYT today, check it out:
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    Apr 6 2011: I included Chris Anderson and Sarah Kay’s talks because I think they convey two interesting, related ideas.

    The first is that Metaphor = High Bandwidth Communication. With an effective metaphor, we imagine how two ideas are related, thereby making new, memorable connections in our minds.

    The second is that Video = High Bandwidth Communication. Chris explains that video allows more information to be conveyed than text. The traditions of poetry and oral storytelling are ancient, and our mirror neurons and body language allow us to share understanding quickly.

    So, Metaphor*Video = High Bandwidth Communication^2. For example, MLK’s “I have a dream" sermon conveys a strong spirit of brotherhood:

    When he speaks, his belief becomes our belief. He spreads not just an idea, but a state of being. This, I think, is an important, under-recognized feature of art. Beautiful art is not meant to be considered separately from afar. Beautiful art should be fully experienced – and in doing so, art should change how you experience life, perhaps by becoming a part of you.

    Powerful metaphors alone can change you if you let them. Read the Tao te Ching enough times, and you will notice different patterns in your daily life. But metaphor combined with mirror neurons were part of an ancient high bandwidth technology, oral storytelling. It was the means by which we once passed on not only knowledge, but states of being.

    Today, many see memorization/internalization as lower than "critical thinking." Yet, Emerson also said, “Character is higher than intellect.” We are often unconscious, not only of the metaphors we use and internalize, but of the understanding we inherit from our televisions and each other.

    As we live on this Earth together, we would do well to remember to use both ancient and modern high bandwidth technology to elevate, not only our intellect, but our collective character. Life is more poetry than textbook.