Like a moth to a flame, we're drawn to metaphors to explain ourselves - Deepstash





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Like a moth to a flame, we're drawn to metaphors to explain ourselves

Like a moth to a flame, we're drawn to metaphors to explain ourselves
The selfish gene. The Big Bang. The greenhouse effect. Metaphors are at the heart of scientific thinking. They provide the means for both scientists and non-scientists to understand, think through and talk about abstract ideas in terms of more familiar objects or phenomena. But if metaphors can illuminate, they can also constrain.


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Metaphors use familiar objects and phenomena to help think through and talk about abstract ideas.

Although metaphors can illustrate ideas and provide insight, they can also limit them. There comes a point when the limits they impose will outweigh the understanding they provide.



Metaphors shape our actions

Some studies suggest that one in every 25 words we use is a metaphor. The choice of metaphor can form the way we see the world and act upon it.

In a series of experiments, participants were given two identical reports about crime, except that one report described the crime as "a wild beast preying on the city" and the other "a virus infecting the city." When asked for solutions, those who read the first report suggested stricter law enforcement, while those who read the second proposed social reforms.


The role of metaphors

Metaphors, like “trickle-down economics” and “red wall,” help frame the issues and also our responses to social and political discussions.

When politicians compare the national economy to a household budget, they want us to think in specific ways about national debt or policies of austerity.

Metaphors also play a role in science. Science accepts that metaphors can be limiting, but admit that they are an essential tool for thinking.




An analogy is a comparison that asserts a parallel between two distinct things, based on the perception of a shared property.

Analogies appear in metaphors, similes, political...

An analogy is a tool

Analogies are arguments that operate unnoticed. Like icebergs, they conceal most of their mass and power beneath the surface.

Analogies are also used in innovation and decision making. For instance, the "bicycle for the mind” that Steve Jobs envisioned as a Macintosh computer.

The importance of a good analogy

Using analogies help us to communicate effectively. For example, Warren Buffett noted "You never know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out,” meaning when times are bad, hidden weaknesses are exposed.

Lack of awareness of an analogy's influence can come at a cost. The ability to construct a good analogy can help you reach your outcomes.

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Past and future

Past and future
  • When English speakers use hand gestures to talk about the past and the future, they thrust a hand over the shoulder for the past and put a hand forward to indicate the future. English speake...

How humans sense time

Humans are different from animals in that we don't sense time only as passing. We dice time into units or think of time to go beyond our lifespan, such as millennia. We rely on time concepts that allow us to make plans, follow recipes, and discuss possible futures.

Describing yesterday and tomorrow

Recent research suggests that across all cultures, the concept of time depends on metaphor, known as a conceptual metaphor. We build our understanding of duration and sequences of events out of familiar spatial ideas such as size, movement, and location.

But the "time is like space" metaphor takes on very different forms from one culture to the next.

The human microbiome

The human microbiome

The human body is made up of trillions of human cells. There are possibly three times as many microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, and other microbes) living in and on the human body. The micro...

Using metaphors to describe microbiomes

Metaphors that scientists use to talk about the microbiome influence scientific understanding and can shape medical treatment. For example, viewing the microbiome as an "organ" or a "part of the immune system."

Some physicians support fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) - treating the malfunction of the gut microbiome by swallowing a pill full of someone else's poo. It follows the same basic principles as an organ transplant, and the treatment is probably a consequence of understanding the microbiome as an organ.

A limited perspective on the human microbiome

To think of a microbiome as an organ creates a limited perspective because organs are relatively set. Generally, a heart will develop and remain the same in each person. But a microbiome is not one thing. It's trillions of things and responds to small changes in our diet, environment, and behavior. It works together with the human body in a symbiotic relationship.

Each metaphor can only capture a part of what the microbiome is. We need all the metaphors to understand the complexity of the microbiome and its role in our bodies.