“A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.” — Groucho Marx
Metaphors help us compare a concept from one domain by placing it into another context. They help us explain the essential character of an object or a relationship that is a bit outside of our mental grasp by tying it something more familiar.
We use metaphors automatically in our everyday language. Metaphors are not merely for poetry or to capture the subtle, obscure, or humorous parts of human life.
In fact, we use them so frequently, we often don’t even realize we’re doing it. I didn’t consciously decide to compare myself to an animal, yet I recently called myself an ‘early bird’ and a colleague a ‘night owl.'
We use physical or structural metaphors in our conversations too. We have metaphors in English/Western thought that higher is better and the opposite down is worse. We use natural metaphors like the metaphor ideas are plants (for example, “we need to let this idea germinate”). We use cultural metaphors like common metaphor to associate arguments with battles. Arguments are war and our language examples include “pick your battles” and “why are you so defensive?". For more on this fascinating exploration, I recommend Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, which has hundreds of these metaphors and the implications of our metaphorical thinking.
One area that’s been of interest to me lately: all the historical analogies that scientists, doctors and scholars have used to describe the brain and the mind.
Let me give you four examples.
Metaphors for the mind date back to the ancient Greeks, who believed that our life essence was centered around fluids. Any imbalance in the brain or the body was a result of improper bodily fluid levels. So, understandably, we find the Greek literature comparing the mind to a hydraulic system of pumps and tubes.
Fast forward to the 1600’s. This era was focused on mechanics, tools and inventions like the clock. We find writings from this era comparing our brain’s inner workings to gears. Interesting that we still find the phrase “what makes her tick” common in modern conversation.
Let's keep moving!
Have you ever thought about that stereotypical cartoon where the light bulb appears over someone’s head when they have a great idea? That started in the 1910s. The analogy of comparing the brain to a network of electric signals and impulses was used in the 1900s because it reflected the technology of they day. The electrical metaphor is still popular in phrases like, “well, he’s just wired that way.”
These mind metaphors aren’t just flat words on a page. They shape our contextual understanding of the thing we’re comparing. They impact our beliefs and can even shape our behaviors. Through this combination of technological understanding and helpful linguistic comparisons, we construct the way that we move about this world.
So here we are today, deeply entrenched in the age of computers. Many of us carry powerful supercomputers in our pockets and on our wrists … with computers surrounding us at work and at home (up to and including the ol’ “internet enabled refrigerator” which comes out every year!).
And the metaphor describing the mind and brain as a computer is completely pervasive.
The first metaphorical reference connecting a computer’s operations and the mind’s operations dates back to 1943 but is especially popular today.
The metaphor shapes how technologists and designers explore the concept of artificial intelligence. Pop culture has latched onto this metaphorical concept of the human mind as a computer.
But, given the history of metaphors of mental phenomena, I think it’s probably short-sighted to assume that the human mind IS a computer. Based on today’s knowledge of neurology, the human mind doesn’t work like a digital computer in basically any way. They don’t work the same way, they do not use the same inputs to produce similar outputs, nor do the two domains actually talk the same way about concepts like “understanding,” “recognizing,” “reasoning,” and “planning.”
When people confuse the mind-as-computer metaphor for the reality of happens in the human mind, they can become very worried that computers are going start acting like people, that AI systems might “take over” a lot of work and life. They start to fear we might end up in a world like Sci-fi films like Ex Machina, Her, or Terminator II.
Do you think that the mind-as-computer metaphor is accurate?
What does thinking about our brains as a computer do to our experience in the world?
Do you think there might be anything limiting to comparing ourselves, or at least our minds, to microchips and lines of code?
I think humans are talented in ways computers aren’t, and that the metaphors about computers make rational thought, precise calculation, and speed primary. But humans have mental talents which are not highlighted by the metaphor, including intention, creativity, empathy, and collaboration.
Let me know your thoughts and reactions to this idea. I’m curious if this argument resonates with you. And your deeply and uniquely human mind.