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Metaphors for the Mind

We all use metaphors to understand things and to explain things to others. But it can be useful to do so more consciously, with the goal of trying out new metaphors to create new perspectives. The more metaphors you use, the more ways you have to look at the world, and so the broader your understanding and the more creative your thinking will be. For now let's look at some metaphors that help us understand the human mind.

The Software Mind Metaphor

I've used the following metaphor in the newsletter and on the site before, but it's such a powerful one that I'll repeat it here. If the brain is the computer, then the mind can be seen as the software. This is a great way to understand why some people are so intelligent yet have no wisdom or common sense nor success in life. After all, the most powerful computer in the world only becomes useful according to the programming that is put into it. A smaller computer with far less raw power might do much more for you if it has a better operating system and other software.

Of course some raw power is necessary to run the software. This is why a dog will never be as good at thinking as you or I. But once a human is into the average range of intelligence (or a little higher), how that brainpower is used becomes far more significant than differences in IQ scores between individuals. Something as simple as the habits of asking many questions and challenging assumptions, for example, can be the difference between a creatively productive person and a poor, unaccomplished person with a genius IQ.

The Spam Filter

I get over 100 emails daily, and of course many of them are spam. Now you might think that I would like the spam filters that are provided. In fact, I turn mine off (to the extent possible) because it doesn't work well enough. Many emails that are from friends and subscribers to my newsletters get classified as spam, and I want to read them. I search them out in the "spam" folder. But if I'm going to have to regularly search through the junk emails in any case to get at those valid ones, there is no real advantage to having a spam filter. In fact it slows me down because I have to check in two places for emails.

Now, if a spam filter actually worked it would be a great time saver. That in turn would mean greater productivity both from the time made available and the easier access to and focus on good emails. I'm waiting for a spam filter with better programming.

Now, to get to the relevant metaphor here, consider that we all have a kind of spam filter in our minds. We disregard things that seem unworthy of further consideration or exploration. In other words we filter things out according to algorithms that are both conscious and unconscious.

But what happens when our spam filter is deleting good information? What if, for example, part of the algorithm of a heart surgeon's mental "spam filter" is to disregard information on natural remedies, even if some of them are very effective? He may consciously filter out anecdotes because they don't constitute valid evidence. He might unconsciously avoid reading articles and papers that suggest more substantial evidence for natural cures because of a fear of anything that could lower his earnings from the more traditional treatments. Other unconscious motives may shape his mind as well, like the fear of ridicule or a bias based on the "flaky" people he has seen promoting natural cures.

We can see that the mental "spam filter" we all have in our heads might not work for our best interest in all cases It can prevent us from opening our minds to new and useful information and ideas. Of course, we can't pay attention to everything, so it does potentially serve a valuable function. So there are advantages and disadvantages to having this mental spam filter. If we want more of the former and less of the latter, what can we do? Following the metaphor, we should try to program it more consciously, and also try to be aware of the unconscious programming that is present.

The Uninvited Guests

This metaphor is used more in spiritual thinking, but it is a powerful way to look at thoughts that get in our way. The idea is that many of our thoughts are uninvited guests in our castle, and that we often forget we are the king or queen and can ask them to leave. In other words they bother us and get in our way, yet we have come to think that they belong there.

We quickly identify with the thinking that is present in our own minds, and consider this internal dialog to be our "self." But is it? Truly, if we had guests come into our homes and abuse us the way our own thoughts sometimes do, we would ask them to leave, wouldn't we? We would not invite them in again either.

For example, perhaps like most people you're sometimes tortured by regrets or worrying thoughts. This is considered normal, but suppose a friend or guest entered your home and followed you around for hours reminding you of all the things you did wrong and telling you over and over what might go wrong in the future. How long would you tolerate that?

The more relevant question is why do you take that abuse from your own mind? It is because you assume it is your own mind! But once you see that many of your thoughts and thought processes are essentially uninvited guests, it becomes easier to dismiss them. (Stop paying attention to them and they tend to get quieter or go away.) That's the power of a metaphorical understanding.

Other Mind Metaphors

There are many more metaphors related to the mind that could help us learn new things. Without going into detail, here are some quick ideas.

  • Our thoughts are a disorganized army in need of a good leader to get them all working together.
  • The mind is an artist; ideas, thoughts and body are tools, and the world is the canvas.
  • The mind is a host for the viruses we call ideas.
  • The mind is a lower self that is limited by its own insistence on language and logic.
  • Thoughts are storm clouds that pass by, eventually clearing to reveal the blue sky that is always there.
  • Ego is a mind creation that masquerades as one's self in order to perpetuate itself.
  • The mind is a collection of knives, hammers and other useful but dangerous tools in the hands of a child.
  • The mind is a servant that has forgotten his or her place and taken over the master's home.
  • The mind is a gift (which came without instructions).
  • Ideas are vehicles that take us to new places which we only truly experience if we get out of the vehicle.

To think in new ways about the mind or anything else in this world, try using new metaphors.


The mind and metaphors are both frequent topics in my newsletter. It's free and comes with the ebook, How to Have New Ideas. Subscribe right now...

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