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Using Metaphors for More Creative Ideas

Note: This is part of a series of articles that starts here: What is Radical Thinking?

Let's look at another powerful way to have new and radical thoughts. It can be seen as a technique, but it is also one of our primary ways of understanding. It is the process of using metaphors to explain and understand the world around us. Metaphorical definitions and paradigms are used in the sciences and for life in general. How do we explain something new except by reference to things we already understand? Automobiles were first called "horseless carriages" and the metaphor of a solar system was a natural way to understand an atom.

Even our own lives are understood by way of metaphors. We are conscious animals, spiritual beings, flesh robots and more. Your life is a journey, a dream, a story, a roller coaster ride, an adventure or a walk through a valley of tears. And to hint at the usefulness of changing one's metaphorical understanding, consider how different your perceptions and experiences might be depending on which one of these metaphors you adopted as your primary way to explain your life to yourself.

Treasure Hunting in Metaphorland

Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space. - Orson Scott Card

Treasure as a metaphor for metaphors... I like that. But why use the concept of treasure? I like it because I think that for richer and more imaginative thinking we can "discover" or "dig up" various metaphors which are potentially valuable. Let's look at an example.

Consciousness exaggerates its own role, and doesn't see the vast role that unconsciousness plays in our lives. Now, it takes a little work to explain what this means. However, one way to do so with fewer words is with a simple metaphor of a flashlight (our conscious mind) in a dark room:

Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. How simple that is to say; how difficult to appreciate. It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have light shining on it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not. - From "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," by Julian Jaynes

This excerpt shows how a difficult subject can be made immediately clearer by the use of a good metaphor. Here is another example: I sometimes try to explain to people that raising taxes won't always raise revenue for the government. It is difficult and even a bit complicated in the details, so I often fall back on the simple metaphor of a vampire (the government) who wants to get as much blood (tax revenue) as possible from his victim (the taxpayer). If the vampire sucks out too much blood, the victim gets sick or even dies, so there is less blood to take in the long run. Take just enough, though, and the victim can be fed on every day for the rest of his life.

Obviously the most efficient rate of extraction is crucial if you want the most blood. Take more and you get less in the long run. This clearly translates into the idea of a rate of taxation that collects the most money, and shows how important it is to figure out what this rate is. Without the vampire metaphor, it usually takes me a much longer time to explain this.

The myth of Adam and Eve is a classic extended metaphor that shows how morality arises. Tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge (another metaphor) leads to shame. Why? Because without the knowledge of good and bad we cannot sin any more than an instinctive and generally unthinking animal can. Knowledge in general, and an awareness of right and wrong specifically, makes us into moral beings. This really is a metaphor for our transition from being just another of many animals to becoming conscious human beings.

Okay, you can see that metaphors are used to explain and understand things. Now, what if you want to use them to generate new and radical ideas? Let's take a look at how to do exactly that.

Note: I define metaphor very broadly for my purposes. Here's the closest appropriate dictionary definition: "Something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else." The analogy of a heart as a pump, for example, is effectively a metaphor. Similes are simply metaphors which are expressed using the words "like" or "as" rather than saying it directly. For example, "He was like a parasite," is conveying largely the same meaning as "He was a parasite," even though the latter is normally called a simile and the latter a metaphor.

How to Have Radical Ideas Using Metaphors

To get new, radical, or at least fun ideas, you need to play with those metaphors a bit. You have to try out ones you have never heard or read about before. Then you have to see where they take you.

For example, if I start with the metaphor of ideas as viruses, it immediately suggests that they "infect" people. More than that, ideas self-replicate, using humans as hosts, just like a virus uses cells to replicate itself. This could be the start of a science fiction story:

The people thought that they lived for their own sake, and that their ideas belonged to them. Only when it was too late did some of them learn the truth - that it was ideas which walked the planet, using humans as hosts. Humans had come and gone, lived and died, but ideas were the true masters, and the true immortals. The battles among the humans were but petty skirmishes fought in a war of ideas. And once ideas had created computers to sustain them, humans became expendable.

What other ideas might come from this metaphor? Well, let's think for a moment about those who are "infected" with racist or other hateful ideas. Following the virus metaphor, we might try "inoculation" with a "vaccine." Perhaps by exposing people to bad ideas in small amounts, and with refutations of those ideas (these would be the antibodies), we can build their ideological immune response, so they can fight off infections later.

You get the idea (I hope).

One way to create new ideas more systematically is to start with a list of words which have above-average metaphorical potential. Of course, since it is tough to determine such potential before you try them out, you can use any words if you like. But here is a short list to get you started:

Abortion... actor... adventure... antidote... author... beggar... bet... bird of prey... boat... butterfly... charade... church... composer... crime... dance... door... dreamer... drug... electricity... escape... eye... family... flower... game... garden... god... heresy... hunt... island... journey... key... language... lover... master... mother... night... ocean... path... predator... refuge... river... school... season... sewer... shelter... sky... sleep... storm... target... theater... treasure... umbilical cord... vampire... voice... war... wilderness... window... womb... zoo.

There are a couple methods for using a list like this. You can start with something that you want to look at in new ways, and then work through the list for metaphors. Each one will suggest new ideas. For example, if we start by pondering life, an "adventure" suggests one approach to thinking about it, while a "garden" suggests other things. "Life is a river" suggests going with the flow (unless you are a motorboat on that river -- yet another metaphor). "Life is a school" might have you thinking about what you are meant to learn, while "Life is a theater" could make you wonder about which roles you want to play.

Another method is to simply look for words that seem to have potential to explain things. For example, as I looked over the list just now my mind stopped on the word "bet." The insurance payment on my friend's used car is due, and bet seems like a good metaphor for insurance. The collision coverage for his car is essentially a bet or gamble that he will have an accident (the liability coverage is legally mandated, but the collision coverage is optional).

Incidentally, he is betting $400 per year for this (that's how much more he pays to have collision coverage rather than just the legally-mandated liability coverage), and if he "wins" his bet, meaning he has an accident, the insurance company will pay him, at most, $1,800 for the replacement value of his old vehicle. Now, in rural areas, a driver has a serious accident about once every 25 years, so he will likely bet $10,000 total for every $1,800 he wins. That's worse odds than the worst casino! It's probably better to put the $400 in a bank account each year, pay for accidents (if he has any) from that fund, and have thousands left over later in life. Playing with metaphors can save you a lot of money!

Exercises in Metaphorical Thinking

To see what your own thinking will generate, try playing with and using the metaphors below, and see what ideas come to mind. If you prefer you can also substitute words from the list above (money is...).

Money is a way to keep score.
Money is a lubricant.
Money is the manifestation of valuable ideas.
Your job is slavery.
Your job is a rung on the ladder of success.
Your job is a business in which you sell your labor.
Your job is an adventure.
Politics is a religion.
Politics is con game.
He was an abortionist, killing ideas before birth.
The body is the computer, the mind the software.

I have much more to say about metaphors on my website about them: Did you know, for example, that some serious thinkers consider consciousness itself to be a metaphorical invention? That takes a bit of explanation. And my own idea, "metaphorology" (which was new to me although it had been used before) is all about how to use metaphors for better living. The experience of life as a "victim" will certainly differ from that of life as a "warrior" or an "adventurer." There's some food for thought (and that is one more metaphor in the endless stream of them that we rely on to understand our world).

Continues here:
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