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The Metaphor and Human Learning
By Noel Hudson August 17, 2005

It is like the pleasant surprise of mixing two of your favorite drinks and ending up with something that tastes better than either of the two alone.

Metaphor is the art of comparing dissimilar things and in the process shedding new light or arriving at new understanding of the thing being discussed. A simple examination of nearly any form of human communication will reveal that the use of metaphor permeates human interaction at nearly all levels. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that metaphors may be used less in spoken communication than in the written word. If true, this may be due to the fact that when humans are deprived of the subtle nuances of tone, body language and other cues which occur in face to face contact, we often fall back on the understanding derived from shared experience in using metaphorical descriptions to convey to others what we really mean. While on the face of it there seems to be no logical reason why comparison with something which is only tangentially related to the topic under discussion should enhance understanding, who among us has not finally grasped what someone was trying to convey only after the appropriate metaphor was used? It is as when telephone communication required a live operator to plug cables into different sockets until the desired connection was made- true understanding only occurs once the one communicating selects just the right wording to invoke the proper connections in the minds of the audience.

Interestingly, we see this phenomenon extremely often in the works of the popularizers of difficult complex scientific theories. A number of works by well-known authors such as Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins or Isaac Asimov are simply replete with metaphors in which complex topics from areas as diverse as quantum mechanics, genetics and chemical interactions are explained by comparisons to more mundane topics much more likely to have been experienced by the audience than the erudite musings or laboratory rituals of the acolytes of those arcane arts.

The very pervasiveness of this strange way humans have of explaining concepts to one another should lead us to question why metaphor is so prevalent in our communication. Why should the conflation, for example, of roses and cheeks in the same sentence conjure up images of cherubic children with the healthy pink pallor of youth? What do lemons have to do with defective cars? I believe that the answer to these questions may have its roots in the fundamental nature of human learning.

Nobel prize-winning neurobiologist Eric Kandel has shown that memory and learning are tied to structural changes in the connections between neurons that form the functional units of the brain. Essentially, whenever we learn something new there are new connections made in the brain, and those connections are what allow us to think about the new knowledge we have acquired. It is safe to say that any bit of knowledge that we have - whether it is knowledge about how lemons taste or what the color yellow looks like, or even how it feels to be in love- this knowledge must be reflected in the physical structure of the brain.

Neuroscientists, psychologists and other specialists are all working very hard to understand just how memory, learning and sensory input are related to how we think and what we think about, and since no one currently really understands these things yet, the next portion of this essay is pure speculation on my part.

Some people think that the human brain must be organized in essentially the same way from one person to the next, and indeed in very broad terms this can be shown to be the case. The visual cortex where we interpret things we see, the motor cortex where we learn how to move our muscles in certain ways, and many other broad categories of nerves are all located in essentially the same area from one person to the next. However, to believe that all information is organized in the same fashion is quite a stretch. As human beings live and grow they are exposed to different sorts of information at different times and in different contexts. The brain must take and sort this information as it is acquired, and so the new neural pathways which are created as information is acquired must necessarily be built differently in every individual as the specific bit of information- whether it be a smell, a sound or a concept- will have been acquired at a different time and integrated into the neural pathways in a different way from individual to individual. This is to say, if I am presented a concept such as loyalty, at a different time and in a different context than you, the physical neural pathways which record the associations of this concept must be very different in my brain as compared to yours.

From two concepts, then, we may reach several important conclusions about human learning. The first important concept is that thought and memory are a function of the configuration of neural pathways. The second is that the physical conformation of these neural pathways and the information associated therewith are determined by the experiences of the individual and the time at which those experiences occur. The conclusions we may reach from the preceding are numerous. If we start with human learning as instantiated by babies we may conclude that at the start there is very little information contained in their neural pathways. As the baby grows and sensory information is processed, the first associations begin to be formed. Initially this must consist primarily of making sense of direct sensory information- shape, color, depth, texture and so on. Once this sensory base is built, more abstract concepts may be introduced through the linkage of neural paths. As an example, the concept of "mother" may be formed through the association of neural nets which contain sensory information such as warmth, the taste of milk, the unique frequency components of her voice and so on.

It is reasonable to assume that the experiences of most babies are initially fairly similar. However, as the child ages it is also reasonable to suppose that the development of abstract thought is accompanied by a great divergence in the experience of different individuals. For example, a child which travels widely will be exposed to a much broader diversity of experiences than one which mostly remains at home. A child which is read to frequently is likely to be exposed to a much more varied vocabulary than one which is not.

Human intelligence then, based on the above assumptions, would be dependent mainly on two factors. The first is the ability of the brain to create new connections. It seems that this factor would likely have both a genetic and environmental component. This is one of the areas in which neuroscientists are making important progress. Indeed, scientists have isolated certain genes which appear to affect how quickly new neural connections may be formed. Second, it depends on the number and diversity of new concepts and sensory input to which the child is exposed. The clear implication of this idea is a sort of intellectual fulfillment of the old adage "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer". The more neural pathways which one has to draw on in forming associations, the richer and more nuanced the understanding of any new idea may be made. Conversely, a brain which has formed fewer neural pathways will be much more limited in the scope and degree of understanding of any new concept. Obviously this would explain why generally older people are wiser than the more youthful; the older a person is, the more chance that a wide variety of different neural nets have been made and hence that a deeper pool of associations may be drawn on.

Another implication is that there would be concepts which simply could not be tied together in a meaningful way in the brain due to physical distance. As each neural net exists in a specific physical location, it would seem likely that certain nets are simply not in close enough proximity to make a connection. If this is the case then any given individual brain would have sets of concepts which could literally not be reconciled in their minds. However, there is also the implication that the two concepts could be bridged by a third neural pathway which had links, or the ability to link, to both. One could speculate that such would be the source of moments of "gestalt"- the "Aha!" moment when concepts which could previously not be understood fall into place in a grand moment of understanding in which an entire new vista is opened.

To summarize, based on current understanding of memory and learning, I believe it possible that metaphors are an external reflection of the internal process which occurs as humans learn. To the degree that this view is accurate, a greater understanding of human learning and development could be had, with possible applications in areas such as psychology, education and early childhood development.

Copyright © 2005 by Noel Hudson


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