One of my father’s favorite sayings was strong as a rock of Gibraltar. When I was a kid, I did not know that Gibraltar was the famous British fortress which guards the entrance to the Mediterranean sea. The saying has fallen out of vogue, but at the time it reflected the strength of the British Empire which depended on maritime trade. As British Admiral Sir John Fishe stated, Gibraltar was one of the keys that locked up world. A key is something which opens or controls a lock. Who ever has this key control the lock. Rock is considered something to be strong, dependable, never changing. Jesus allegedly stated And on this rock I will build my church.

You are probably saying to yourself, how does all this talk about rocks affect the price of tea in China ? Well you are asking how are metaphors important and while you asked the question, you used a metaphor. The metaphor the price of tea in China again reflects a period of history when the tea and opium trade was a vital part of the British Empire’s wealth. The strong as a rock of Gibraltar is actually a metaphor on a metaphor. Rocks are strong, the most important and strongest rock in the world at the time was the fortress of Gibraltar and it is controlled by the British. The important point that you learn from this exercise is that

All language is essentially metaphors or similes

Grammar Nazis will argue over whether a phrase is a metaphor or simile, honestly I don’t really know the difference between the two and it really isn’t important. What is important is that all words in the human language are essentially metaphors or similes. In his book I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World James Geary shows that all words can be traced back to a metaphor of some sort. But often the original metaphor has been lost. But even hundreds of years after the metaphor for formed, its positive or negative connotation can still be felt. Male homosexuals are usually called gay or fags, generally speaking gay seen as positive as opposed to fag as seen as negative. Why is this so ? Fag comes from the word faggot which originally meant a bundle of sticks. Why would a male homosexual be called a bundle of sticks ? Hundreds of years ago, homosexuals, witches and wizards where often burned at the stake, to burn them they used bundles of sticks. So we can see that despite the fact we stopped burning witches and homosexuals a long time ago, there is still a negative connotation with the word.

The human brain is a pattern matching or metaphor machine

I constantly refer to the works of Steven Pinker, in this area his three most important books are The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (P.S.),How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. All three of the books are related to each other, and each book kind of interlinks with each other. The important thing to understand is that the logical parts of the human brain is essentially a pattern matching machine. So I look out the window, I see a mass comprised of countless numbers of atom, my eye focuses on a group of the countless number of atoms and then sends this image to my brain. My brain then does a series of matches against known patterns. It then correctly identifies it as a tree, and then it sends into my logical part of my brain the word Tree. The human brain is pretty amazing, it does all of this on a regular basis and for the most part does it quite accurately.

The human brain can also run the process in reverse. Buddy from Montana calls me up, I ask him what is he doing ? He says, I am sitting under a tree. My brain then makes an image of him sitting under a pine tree. He then says, I am in Hawaii, subconsciously my image then switches to him sitting under a palm tree on a beach. Why did this happen ? Simply put my pattern matching machine is working in reverse and building images from the words.

The language part of the brain can influence our emotional parts

Our brains are comprised of different regions that do different things, and how these parts of the brain are tied together and function together is the work of scientist like Steven Pinker. The amount of knowledge gained in this field in the last 20 years is astounding, this is because we now have machines like MRI which can observed the human brain in operation.

When buddy called me from Hawaii, to some degree the images he created from the words would have an emotional impact on me. The emotions we feel will be linked to our previous experiences and beliefs. I originally believed he was in Montana, so the most common image of Montana is mountains and fresh air and I pictured he was sitting under a pine tree. When he said he was in Hawaii, I pictured a palm tree, sitting on the beach, feeling relaxed and laid back. This is the image most of us have of Hawaii. My image of Hawaii might be different if I had a friend who went to Hawaii and was brutally murdered.

Framing means generating different emotions or response using different metaphors.

Circlejerk and Mutual Admiration Group mean the same thing, a group which does nothing else besides complement each other. Depending on which word I use will determine the emotion felt. Circlejerk originally meant a group of men masturbating in a circle, for most people this will not be a positive image and it will generate a negative emotion. If I use the second phrase, it sounds positive, like some sort of self help group. We are mutually admiring each other and lifting each other up. Depending on the emotion you want to generate will decide the words you will use.

Concentration Camp and Indian Reservation both mean the same thing. It was an small area where certain members of the population where forcibly relocated. The word concentration camp brings up images of Nazi Germany, Jews getting shoved in ovens etc. While Indian Reservation brings up a more friendly image where I can go see the native people’s of American practicing their culture. It can then be used to show the American government actually cares about its native people.

As you can see by using different words to describe the same thing, you can generate different emotional responses.

Maintaining Frame and Framing

Simply put, frame is when you prevent yourself from being influenced by the other person’s metaphors where they are framing their point. Again you do not have to maintain frame all the time. When buddy calls you up from Hawaii, he is drawing you into his frame. If you maintained your frame, it would not be very enjoyable talking to him.

The term frame most likely is a metaphor for a directors view finder the view finder acts like a frame. How the director frames the scene will decide the mood of the movie. The director also is heavily relying on metaphor, so the main object he focuses on will decide the mood of that particular scene of the movie. Alfred Hitchcock was a master at doing this, he could set the mood using everyday items. This was his brilliance.

Where to from here

Observe how metaphors are used around you, read articles that trigger strong emotional responses in you. They maybe be either positive responses as in the article makes you feel good, or maybe a negative response. Then ask what are the metaphors the person is using. Example, examine the metaphors in this phrase from one of Churchill’s speeches.

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

See the images created by Churchill, there are a small group of Islands which the light shines on and they are threatened by darkness. There then is an image of us standing at the edge of a cliff or abyss as Churchill calls it. And then there is an analogy to Frankenstein.

A metaphor does not need to be true to be effective. My previous post was entitled The Dictators Handbook - a modern Machiavelli’s version of “The Prince” the post was about how leaders maintain power by putting their own self interests first. A couple people correctly people out that Machiavelli actually stated the exact opposite. They are actually correct, but the image people have of Machiavelli is the exact opposite.

The truth does not matter, it is the image which the truth generates which matters.