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  • Metaphor lives a secret life all around us.

  • We utter about six metaphors a minute.

  • Metaphorical thinking is essential

  • to how we understand ourselves and others,

  • how we communicate, learn, discover

  • and invent.

  • But metaphor is a way of thought before it is a way with words.

  • Now, to assist me in explaining this,

  • I've enlisted the help of one of our greatest philosophers,

  • the reigning king of the metaphorians,

  • a man whose contributions to the field

  • are so great that he himself

  • has become a metaphor.

  • I am, of course, referring to none other

  • than Elvis Presley.

  • (Laughter)

  • Now, "All Shook Up" is a great love song.

  • It's also a great example of how

  • whenever we deal with anything abstract --

  • ideas, emotions, feelings, concepts, thoughts --

  • we inevitably resort to metaphor.

  • In "All Shook Up," a touch is not a touch, but a chill.

  • Lips are not lips, but volcanoes.

  • She is not she, but a buttercup.

  • And love is not love, but being all shook up.

  • In this, Elvis is following Aristotle's classic definition of metaphor

  • as the process of giving the thing

  • a name that belongs to something else.

  • This is the mathematics of metaphor.

  • And fortunately it's very simple.

  • X equals Y.

  • (Laughter)

  • This formula works wherever metaphor is present.

  • Elvis uses it, but so does Shakespeare

  • in this famous line from "Romeo and Juliet:"

  • Juliet is the sun.

  • Now, here, Shakespeare gives the thing, Juliet,

  • a name that belongs to something else, the sun.

  • But whenever we give a thing a name that belongs to something else,

  • we give it a whole network of analogies too.

  • We mix and match what we know about the metaphor's source,

  • in this case the sun,

  • with what we know about its target, Juliet.

  • And metaphor gives us a much more vivid understanding of Juliet

  • than if Shakespeare had literally described what she looks like.

  • So, how do we make and understand metaphors?

  • This might look familiar.

  • The first step is pattern recognition.

  • Look at this image. What do you see?

  • Three wayward Pac-Men,

  • and three pointy brackets are actually present.

  • What we see, however,

  • are two overlapping triangles.

  • Metaphor is not just the detection of patterns;

  • it is the creation of patterns.

  • Second step, conceptual synesthesia.

  • Now, synesthesia is the experience of a stimulus in once sense organ

  • in another sense organ as well,

  • such as colored hearing.

  • People with colored hearing

  • actually see colors when they hear the sounds

  • of words or letters.

  • We all have synesthetic abilities.

  • This is the Bouba/Kiki test.

  • What you have to do is identify which of these shapes

  • is called Bouba, and which is called Kiki.

  • (Laughter)

  • If you are like 98 percent of other people,

  • you will identify the round, amoeboid shape as Bouba,

  • and the sharp, spiky one as Kiki.

  • Can we do a quick show of hands?

  • Does that correspond?

  • Okay, I think 99.9 would about cover it.

  • Why do we do that?

  • Because we instinctively find, or create,

  • a pattern between the round shape

  • and the round sound of Bouba,

  • and the spiky shape and the spiky sound of Kiki.

  • And many of the metaphors we use everyday are synesthetic.

  • Silence is sweet.

  • Neckties are loud.

  • Sexually attractive people are hot.

  • Sexually unattractive people leave us cold.

  • Metaphor creates a kind of conceptual synesthesia,

  • in which we understand one concept

  • in the context of another.

  • Third step is cognitive dissonance.

  • This is the Stroop test.

  • What you need to do here is identify

  • as quickly as possible

  • the color of the ink in which these words are printed.

  • You can take the test now.

  • If you're like most people, you will experience

  • a moment of cognitive dissonance

  • when the name of the color

  • is printed in a differently colored ink.

  • The test shows that we cannot ignore the literal meaning of words

  • even when the literal meaning gives the wrong answer.

  • Stroop tests have been done with metaphor as well.

  • The participants had to identify, as quickly as possible,

  • the literally false sentences.

  • They took longer to reject metaphors as false

  • than they did to reject literally false sentences.

  • Why? Because we cannot ignore

  • the metaphorical meaning of words either.

  • One of the sentences was, "Some jobs are jails."

  • Now, unless you're a prison guard,

  • the sentence "Some jobs are jails" is literally false.

  • Sadly, it's metaphorically true.

  • And the metaphorical truth interferes with our ability

  • to identify it as literally false.

  • Metaphor matters because

  • it's around us every day, all the time.

  • Metaphor matters because it creates expectations.

  • Pay careful attention the next time you read the financial news.

  • Agent metaphors describe price movements

  • as the deliberate action of a living thing,

  • as in, "The NASDAQ climbed higher."

  • Object metaphors describe price movements

  • as non-living things,

  • as in, "The Dow fell like a brick."

  • Researchers asked a group of people

  • to read a clutch of market commentaries,

  • and then predict the next day's price trend.

  • Those exposed to agent metaphors

  • had higher expectations that price trends would continue.

  • And they had those expectations because

  • agent metaphors imply the deliberate action

  • of a living thing pursuing a goal.

  • If, for example, house prices

  • are routinely described as climbing and climbing,

  • higher and higher, people might naturally assume

  • that that rise is unstoppable.

  • They may feel confident, say,

  • in taking out mortgages they really can't afford.

  • That's a hypothetical example of course.

  • But this is how metaphor misleads.

  • Metaphor also matters because it influences decisions

  • by activating analogies.

  • A group of students was told that a small democratic country

  • had been invaded and had asked the U.S. for help.

  • And they had to make a decision.

  • What should they do?

  • Intervene, appeal to the U.N., or do nothing?

  • They were each then given one of three

  • descriptions of this hypothetical crisis.

  • Each of which was designed to trigger

  • a different historical analogy:

  • World War II, Vietnam,

  • and the third was historically neutral.

  • Those exposed to the World War II scenario

  • made more interventionist recommendations

  • than the others.

  • Just as we cannot ignore the literal meaning of words,

  • we cannot ignore the analogies

  • that are triggered by metaphor.

  • Metaphor matters because it opens the door to discovery.

  • Whenever we solve a problem, or make a discovery,

  • we compare what we know with what we don't know.

  • And the only way to find out about the latter

  • is to investigate the ways it might be like the former.

  • Einstein described his scientific method as combinatory play.

  • He famously used thought experiments,

  • which are essentially elaborate analogies,

  • to come up with some of his greatest discoveries.

  • By bringing together what we know

  • and what we don't know through analogy,

  • metaphorical thinking strikes the spark

  • that ignites discovery.

  • Now metaphor is ubiquitous, yet it's hidden.

  • But you just have to look at the words around you

  • and you'll find it.

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson described language

  • as "fossil poetry."

  • But before it was fossil poetry

  • language was fossil metaphor.

  • And these fossils still breathe.

  • Take the three most famous words in all of Western philosophy: