- Stephen J. Gould, The Flamingo's Smile
Plenty of food for thought here. The emphasis on the "right" metaphor is particularly critical. Metaphors wield much power. When they resonate (thereby allowing us to reach meaningful insights), we cling to them and use them as anchor points that guide our understanding of complex phenomenon. A famous case in point is Einstein's "Train Metaphor," a thought experiment to explain the Relativity of Simultaneity. So it is important that we latch on to the right metaphor.
Makes it worth exploring how they - Metaphors, Analogies and Insight - relate to one another. We learn fairly early on in childhood, when taught the intricacies of a language, that metaphors are in fact a kind of analogy. In the neuroscience of creativity though, these are often treated as being distinct, largely because the paradigms to study analogical reasoning and metaphorical processing are quite different, and their associated brain activation profiles only partially overlap. The question though is whether it makes sense to do this. Is that enough of a foundation to argue for fundamental and even qualitative differences between metaphor and analogy? Is it a case of X versus Y? Or X1 versus X2? If it is the latter, when we need to reframe how we approach this subject.
Here is an interesting characterization of metaphors (Crowther, 2003):
"Aristotle’s emphasis on ‘vividness’ in his account of metaphor is missed by many later theories. Metaphor operates by the imaginative realization and traversal of connections which exist in the ‘latent field’ of possible associations for the tenor of the metaphor. As such, it exploits and draws attention to structural features involved in all acts of cognition."
This depiction beautifully articulates how metaphors are imbued with the necessary features that allow insights to transpire. Which leads to the next point. How are they linked? The relation between metaphors, analogies and insight has been considered in terms of how the use of metaphors and analogies can lead to insights during problem solving (Keefer & Landau, 2016). But how does this come to pass? Crowther's poetic characterization gives an inkling of the operationalization of this process. Psychologists are necessarily concrete in their explanations. Here is one take from key researchers in the field (Kounios & Beeman, 2014): "Insight occurs when a person suddenly reinterprets a stimulus, situation, or event to produce a nonobvious, nondominant interpretation. This can take the form of a solution to a problem (an "aha moment"), comprehension of a joke or metaphor, or recognition of an ambiguous percept."
Paul Taylor published an article in 1989 on "Insight and Metaphor" in the journal Analysis which explores the nature of a metaphor, and the conditions under which it does or does not express an insight. Here is an excerpt from the introductory paragraph.
"Theorists generally agree that a metaphor can be a stimulus to insight. 'Juliet is the sun' leads us to see various ways in which Juliet is, literally, like the sun. Since there is no stage at which all illuminating points of comparison have been exhausted, there is a sense in which a metaphor like this is ineliminable; something would be lost if we replaced it with a finite list of comparisons or other literal paraphrase. Part of the value of Simon Blackburn's discussion of metaphor in Spreading The Word (, pp.171-9) lies in the way it focuses the discussion on a clear and fruitful question: whether a live metaphor can function only as a stimulus to insight or whether a metaphorical statement can in itself express an insight or truth."
When I saw this GIF image several months ago, I experienced a clear moment of the latter. I felt I had stumbled across a wonderful metaphor that depicts how insight occurs in our minds. An insight about the instantiation of the process of insight from a metaphor.