Can metaphors also create limited views?
Absolutely, they can and this is why they need to be well tested and thought out for use in a communication, training, emails, presentations and the like, where the thought may remain for some time. An example is the early Brain as a Computer Metaphor: The brain (and, by implication, the mind) have been compared to the latest technological innovation in every generation. The computer metaphor is now in vogue. Computer hardware metaphors were replaced by software metaphors and, lately, by (neuronal) network metaphors.
However, this metaphor has a few problems – the first is that people have different concepts of what a computer is and the computers themselves have many different capabilities depending on the era, their architecture and in somce cases, their purpose. I am glad I am not a Windows 95 system because I would have to reboot every time I got dressed or ate something. The second is that according to fMRI scans, many processes are accessed and initiated upon stimulii received and different parts of the whole body get involved more than originally understood. The metaphor sells our mind short. For some time, the brain as a computer metaphor prevailed and people thought that you could ‘read’ what people were doing sequentially, and we now can prove that this is rarely true.
This is the basis for many NLP teachings on Strategies and is still taught today in some circles because of metaphor that was not updated.
So, a metaphor can be very powerful to both create an understanding for a concept, but also potentially some limitations. Take care with your metaphors.
Can you convey complex concepts with metaphor?
Lakoff and Johnson in their book provided convincing evidence that metaphors may actually be people’s primary mode of mental operation. They argued that because the mind is “embodied” — it experiences the world through the human body in which it resides — people can’t help but conceptualize the world in terms of bodily perceptions based upon their personal experience.
This is true of the use of conepts like up, down, forward, behind and other spatial concepts for a start. It should come as no surprise that humans attempt to understand vague, abstract, or complex concepts in terms of these more familiar experiences too.
Analogy and metaphor are central to scientific thought. They figure in discovery, as in Rutherford’s analogy of the solar system for the atom or Faraday’s use of lines of magnetized iron filings to reason about electric fields (Nersessian, 1984 ; Tweney, 1983). They are also used in teaching; novices are told to think of electricity as analogous to water flowing through pipes (Gentner & Gentner, 1983) or of a chemical process as analogous to a ball rolling down a hill (Van Lehn & J . S. Brown, 1980). Yet for all its usefulness, analogical thinking is never formally taught to us.
It might be better to ask, can you not avoid using metaphor to teach anything?
How to learn about creating metaphors
It is amazing that the typical learning facitilites rarely teach how to create metaphors, use analogies, create similies and the like. We actually do teach these components on our course during the foundation levels. (Look under the heading Language and Influence). Metaphors (and analogoes, similies) are all great for story telling, therapy, training and presenting. Despite the advice that it might appeal only to the more linguistically inclined student teacher, we actually teach it successfully to all our students.
“Every picture is worth a thousand words, but the right metaphor is worth a thousand pictures” – Daniel Pink, 2008
The view of Earth form Mars often puts a perspective on things, especially if we consider that every army that ever marched, every baby that has been born, every glass of milk that was spilt, and every sleepless night has happened on this little dot, at a point in time in the history of the universe. Since life first appeared on Earth 3.5 billion years ago, over 10 billion species have come into existence (and this figure is the roughest of estimates). Somewhere between 10 million and 30 million species (of which scientists have counted only about one-eighth) currently reside on the planet. In other words, for every 1,000 species that have ever existed probably fewer than 10 are alive in the twenty-first century. Life is a continuous process of extinction and diversification, where only the fittest life forms survive in a world where, according to Darwin, they are “bound together by a web of complex relations” (1963, p. 54). Central to these “relations” are the ecological niches, the millions of different “fits” and functional interdependencies that plants and animals have with each other in their ecosystem. And looking through all the 6+ billion people that currrently inhabit the earth at this moment, somewhere amongst them is you and I.