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May 08, 2018 Tuesday 01:02:31 PM IST
THINKING IN METAPHORS

PABLO PICASSO, the renowned Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, stage designer, poet, playwright, and one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century, was not a good student of mathematics. Whenever his maths teacher wrote a number on the chalkboard, he actually perceived something remarkable in it. For example, the number ‘4’ for little Picasso was a human nose and he kept doodling on the slate until he filled in the rest of the face as the teacher went on with his mathematics lessons. Similarly, the number ‘1’ appeared to him as a tree, ‘9’ looked like a person walking against the wind, and ‘8’ resembled an angel!

 

These metaphors persistently distracted Picasso from mathematics. However, by giving into these distractions, Picasso was developing a new genre of painting. Eventually, Picasso, along with Georges Braque, invented Cubism. Picasso has been since counted among the greatest masters of metaphorical thinking!

 

ARISTOTLE’S THEORY OF METAPHOR

 

Aristotle, the evergreen Greek philosopher, elevates the metaphor to the echelons of higher-order thinking processes and considers it a supreme virtue to master metaphorical thinking. “To be a master of metaphor,” Aristotle writes in his Poetics, “is the greatest thing by far. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others, and it is also a sign of genius.” Only those who possess a higher level of intellect would perceive resemblances and similarities in different things and would develop useful metaphors, says Aristotle.

 

The Greek root of the English word metaphor is metaphoria, which means “to transfer” or “to carry over”. Thus, a metaphor implies a transfer or carryover of properties of something to something different, in the process rendering new layers of meaning to both of them. Aristotle defines the metaphor as follows: “Metaphor is the application of a strange term either transferred from the genus and applied to the species or from the species and applied to the genus, or from one species to another or else by analogy.” (Poetics)

 

According to Aristotle, four types of transfer of meaning could define a metaphor:

 

1. Transfer from Genus to Species

 

Consider the usage: “Here stands my ship.”

 

For somebody (me) to “Stand” is identical to a ship laying “anchor”, by analogy. Further, “riding at anchor” is a species of “standing”, which itself is a genus. So, when a poet writes: “Here stands my ship,” s/he makes a transfer from genus (standing) to species (riding at anchor).

 

2. Transfer from Species to genus

 

Consider the usage: “Indeed ten thousand noble things Odysseus did.”

 

Here “ten thousand” is a species of “many”, the genus. In the usage, properties of species are identically transferred to genus.

 

3 & 4.Transfer from Species 1 to Species 2 and vice versa

 

Consider the usage: “Drawing off his life with bronze” or “Severing with the tireless bronze”.

 

Here both “drawing off” and “severing” are species of the genus “removing” and meaning is transferred between two species alternately.

 

In other words, if B is to A as D is to C, a genius, who thinks metaphorically, may take liberty to use B and D interchangeably. For example, let us consider the statement: “Old age is to life as evening to day.” Then a genius may metaphorically call evening as the “day’s old age” and old age as “the evening of life” or “life’s setting sun”.

 

The simplest format of a metaphor is “A is B”, i.e., the properties of A and B are mutually transferred and they look like identical twins. A common example is: “Time is money.” In making such a metaphorical statement, one assumes transfer or carryover of the properties of “money” to “time” and vice-versa.

 

METAPHORICAL THINKING AND CREATIVITY

 

According to the well-known creativity expert, David Kord Murray, a creative idea begins, either consciously or subconsciously, with a metaphor or an analogy. A metaphor links two objects or ideas without any precise logical reason. It allows you to break the rules of logic and to open up the creative side of the brain. Metaphorical thinking thus leads to creative problem-solving, or to use the slightly jaded metaphor, to “think outside the box”.

 

Metaphors are said to force the neural processes in new directions and also allow for “jumping the tracks”. Hence metaphorical thinking is a powerful tool to perceive things in a new way, something which helps in finding abundant applications in the world of advertising and marketing. Metaphors appeal to our imagination and they are amply used to simplify stories. Metaphors help to bring your message across and they do it in a less confrontational way.

 

THE PHYSIOLOGY OF METAPHORICAL THINKING

 

The creative ability of metaphorical thinking is rooted in a deeply physiological reason. It is proven that a metaphor used in a textual message activates the cerebral cortex, enabling quick understanding of the given information. It is explained as follows: The two hemispheres of the brain of the cerebral cortex are linked by corpus callosum through which they communicate. The corpus callosum is a structure composed of millions of axons that have their dendrites and terminal buttons projecting into both, the right and the left hemispheres, in turn facilitating such a communication.

 

Metaphorical thinking initiates synaptic activity in the axons, which enhances coordination between the two hemispheres of the brain. This again enables us to decipher a given information quickly.

 

Metaphorical thinking also helps people to “think outside the box” and fosters divergent thinking. The corpus callosum, bearing 250 million nerve fibres, is a centre for transmission of neural data in a process time ranging between 5 to 20 milliseconds depending on synaptic signals. The corpus callosum is, in fact, activated by metaphorical thinking, triggering the process of lateral thinking.

 

THE PROCESS OF METAPHORICAL THINKING

 

Metaphorical thinking in view of creative results can be achieved in a five-step process. This process allows you to redefine the given problem based on a new metaphor and then finding fitting solutions inspired by the same.

 

Step 1: Define your challenge.

 

At this stage, your challenge is redefined into a creative question.

 

For example, let us consider the question: How to improve the learning ecosystem of an educational institution? Let us demand that the learning ecosystem promote space for creative thinking, entrepreneurial innovation, and develop a start-up culture.

 

Step 2: Choose a metaphor.

 

After defining the challenge, let us identify a new metaphor. It could be chosen either randomly or deliberately. In one of the four ways, recommended by Aristotle, let us allow transfer of meaning between the elements of a metaphor.

 

For example, let us consider the metaphor: Ecosystem to an education institution is equivalent to a nursery for plants.

 

Step 3. Reformulate your challenge into a new objective.

 

Use your metaphor to define the challenge anew.

 

A nursery refers to different things: It refers to a fence that protects young plants. Applied to an educational ecosystem, it covers all measures that make students and teachers feel safe and secure within the institution. Further, it also refers to the  “nutrients” that are required for integral growth of the young plants, equivalently applicable to the students. It should also provide for sunlight and safe drinking water besides allowing for excellent conditions for sustainable growth and development. Each of these elements is a new creative challenge.

 

Step 4. Use the new objective to generate ideas.

 

The newly defined objective shall further generate new ideas, which will come in handy in exploring novel solutions.

 

For example, to improve security of the campus and without sacrificing the green canopy of the campus, bio-fencing of the campus could be thought of. Or else, how about resorting to the new generation of non-invasive technologies to provide invisible protection to the members of an educational institution? And so on…

 

Step 5. Modify the ideas into useful solutions.

 

Metaphors provide excellent starting points for creative thinking. Now, it is time to convert these ideas into useful suggestions for your original challenge.

 

What novel concepts or ideas could be extracted from the set of novel ideas?

 

Shall we start planting small plants around the campus, so that it eventually develops a protective green wall surrounding the campus? Or, shall we plant matured plants to immediately provide safety and security to the campus?

 

At any rate, it is of great importance that the GenNext imbibes skills for metaphorical thinking, in order to make room for alternate thinking and to generate a sufficient number of creative options. As suggested by the great Aristotle, metaphorical thinkers rule the roost of creativity and entrepreneurship!


Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran


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