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Mind as Metaphor

Analyzes the use of metaphoric speech in ordinary conversations. Evidence of poetic tendencies; Link between speech and mental activity.


When Ralph Waldo Emerson said that "all men are poets at heart," he might have been exposing a deeper truth than he realized. For even in the coldest, most calculating of minds there are indeed wisps of pure poetry.

"Human cognition is fundamentally shaped by poetic processes," contends psychologist Raymond W. Gibbs- Ph.D., of the University of California at Santa Cruz. In The Poetics of the Mind, Gibbs says it's no accident that the figurative language of poets permeates our speech and thought. Poetic thinking, he argues, mimics life itself.

Consider love. How do we handle this bewildering concept? We churn out metaphors of madness: "She drives me out of my mind" or "I'm crazy about you." We view anger, meanwhile, as an explosion; hence "She blew up at me" and "I'm blowing off steam." Our minds wrap almost hungrily around such phrases, Gibbs notes, because they provide us with a cognitive shorthand that simplifies the concept yet the leaves the depths intact.

As evidence of our inherently poetic minds, Gibbs points to experiments showing that the time it takes for us to read and understand figurative expressions is about the same as for straightforward language. Even young children frequently make metaphorical associations.

"Metaphor is so pervasive, we're blind to it," says Gibbs. "Even when people don't think they're doing it, they're doing it. You can't help it. Figurative speech reflects how we actually experience much of our lives. We talk about life being like a journey because that's how it feels." Other poetic devices, like irony, also pop up in our thought: We flip phrases on their heads, calling someone "an Einstein" when we mean he's not bright at all.

Many of us have come to consider poetry ornamental and frivolous, the work of a select few cloistered in dark rooms. But in reality, the language that serves as the poet's tool kit is the stuff of our own minds.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): All of us are poets, but some more than others: Maya Angelou.