Posts Tagged ‘metaphor’

BBC Radio 4 broadcast a really interesting programme this week entitled Metaphor for Healing. I don’t think you’ll be able to listen to it (unless it’s still on the BBC iPlayer) but they’ve put up a good page about it on the bbc website. There’s obviously a link between issues of metaphor and those of visualisation. In fact, in some ways metaphors are tools for visualisation aren’t they? The programme talked a bit about Jan Alcoe, who used visualisation to both cope with both her disease and her treatment. It’s not hard to think that every patient should have a session about this before undergoing chemo and radiotherapy. I’ve read a lot about visualisation in cancer settings before so although her story is a particularly impressive one, it didn’t tell me anything really new. However, the rest of the programme was about the conscious use of metaphor in consultations, and I’ve not heard that discussed so clearly before.

Dr Grahame Brown, a musculo-skeletal specialist at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham, claims he is able to save hundreds of patients from the need to have spinal surgery every year simply by “reframing the negative metaphors that have been unwittingly used by their doctors that can lead to a destructive and self-fulfilling cycle”. Many of the patients he sees have been referred for surgery after becoming convinced their spine is ‘crumbling’ or that they have ‘degenerating’ disc disease, when in fact they have a prolapsed disc or other normal wear and tear that is common in most people. Yet anxious patients latch on to these suggestions and become convinced that things are only going to get worse.

Now this really is fascinating. By becoming aware of the metaphors used by the patient (typically those given to them by other doctors) which make it harder for a patient to break free from chronic pain, then giving them different metaphors, he helps them change the way they think about, perceive, and, ultimately, experience their pain. He claims that this can have such a dramatic, quick effect, that many escape not only the need for surgery, but also escape from their pain.

It’s an impressive outcome.

There is specific mention of two techniques, or approaches, based on metaphor, used by people in this programme – the Human Givens method, which is a fascinating counseling technique, and the Clean Language approach, which is based on a technique developed by a practitioner inspired by “Metaphors we live by” written by Lakoff and Johnson, one of the books which have changed the way I think about the world. Fascinating to see these ideas turn into practice.

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“Metaphors we live by” written by Lakoff and Johnson. (ISBN 0-226-46801-1) ……..
I often muse about what makes a human being, human? Or what makes a human being fully human? Consciousness is clearly one of the characteristics. Language is another. And imagination is a third. Perhaps it’s because I’m interested in these phenomena that some time back I bought “Metaphors we live by”. Our ability to handle metaphors and symbols intrigues me, and I wanted to understand better how we use metaphors so the title caught my eye. However, when I flicked through it, it struck me as a bit technical and even dry. I thought it was a book about linguistics, an area of study which does interest me, but one which I find can be difficult to grasp. So I put the book aside in my giant collection of “interesting books to get round to reading one day”. I’m not quite sure I pulled it off the shelf recently. Oh, yes, actually I do remember why, but the explanation is going to have to wait till another post. (cryptic, huh?) I guess that old adage of there being a right time for everything must apply to books, because this time, I started into it and couldn’t stop. I’ve marked it up. I read and re-read chapters. I’ve skipped to the back, delved into the middle, read it from cover to cover. I find it compelling and convincing. And I can’t figure out why I didn’t take to it first time round.
It’s actually an incredibly difficult book to summarise. Usually when I write a review like this I paste in a few passages from the book to illustrate what it’s like. But I’ve collected so many passages I find it hard to pick only a few!
Here’s the gist of their argument. By studying human communication they claim to have discovered that metaphors are not simply a word or language game, but much more fundamentally, they are conceptual. By that they mean we think in metaphors, we understand using metaphors, and, indeed we understand the world and our place in it through metaphors. I didn’t need convinced about that. I already thought that metaphors were the basis of thought. However, they take the whole project to an entirely different level by studying the types of metaphors which are most prevalent in our thinking and communicating. With way too many examples to share here, they illustrate clearly and convincingly that the basic, fundamental metaphors we use haven’t appeared randomly, but are developed out of our interactions with the physical and the cultural worlds in which we exist. In other words, they are develop from our interactions with time and space, and our interactions with other people and creatures. This, I think, is the key. It allows them to develop an argument they call “the experientialist myth”, proposing it as a better way to understand life than the opposing myths of “objectivism” and “subjectivism”. (Time for a quote or two from the book)

The myth of objectivism reflects the human need to understand the external world in order to be able to function successfully in it. The myth of subjectivism is focused on internal aspects of understanding – what the individual finds meaningful and what makes his life worth living. The experientialist myth suggests that these are not opposing concerns.

Within the myth of objectivism, the concern for truth grows out of a concern for successful functioning. Given a view of man as separate from his environment, successful functioning is conceived of as mastery over the environment. Hence the objectivist metaphors KNOWLEDGE IS POWER and SCIENCE PROVIDES CONTROL OVER NATURE.

The principal theme of the myth of subjectivism is the attempt to overcome the alienation that results from viewing man as separate from his environment and from other men. This involves an embracing of the self – of individuality and reliance upon personal feelings, intuition, and values. The Romanticist version involves reveling in the senses and feelings and attempting to gain union with nature through passive appreciation of it.

The old myths share a common perspective: man as separate from his environment.

The experientialist myth takes the perspective of man as part of his environment, not as separate from it. It focuses on constant interaction with the physical environment and with other people. It views this interaction with the environment as involving mutual change. You cannot function within the environment without changing it or being changed by it.

Do you get the idea? It’s a kind of division between the rationalists and the Romantics, with the claim that metaphor builds a bridge between reason and the imagination and gives us a third way. One which neither denies objective reality, not gets lost in subjective relativism. In the process, this “experientialist” way, shows how there are no Absolute truths out there discoverable without an understanding based on cultural systems, but keeps the project of the imagination and feelings grounded in our interactions with the world.

Objectivism takes as its allies scientific truth, rationality, precision, fairness, and impartiality. Subjectivism takes as its allies the emotions, intuitive insight, imagination, humaneness, art, and a “higher” truth.
The proportions of our lives governed by objectivism and subjectivism vary greatly from person to person and culture and culture. Some of us even attempt to live our entire lives totally by one myth of the other.

How do you think it is for you? Are you more drawn to objectivism’s allies, or subjectivism’s?

I find both main strands of their case very convincing. The more you look for it, the more you become aware of the pervasiveness of metaphor, and the more you study it, the clearer it becomes that conceptual metaphors are grounded in our experiences and interactions. Their experientialist myth appeals to me much more than either of the other two older myths. It strikes me as more true. I also think it allows a much more robust defence against scientism than romanticism ever did.

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