Conceptual Metaphors, Neuroscience and the Structure of Our Experience

I’ve been re-reading Lakoff and Johnson’s ‘Metaphors We Live By‘, and the following post is an attempt to synthesize the overall point of their book with modern neuroscience to show how our experience is structured.

Lakoff and Johnson’s main thrust is that our concepts are metaphorical and that this is how we make sense of our experience – that is, we characterize one experience in terms of another. In a sense, they’re somewhat similar to Kant’s categories in that they’re transcendental – they are the means by which we structure and make sense of our experience.

There’s roughly two kinds of conceptual metaphors: directly emergent and metonymic emergent. The former, obviously enough, emerge directly out of our experience as subjects – these would include concepts such as ‘we are containers’ – i.e. we experience ourselves and our bodies as bounded containers. The latter are the kinds of concepts that emerge out of interaction with two or more physical objects or things – Lakoff and Johnson identify ‘part for the whole’ concepts as arising out of this kind of experience. For example, when I say, ‘The Times is here’, I mean, the important reporter from the Times, not the entire newspaper. In a nutshell, then, we make sense of our experience via conceptual metaphors that arise out of our experience. It’s experience and metaphor all the way down.

A correlate to neuroscience may be found here by noting that repeated experience in a given environment will generate conceptual maps, as it were, that allow us to structure and contextualize our experience within that environment. ‘Experience’ is an important term here – what is meant by ‘experience’ is a raw, embodied ‘being-in-the-world’ kind of thing. The correlate to be drawn here becomes more clear when we consider, as a kind of case study, how emotions, feelings and concepts like ‘self-worth’, ‘respect for others’, ‘love’, which feed into the overall ‘moral faculty’ developed at the neurological level.

The amygdala is the ‘alarm system’ of the brain – fight, flight and other ‘raw emotions’ arise here out of the activity of the brain cells inhabiting the amygdala. This ‘raw data’ mediated by the cortex and is ‘rationally processed’ by the frontal cortex – though this shouldn’t be taken to be perpetuating a ‘left brain/right brain’ kind of dualism. The correlate is here: if these areas and the cells within them are not stimulated early in childhood, then it is highly likely that such a lack of stimulation will leave the subject in question effectively unable to experience emotional life. A famous and very sad study of a group of Romanian orphans makes the point powerfully: without these parts of the brain being stimulated, they don’t develop as they should, leading more often than not to socially, emotionally and in some cases morally dysfunctional lives (though thanks to the miracles of modern medicine and the tenacity of the human brain, many people with these developmental difficulties are able to overcome them).

The parallels here should make a general principle clear: that a lack of experience means that we don’t ‘grow’ in two important ways: biologically and conceptually. Biologically, a lack of experience means a lack of stimulation in the brain means that our brains don’t develop with the ability to give us the kinds of experience we need in the world, and conceptually, a lack of experience means that we cannot acquire the conceptual metaphors we need to make sense of our experience.

There are then two primary levels to experience as I’m considering it here: the ‘aesthetic’ (a broad term covering the use of metaphor and concepts) level and the biological/bodily level. As stated above, the less experience we have, the less we will be able to conceptualize our experience through the acquisition of metaphor – this is the aesthetic. The biological/bodily aspect is that, the less experience we have, the less experience we are able to have, and the less we are able to conceptualize. Perhaps we could say that the less we are ‘in’ the world, the more fragmented our ‘being-in-the-world’ is. The structure of our experience isn’t one that is simply given but is one which arises out of that experience – out of our ‘being-in-the-world’.

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Notes on the Unity of Consciousness

– The unity of consciousness (UoC) broadly refers to the fact that consciousness comes to us in and is experienced as a unified form (duh). I don’t have this conscious experience and that conscious experience – I don’t experience a series of discrete ‘bits’ but rather have one single experience of consciousness. Or, to be a bit more precise, all my experiences occur within one unified consciousness. This is a fairly old idea, with lots of arguments that go back as far the neo-platonists (for those interested in a more contemporary exploration of and argument for the unity of consciousness, see William Hasker’s ‘The Emergent Self‘). Kant called it the ‘transcendental unity of apperception, and David Bentley Hart gives a good description from a more classical point of view:

‘…in order for there to be such things as representation, or reason, or conceptual connections, or coherent experiences, or subjectivity, or even the experience of confusion, there must be s single unified presence of consciousness to itself, a single point of perspective, that is, so to speak, a vanishing point, without extension or parts, subsisting in its own simplicty.’ (‘The Experience of God’, p. 197)

– The UoC is generally thought to be related to the ‘binding problem’, which John Searle explains as follows:

‘If you think of consciousness, for example, your present conscious field, as made up of the various elements – your perception of the chair over there, your feeling of the clothing against your back, the sight of the trees and the sky outside your window, the around of the stream coming in from below – then you are confronted with a number of serious problems. Most famously, you are confronted with the problem…of how the brain can bind all of these various elements together in a single united conscious experience.’ (‘Mind, Language, and Society’, p. 80)

– It may be helpful to distinguish the UoC from the binding problem, however, in the following way: the UoC is a metaphysical ‘problem’, while the binding problem is a psychological/biological ‘problem’.

– It’s fairly common to point to medical cases concerning brain trauma, surgeries, etc, as examples of how consciousness can break down (two oustanding sources for those interested in the biological/medical aspect of consciousness are, ‘Consciousness, A Users Guide‘, by Adam Zeman and ‘Mapping the Mind‘, by Rita Carter  – surely such traumas/injuries/surgeries/what have you prove that a disruption in the brain means a disruption in consciousness. But, going along with the distinction between the UoC and the binding problem, there should be a distinction between the empirical/psychological ‘ego’ (for lack of a better term) and consciousness – in short, a distinction between the UoC and psychological unity should be made. Hart also makes roughly this point in ‘The Experience of God’:

‘…it is necessary to grasp that what is at issue here is not mere psychological unity or integrity of personal identity or of private memory over time. These can be diminished, impaired, or largely destroyed by deep psychosis, brain damage, cortical surgery, drugs, amnesia, and so forth. The unity of consciousness, however, is immune to all disruption. When I say that consciousness cannot be reduced to material causes I am not denying that the regular operation of consciousness in corporeal beings are dependent upon the workings of the brain, or that the contents of consciousness can be radicaly changed or disrupted by physiological events. I am talking here only about the transcendental condition of consciousness, a simple and perhaps anonymous singularity of vantage, which makes subjective awareness and mental activity possible. It is present even when the ego’s psychological or cognitive operations have been disoriented, clouded or shattered. It is the failure to make this distinction – between, on the one hand, the unity of this transcendental perspective within the mind, and, on the other, the integrity of personal mental states…’ (p. 198-199)

– Searle spends a good deal of time defining consciousness as unified – it simply is a unified thing by definition. Hence, even in, say, split-brain patients:

‘If we think of the split-brain patients as having two centers of consciousness, then we are not thinking of a single consciousness that is broken in two, we are thinking, rather, of two separate unified conscious fields. What is unthinkable is that there should be an element of consciousness that is disunified. That is, it is unthinkable that my conscious states should come to me as a simultaneous series of discrete bits, for if all the bits were part of my conscious awareness at once, then they would all be a part of a single conscious field. If, on the other hand, we were to think, for example, of seventeen bits, each as having a separate existence, then what we are thinking of is seventeen separate consciousnesses, not one consciousness with seventeen elements.’ (‘Mind, Language and Society’, p. 82-83)

– It may be helpful to think of the UoC as related despite being distinct. Underlying the binding of my conscious experiences (experiences which take place within the field of consciousness) is the unity of consciousness itself:

Unity of consciousness ——–> binding

– Breakdowns within various perceptual modalites does not = breakdown in consciousness.