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’.

Note on Unconscious Activity

The famous Libet experiments are often taken to show that there is no free will – there are a host of other experiments, of the empirical and philosophical, that are along the same lines, which attempt to demonstrate that from a lack of conscious control over our entire mental life we have no free will. What I see, however, is a statement of the obvious. Most of what I do every day is unconscious – from driving to work to typing while talking to someone else, pretty much all of what I do is not consciously controlled by me. David Bentley hart had an interesting insight in ‘Being, Consciousness, Bliss’:

‘Whatever that impulse is, then, it constitutes at most a physiological potential for action, not a decision to act. So, even taken entirely on their own terms, these experiments tell us little that we do not already know: that the impulse to act frequently comes before we consciously choose to comply with or resist that impulse. One might almost say that our free decisions seem to act as formal causes of action, imposing determinate order upon the otherwise incohate promptings of our neurons.’ (p. 163-164)