Metaphorically Speaking


In I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, best-selling author and aphorist James Geary argues that metaphor is more than wordplay. It’s a foundation of human thought, morphing our language and, subsequently, our behavior. We’re often unaware of its implications.

Metaphor isn’t merely alive in poetry and fiction, where it thumps its chest and grins, Geary writes, or in political rhetoric, where an eagle with the head of Obama swaddles us in the flag and bears us over waves of grain. In these contexts, metaphor has the least power because we’re aware of it. We regard it as rhetorical flourish and leave it on the page. It’s the commonplace metaphor, the one that goes unrecognized, that forges associations of which we are unaware and influences our behavior.

Perhaps the best place to start paying attention to sneaky metaphors is the nightly finance report. “Stocks do the most amazing things,” Geary mock-marvels. “They soar, surge, climb, leap, and perform all kinds of other superheroic statistical feats. Sadly, they also plummet, slide, plunge, drop, and fall, subject as they are to gravity and similar dismal laws.” If it sounds like Geary is just pointing out clichés, that’s because most clichés began as meaningful metaphors and ossified into throw-away phrases. “But how does this influence my behavior?” you may ask. And you should, because this is where his argument gets awesome.  

Whether exposing metaphor’s machinations in finance, advertising, science or innovation, Geary draws on the latest research. In the case of acrobatic stocks, psychologist Michael W. Morris explains that economic metaphors fall into two categories: agent and object. Agent metaphors liken stocks to a living creature with agency—a goal and will of its own. Object metaphors describe a Dow that’s inanimate and acted upon by external forces. Agent metaphors are usually deployed for upward trends (“the NASDAQ climbed to new heights today”) while object metaphors illustrate decline (“the Dow dropped off a cliff”). We get the message—NASDAQ up, Dow down. But subconsciously, we’re primed to think that trends described with agent metaphors will continue indefinitely, while object metaphors suggest that a rebound or sell-off is a solitary event. This way of casting events can spur the magical thinking that led to the (metaphorical) housing bubble’s (metaphorical) bust.    

Geary’s book would be a worthy read if all it did was expose hidden effects, but it burrows deeper. The core of the book—a smorgasbord of sources, with Icelandic bards elbowing primatologists and Star Trek for attention—is cognitive psychology. Grasping metaphors is thought to involve “mirror neurons,” brain cells that observe others’ behavior and imagine what it’s like to be them. Mirror neurons are crucial to social functioning. Neurologists have observed that patients who have damaged mirror neurons, such as those with autism, struggle to read social cues and understand metaphors. Both skills depend on transcending the literal to an intended meaning, which requires imagining another’s thoughts. It’s called “metarepresentation.” Metarepresentation is one of the evolutionary developments on which we’ve founded civilization.

The reviewer is tempted here to withdraw a little praise, straighten her tie and smooth her hair lest she sound as exuberant as the author she critiques. Geary’s glee is earned and infectious. True, his humor is the smug, groan-getting variety. (“For centuries, metaphor has been seen as a kind of cognitive frill, a pleasant but essentially useless embellishment to ‘normal’ thought. Now, the frill is gone.”) Geary seems less an originator of thought on the metaphor than a curator. I is an Other boasts a bibliography of 630 entries on a third as many pages. But Geary’s zestful nerdery is as interesting as it is informed. Unlike so many interrogations of single subjects, I is an Other compels multiple reads and rewards them with greater understanding of how indivisible our reality is from the language we use to describe it.  


Contributing writer Emily DePrang is at work on her first book, Theory: A Love Story.