INTRODUCTION: WHY METAPHORS
ARE SO IMPORTANT IN SCIENCE.
|The Earth as a living organism.|
There is a long tradition in our educational system, holding the idea that interpretation and creation of metaphors can be part of the Humanities curriculum –mainly literature-, but they have nothing to do with sciences. However, the evidence suggests that most of our brilliant scientists –specially those disseminators who are able to convey big ideas to the non-scientific public- are specialists in the creation of metaphors. Metaphors are an excellent vehicle to communicate scientific ideas. Very complex theories and hypothesis had been popularized thanks to images and comparations easy to understand for the average man. The image of planet Earth as a complex system with different components working together in an extremely precise equilibrium, prompted Lovelock to compare the whole planet with a living thing and popularize it under the nickname of Gaia, a Greek goddess. Their educational purpose are in high stem. However an abuse of the metaphor can lead to misunderstandings that generate more problems than what they are trying to solve. Taking for example the theory of the “selfish gen” by Richard Dawkins: it created interpretations that were not on the mind of the biologist, supposing that human beings were selfish and evil because it was written in their genetic code or that genes had some kind of moral consciousness. On the other hand, metaphors are images that are not ahistorical. They explain an idea in a particular social and cultural context. They can be extremely expressive and cute for some circumstances, but lose all its power in a few years. The abundant metaphors of the brain are typical examples of how fast a metaphor became old-fashioned because of technological shift. As Grah and Kuma suggested in American Scientist (March, 2015) it takes only a few decades or years to substitute one metaphor by another: in the fifties and sixties the philosopher John Searle explained how the brain was understood as some kind of phone calling-centre. Nowadays, due to new technology, we find this image inappropiate and out of date. Computers, Internet, holograms, the cloud, are now the available images for our brains, but we don’t know for how long.
THE BRAIN METAPHORS: AN EXAMPLE OF TBL LESSON
We decided in our school to find all the possible metaphors we could guess for the brain and the mind (knowing that can be understood as two different concepts, we gave freedom of choice to decide for one or another). In order to get the maximum ideas and images, we had followed the TBL method provided by Robert Swartz. It mainly consists in giving to our students a thinking map about how could we generate good metaphors and the graphic organizers that will help as conceptual scaffoldings in the elaboration of these images.
First of all, we analyze some very ancient images and metaphors that were elaborated in Antiquity: the Egyptians thought about the brain as industrial slag, due to the external appearance of both objects. Plato was more spiritual, and identified the mind as a winged chariot flying in the skies where two horses and rider represents different features of our souls. We analyzed also two very well known images from the 20th century: the brain as a computer (defended by cognitive psychologists) and the mind as a black box or a tabula rasa (defended by behaviourism and empirism). These preliminary approaches prompt the students to check what they already know and attempt the creation of new images.
After that, we work in pairs, trying to find the most attractive and recurrent images they can guess in order to explain scientific, psychological and philosophical characteristics of our brain. We are supposed to be disseminators of scientific information and we have to find a good image that could work for our public. A brainstorming brings the chance to listen to all the possible images for the brain that they were able to figure out. We hardly could write all of them in the blackboard, and some of them were as suggestive as a fridge, a nebulous, a theatre, a piñata, or a stock exchange. We decided to extend only one of them: the fridge.
A CHALLENGING METAPHOR: THE MIND AS A FRIDGE.
What kind of similitudes could we find between a fridge and our minds? That was the challenging question for the bold student who suggested this metaphor. In fact, some common characteristics were easy to describe for them. First of all, both of them are divided in some kind of shelves, racks or compartments. In fridges, different racks and drawers are designed and created in order to store different items, from bottles and cheese to eggs and lettuce. In our mind, different parts of the brain specialize in diverse skills like reasoning, communicating, or controlling our emotions. Even when fridges and brains have to be understood as a whole, each compartment has its own function. This characteristic fits very well with an innatiste approach to mind (like Chomsky, Jerry Fodor or Howard Gardner), where mind frames are essential for the development of our knowledge.
However, there is something equally essential: the items from the outer world. The amount of food (and its preservation) in the fridge, and the acquisition of information is the feature that gives sense to both of them. It goes without saying that this characteristic postulate the metaphor very close to the ideas of empirism, but if we take both features (shelves and food) as a whole, show us a constructivist approach, very close to the ideas of philosophers like Kant or psychologist like Jean Piaget or Vigotsky.
Taking this two characteristics are attractive enough for the students in cognitive psychology, neuroscience or mind philosophy. However, we could keep on playing a little bit with the image of the mind as a fridge. Preservation is a characteristic in common, keep the information alive in the mind, cool and preserve the food from excessive heating in the fridge. Both devices, mind and fridge, need energy from an external power source, in terms of electricity, or organic supplies like glucose and considerable amounts of phosphorus or potassium. Even the basic structure of a fridge or our brains have a external similarity. Both devices are completely isolated from the surrounding environment, in order to avoid damages and keep them working properly. Our skulls preserves our precious brains. The metallic box of the fridge accomplish the same mission. The more features and characteristics you can identify, the better for the metaphor and its power of expression and persuasion.