Metaphors and Mental Models: The Key to Understanding


When I first read the sequence of passages that I quote below, I felt like I had discovered a diamond while exploring a shop of horrors. The passages come from a book by Julian Jaynes, whose controversial (and carefully thought out) theory is that just a few thousand years ago, human beings weren’t conscious like us, but instead did what they were told to do by god-like voices in their heads. The book is an intellectual shop of horrors in a good way, because it makes you think hard about the possibility of the seemingly impossible.

But rather than get into Jaynes’s broader theory, I want to focus on a small section that I think can be useful for how you think about the world, one that I think jives well with Charlie Munger’s “mental models” approach to thinking.

Munger believes in collecting little packets of understanding for how things work, little models of the world. When you collect models from lots of different fields—say psychology, literature, science, math, and so on—you will then be able to recognize lots of interesting connections.  Models are reference points of understanding.

Jaynes writes not about models but about metaphors. I think that by collecting what Jaynes calls “metaphiers,” you can position yourself to better understand new things in the future. His explanation is useful for those trying to understand the world, come up with something new, or combine things into creative new patterns (which could be a piece of art of a company). It also has implications for salespeople or for anyone trying to convince or explain. Conveying an idea through metaphor is almost always a good idea.

Metaphors and Understanding

Jaynes begins by defining metaphor, which is made up of two components:

the thing to be described, which I shall call the metaphrand, and the thing or relation used to elucidate it, which I shall call the metaphier. A metaphor is always a known metaphier operating on a less known metaphrand.

Yesterday I used two hypothetical basketball teams to describe quirks of value style indexes like the Russell 1000 Value. I did so because the difference between the two teams I made up is much easier to understand than the difference between the investment strategies I was trying to explain. The metaphrands (thing to be explained) were the Russell Value indexes, the metaphier (reference point used to explain) was the odd made up NBA team of the five best centers in the league.

It is through metaphors that language and understanding grow from simple things to more complex things. We start with things we understand, like the body, and our own simple behaviors, and create new language:

The human body is a particularly generative metaphier, creating previously unspeakable distinctions in a throng of areas. The head of an army, table, page, bed, ship, household, or nail, or of steam or water; the face of a clock, cliff, card, or crystal; the eyes of needles, winds, storms, targets, flowers, or potatoes… and so on and on …All of these concrete metaphors increase enormously our powers of perception of the world about us and our understanding of it, and literally create new objects.  Indeed, language is an organ of perception, not simply a means of communication.

In early times, language and its referents climbed up from the concrete to the abstract on the steps of metaphors, even, we may say, created the abstract on the bases of metaphors.

We aren’t aware of this slow building up of metaphors through time.

Because in our brief lives we catch so little of the vastnesses of history, we tend too much to think of language as being solid as a dictionary, with a granite-like permanence, rather than as the rampant restless sea of metaphor which it is.

We have a “fixed” view of the world. We think language is fixed, that models of the world are fixed, but they are not. Language and models and understanding are forever changing, and the best way to be at the vanguard of this change is to collect packets of understanding: metahpiers which will be used to understand (and explain) new metaphrands.

what are we really trying to do when we try to understand anything? Like children trying to describe nonsense objects, so in trying to understand a thing we are trying to find a metaphor for that thing. Not just any metaphor, but one with something more familiar and easy to our attention. Understanding a thing is to arrive at a metaphor for that thing by substituting something more familiar to us. And the feeling of familiarity is the feeling of understanding.

A theory is thus a metaphor between a model and data. And understanding in science is the feeling of similarity between complicated data and a familiar model.

This is the same thing as I’ve written about before on the topic of creativity. The creation of something new and interesting results from the combination of “familiar models.”

The “mental model” approach to life suggested by Charlie Munger is a version of this entire thing. Having more “models,” or reference points of understanding, is like casting a wider net when fishing (you see what I did there!!).

Here is Munger (much more here) on the need for models (which are just big metaphiers).

You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience ‑ both vicarious and direct ‑ on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.

Things aren’t static, they change. Our understanding and communication changes on the basis of new metaphors. We understand new things in reference to some older thing that we already understand. What will we be trying to understand in the future? Who knows? Don’t try to predict the future, but instead collect models and metaphiers so that you’ll recognize opportunity for new combinations, patterns, and ideas when they come. Since I’ve relied on other’s thinking in this post, I may as well close it out with a great quote from Paul Graham.

It seems to me that beliefs about the future are so rarely correct that they usually aren’t worth the extra rigidity they impose, and that the best strategy is simply to be aggressively open-minded. Instead of trying to point yourself in the right direction, admit you have no idea what the right direction is, and try instead to be super sensitive to the winds of change.



END NOTE: for those still interested (Bueller?), here is a continuation that deals more with consciousness. This book tripped me out!

If understanding a thing is arriving at a familiarizing metaphor for it, then we can see that there always will be a difficulty in understanding consciousness. For it should be immediately apparent that there is not and cannot be anything in our immediate experience that is like immediate experience itself.

I realize that my argument here is becoming fairly dense. But before coming out into the clearing, I wish to describe what I shall mean by the term analog. An analog is a model, but a model of a special kind. It is not like a scientific model, whose source may be anything at all and whose purpose is to ad as an hypothesis of explanation or understanding. Instead, an analog is at every point generated by the thing it is an analog of. A map is a good example. It is not a model in the scientific sense, not a hypothetical model like the Bohr atom to explain something unknown. Instead, it is constructed from something well known, if not completely known. Each region of a district of land is allotted a corresponding region on the map, though the materials of land and map are absolutely different and a large proportion of the features of the land have to be left out. And the relation between an analog map and its land is a metaphor. If I point to a location on a map and say, “There is Mont Blanc and from Chamonix we can reach the east face this way,” that is really a shorthand way of saying, “The relations between the point labeled ‘Mont Blanc’ and other points is similar to the actual Mont Blanc and its neighboring regions.”

I think it is apparent now, at least dimly, what is emerging from the debris of the previous chapter. I do not now feel myself proving my thesis to you step by step, so much as arranging in your mind certain notions so that, at the very least, you will not be immediately estranged from the point I am about to make. My procedure here in what I realize is a difficult and overtly diffuse part of this book is to simply state in general terms my conclusion and then clarify what it implies. Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics.

Consider the language we use to describe conscious processes. The most prominent group of words used to describe mental events are visual. We ‘see’ solutions to problems, the best of which may be ‘brilliant’, and the person ‘brighter’ and ‘clearheaded’ as opposed to ‘dull’, ‘fuzzy-minded’, or ‘obscure’ solutions. These words are all metaphors and the mind-space to which they apply is a metaphor of actual space. In it we can ‘approach’ a problem, perhaps from some ‘viewpoint’, and ‘grapple’ with its difficulties, or seize together or ‘com-prehend’ parts of a problem, and so on, using metaphors of behavior to invent things to do in this metaphored mind-space.

Now when we say mind-space is a metaphor of real space, it is the real ‘external’ world that is the metaphier. But if metaphor generates consciousness rather than simply describes it, what is the metaphrand?

Consider the metaphor that the snow blankets the ground. The metaphrand is something about the completeness and even thickness with which the ground is covered by snow. The metaphier is a blanket on a bed. But the pleasing nuances of this metaphor are in the paraphiers of the metaphier, blanket. These are something about warmth, protection, and slumber until some period of awakening. These associations of blanket then automatically become the associations or paraphrands of the original metaphrand, the way the snow covers the ground. And we thus have created by this metaphor the idea of the earth sleeping and protected by the snow cover until its awakening in spring. All this is packed into the simple use of the word ‘blanket’ to pertain to the way snow covers the ground.

The world is organized, highly organized, and the concrete metaphiers that are generating consciousness thus generate consciousness in an organized way. Hence the similarity of consciousness and the physical-behavioral world we are conscious of. And hence the structure of that world is echoed —though with certain differences—in the structure of consciousness.

One last complication before going on. A cardinal property of an analog is that the way it is generated is not the way it is used—obviously. The map-maker and map-user are doing two different things. For the map-maker, the metaphrand is the blank piece of paper on which he operates with the metaphier of the land he knows and has surveyed. But for the map-user, it is just the other way around. The land is unknown; it is the land that is the metaphrand, while the metaphier is the map which he is using, by which he understands the land. And so with consciousness. Consciousness is the metaphrand when it is being generated by the paraphrands of our verbal expressions. But the functioning of consciousness is, as it were, the return journey. Consciousness becomes the metaphier full of our past experience, constantly and selectively operating on such unknowns as future actions, decisions, and partly remembered pasts, on what we are and yet may be. And it is by the generated structure of consciousness that we then understand the world.