The Science of Comprehension

Part VI

The Basic “Sesame Street” Concepts

Cognitive science shows people learn new abstract concepts by using metaphors to explain the abstract concept in terms of more concrete concepts the person is already familiar with. Those concepts in turn were previously explained via metaphors to connect them to even more concrete concepts. This structure of concepts built on top of earlier concepts must eventually be traced back to a foundation of concrete experience. Our experience of the physical world around us, and our bodily interaction with the physical world, is pretty much all we have to go on. Everything beyond that is abstract and theoretical.

As I mentioned earlier, there must be some very basic concepts that are so basic even a young child is already familiar with them by the time they learn to talk. What are these very basic “Sesame Street” concepts upon which all the rest of our knowledge is built upon? It's all got to start somewhere.

Orientation and Direction
Our bodies have a natural front and back to them, so front and back are basic concepts. And thanks to gravity, our environment has a natural up and down to it, so up and down are also basic concepts.1

(Note we don’t do too well distinguishing left from right. Our bodies are pretty symmetrical in that regard. To make the distinction we have to think of something about our body that is asymmetrical, such as observing what hand we hold a spoon in. Despite this we still sometimes use right and left to describe abstract concepts, such as in politics we say Progressives are on the left and Conservatives are on the right.)

It’s amazing how much mileage we get out of these simple concepts of front, back, up, down. For example, closely related to front and back is forwards and backwards. We naturally walk forwards, and if we are walking to a destination, we say we are making progress towards our destination.

Now we can borrow the word progress, which we've all experienced as walking forwards toward a destination, and use it in a more abstract case. We may say we are making progress on our book report. Here we are not walking, and our destination is not a physical location, but we are borrowing the concept of “walking towards a destination” to explain something more abstract. Here our goal is to finish the book report, and making progress means we are getting closer to that goal. We have just explained an abstract concept by comparing it with a more concrete experience. Our goal is like a destination, and progress means we are getting closer to our goal.

Up and down get quite a workout when we apply these basic concepts to explain more abstract phenomena. Closely related to up and down are high and low. Low means “close to the ground”, and high means “a good distance upwards.”2

Now we can borrow these basic concepts of up and down, high and low, and apply them to explain a more abstract situation. When I say, “My laptop battery is low,” I don't literally mean the battery is “close to the ground.” Instead I’m talking about something else, something a bit more abstract. When I say, “I charged up my battery,” I'm using up to mean “more”. Here we’ve taken the basic concepts of up and down, high and low, and applied them to describe a chemical reaction taking place within a battery.

Turns out metaphors are everywhere, and they’re more important than one might think. Here are a few examples:

More is Up
“More is up” is a very basic metaphorical concept. It’s grounded in real life experiences, such as pouring water into a glass and watching the water level rise up as you add more water. Or, you can have a pile of stuff, and watch the pile get higher and higher as you add more stuff to the pile.3

Up is Good
Happy is Good
Happy is Up

Up is a good thing, down is a bad thing. Being happy is a good thing, and is described using the concept of up:4 On the other hand, being sad is a bad thing, and is described using the concept of down.
Again we are describing an abstract concept, such as happy or sad, using words which originally described very basic concrete concepts grounded in our own experience, such as up and down. “Life has its ups and downs.”

Health and Life are Up
Being healthy is a good thing, and is described using the concept of up:5
On the other hand, being ill is a bad thing, and is described using the concept of down:

Warm is good
When we are children, we are held affectionately by our parents and feel warmth.6 Warm is a good thing; Cold is a bad thing. These concepts of warm and cold can now be used metaphorically to describe more abstract concepts.

Taste is another sensation that gets used metaphorically. “She is sweet.” We’re not literally saying she tastes like sugar, we’re borrowing the positive emotional response to a sweet taste, something we have physically experienced, and applying it to describe an abstract quality of a person. Sweet is good, sour is bad. “The dealer sweetened the pot by adding a special bonus.” “He was in a sour mood.” “His comment struck a sour note.”

What other senses do we have? Smell? Sure. How about, “Something smells rotten.” First we use that phrase when we smell rotten food. Smelling rotten food is a physical sensation we experience. The experience is grounded in reality. Later we can borrow that phrase and apply it metaphorically to some situation where we have a hunch that something isn’t right.

Other common metaphors:

Time is like money
We have a finite amount of it, and we can handle it the same way we handle money. We can spend time, waste time, budget time, lose time, save time, invest time, have spare time, have not enough time, run out of time, etc.7

Theories are like buildings
A theory has a foundation, which supports the theory. A theory can be strong, and solid, or a theory might be weak, shaky, and may even collapse.8

Life is a Journey
The “Life Is A Journey” metaphor lets us use our rich knowledge of journeys to derive rich inferences about our lives.9 “Life In The Fast Lane” —Eagles

Love is Closeness
We’re very close. We've been together for ten years now. We’ve drifted apart. We are separated. Splitsville.10

A Relationship is a Journey Taken Together
Our relationship isn’t going anywhere. We’re spinning our wheels. Our marriage is out of gas. The relationship is off the track. The relationship is stuck. Time to bail out of this relationship.11 “Goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love” —Aretha Franklin

And finally, we are now ready for...

How We Understand Things

Metaphors actually don't just help us understand abstract concepts, it turns out metaphors are our understanding of abstract concepts. Metaphors are what we use when we think about these things.

Cognitive Science goes one step further and says reason itself isn’t some abstract method that exists independently from the material world. That’s the old 18th-Century Enlightenment idea. And it’s wrong. Reason itself is embodied. We reason using concepts such as front, back, up, down, left, right, warm, cold, sweet, sour, near, far, light, dark, in, out, etc. These are all basic concepts we experience. This is our grounding in reality. Cognitive Scientist Prof. George Lakoff writes,

It is hard to underestimate how far the idea that concepts are physically embodied, using the sensory motor system of the brain, is from disembodied Enlightenment reason—from the usual view of concepts as disembodied abstractions, entirely separate from the sensory motor system.12

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1. Imagine someone born in outer space where there is no "up" and "down". Would this person ever develop a sense of "up" and "down"? Do astronauts have difficulty orienting themselves as they float around in outer space?
In space, the eyes, inner ears, muscles, joints, and skin cannot rely on gravity as a constant indicator of position and orientation. The brain must learn to rearrange the relationships among the signals from these sensory systems when processing the information in order to produce correct responses. This rearrangement requires a period of adaptation. Before adaptation occurs, crewmembers often experience space motion sickness (SMS), difficulty determining orientation and controlling motion, and the illusion that the body or environment is moving even when both are stationary. Many of these same problems recur upon return to Earth, since another period of adaptation is needed to readjust the body back to the sensation of gravity. Length of recovery time is related to the duration of the mission.

2. Up and down are directions, whereas high and low are locations. We move upwards to reach a high location, and we move downwards to reach a low location.
3. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Year: 1980) pg. 15
4. ibid, pg. 16
5. ibid, pg. 15
6. George Lakoff, The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain. (Year: 2008) pg 83.
7. Metaphors We Live By Chapter 2. We can save time by finding a quicker way, leaving us with more time to spend elsewhere. We may invest time in something we hope will pay off in the future.
8. ibid, pg. 46
9. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and it's Challenge to Western Thought (Year: 1999) pg. 59
10. The Political Mind, pg. 254. Notice even though up is usually a good thing, a relationship can "split up," which is usually a bad thing. Something to think about as I don't have an explanation at hand. Also, do houses “burn up” or “burn down”?
11. Philosophy in the Flesh, pg. 64
12. The Political Mind, pg. 252.

Further reading:

13. Nancy J. Nersessian (College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology), Mental Modeling in Conceptual Change. (2007)
14. Judith Lloyd Yero, Metaphors in Education. (2002) (printer-friendly .pdf file)

—David Deley (2009)