The Science of Comprehension

How We Understand Abstract Concepts


My First Example

Metaphor is the key to understanding others who think and reason differently. The following example is my first success at tracing and understanding the different metaphorical thought process of someone else. I'm quite elated by this accomplishment—two years of study and research finally paid off! Here's the story:

I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Protect Marriage.” And I wondered, "Why does marriage need "protection"? How does one "protect" an abstract concept? Why do some people feel threatened? What have they based their life on that's so fragile it needs "protecting"? Why am I not threatened by the concept? What have I based my life on that's different? Have I based my life on something more solid? Something that doesn't need "protection" because it's not vulnerable? People don't seek protection for something that isn't in any danger (or do they?)

So I went to a forum and asked the above question, and had a wonderful dialog with a woman named Audrey. She replied:

Audrey:   I'm married and I recognize that my marriage needs to be protected (by me and my husband, we are responsible for our relationship). It is vulnerable. That doesn't mean that I based my life on fragile things.

My marriage needs to be protected from all kinds of things that can get in the way of the connection and relationship my husband and I have. We have to limit our outside time commitments to others, to our jobs, to projects, etc. There are plenty of things that can get in the way of marriage, and marriage is work. You have to work to keep things good. Every day.

David:  Interesting. I do the same thing with my relationship. Perhaps the ideas are the same but the words we use are different. I think of "work" as "something you don't really want to do but you have to do it anyway." Keeping my relationship going is enjoyable. I like when we spend time together. Therefore, it's not "work" as it doesn't fit my definition of work.

But I'm doing all the same things you mentioned. I want to keep our relationship going. I am concerned we're not spending enough time together because I'm busy doing other things. I focus on our relationship and I choose to spend more of the free time I have being together. I have an inkling these are the same concepts, just couched in different words (couched? I thought couch was a sofa. Words...)

I suppose I could arrange the words and ideas so that these other things I have to do are labeled a "threat" to our relationship, as they limit the time we can spend together, and then apply the concept of "protection" as the way one counteracts a "threat". Our relationship would then need "protection" from this "threat". Yes, that seems to make sense.

Interesting I don't seem to use those particular words and concepts when I think about our relationship. I feel our relationship could be a bit better if I could spend more time together. But I don't think of these other things I do as a "threat", because they're good things I do, and "threat" to me is something bad all around that you want to eliminate.

I think "balance" is the concept I use instead of "threat" and "protection". Koyaaniskatsi (a favorite movie of mine, meaning "Life out of balance"). Ying and Yang. Need to balance work and play. Too much in either direction isn't healthy. So I guess I think of maintaining our relationship in terms of "balance". Need to spend enough time together, yet need to get work done.

Fascinating! I think we have the same goal, maintaining a good relationship, only we apply different conceptual systems to achieve that goal. For you, things which weaken a relationship are deemed "threats", and "protection" is the concept used to counter these "threats". For me, relationships suffer when life is out of balance, and balancing the things you want to do with the things you have to do is the method by which a healthy relationship is maintained. Both ways of thinking about relationships lead to the same end result, and yet the two conceptual systems and the words each system uses are completely different!

This is awesome!

And there you have it. Two different ways of thinking and reasoning about how to maintain a relationship. Audrey uses the concepts of "threat", "protection", and "work", whereas I use the concept of "balance." Both methods work; both methods achieve the same result. Yet the thought process is very different.

David:   You can apply the word "work" to your relationship, but I can not, because my definition of the word "work" precludes it being applied to relationships.

Audrey:   I call it work because it requires much time and effort. You can like your job :)

David:   This means... words don't have fixed meanings! My conception of the word "work" is different from your conception of the word "work". My conception of the word "threat" is different from your conception of the word "threat". How are we ever going to communicate with each other if words themselves don't have agreed upon meanings?

Audrey:   Words do have fixed meanings. That is why you can look them up in the dictionary.

and that's where she was wrong...

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Did you notice any of the metaphors used above? A relationship is an abstract concept. To describe a relationship we borrow concepts we originally learned about the physical world and apply them metaphorically to the abstract concept of a relationship.

—David Deley
April 2009