Phenomenological Psychology

Phenomenological Psychology header image

Metaphors in Psychology

June 5th, 2011 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

People have used metaphors for as long as they have spoken language.  In Expression and Meaning (1985) the Berkeley philosopher John Searle defines metaphor as a species of “as if” discourse: “the utterance of an expression with its literal meaning and corresponding set of truth conditions can, in various ways that are specific to metaphor, call to mind another meaning and corresponding set of truth conditions” (p. 85).  The phrase “call to mind” is disconcerting because it implies a propositional construct that is referentially opaque.  Searle devises a complicated series of steps to untangle a metaphor’s meaning and analyze how it is (or becomes) comprehensible in a community of language speakers.  Generally speaking, these rely on culturally-specific background knowledge, assumptions and principles. This intersubjective quality leads theorists such as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Metaphors We Live By, 1980) to argue that metaphor transforms experience and understanding.  Thought and action become modulated as we place them into categories and use them to communicate both identity and difference.

Metaphor also has had a long history in psychology.  In Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct (1986), Theodore Sarbin contends that metaphor is an organizing principle for human action.  Metaphors are off-the-shelf narratives that facilitate the formation and maintenance of personal identity.  People rely on metaphors to provide them with a vocabulary of behavioral templates.  Karin S. Moser refined Sarbin’s concept in her article “Metaphor Analysis in Psychology – Method, Theory and Fields of Application” (2000, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 1(2), http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0002212).  Conceding that metaphors are culturally and socially defined, she further contends they are a basic cognitive strategy of analogical problem solving.  As “mental models” or “cognitive schemata,” they are “abstract models of reality” facilitating “micro-interactions between cognition and culture.”

With this background, it may seem surprising there are few recent studies of actual metaphors deployed by psychiatric patients to describe their own subjective, phenomenological experience.  The reason why is this type of self-report or self-assessment only is amenable to qualitative research; per se there is no way to derive the propositional content of a metaphor from a neuropsychological state.  Psychoanalytic speculation notwithstanding (Freud, Jung, etc.) there is (and in principle never can be) any meaningful taxonomy of metaphor.  Nonetheless, metaphors remain intrinsically interesting from a psychological standpoint and have considerable explanatory value, if only because they are suggestive (albeit not determinative) of a patient’s state of mind, and the strategies the patient deploys for being-in-the world.

I recently ran into two patients with interesting figurative and metaphorical tropes.  The first reported he felt as though he was enacting his life on a theatrical stage.  He was interacting fluidly with the other participants.  Simultaneously, though, he was a critic in the balcony, reviewing the action below.  He was the only one of the actors who knew they were in a dramatic production.  This created a condition of dissonance for him because he was unable to “act” in a “normal” fashion, that is, cope with reality as it presented itself.  As a result, he felt as though he was in a kind of characterological “bubble.”  He was pulsating with energy as the bubble transported itself temporally through his life.  But, he remained strangely insulated, unable to permeate this membrane and connect with genuine emotional experience.

The second reported she felt as though she was entwined around a tree.  She was rooted, connected to the earth – an organic force, far more powerful than herself.   Her arms and fingers were the branches and leaves, waving gently in the wind, almost as though she was dancing.  There was a nest in the tree, and her consciousness (my parsing of her words) was encapsulated in an egg in the nest.  A bird alit on the nest, which gave her a feeling of freedom she never had known before.

The big problem with theorists of metaphor is they try to generalize from specific instances to universal themes.  I make no claim for the quality or caliber of these metaphors, or their potentially broader applicability.  They simply are interesting and allusive.  From time to time I will post additional patient metaphors that strike me as particularly descriptive.