Knowing something about the basic functional architecture of the brain is helpful in understanding the organization of the mind and in understanding how we think and behave. But when we talk about the brain, it’s nearly impossible to do so without using conceptual metaphors (when we talk about most things, it’s impossible to do so without metaphors).
Conceptual metaphor theory is a broad theory of language and thinking from the extraordinary linguist George Lakoff. One of the basic ideas is that we think about things and organize the world into concepts in ways that correspond to how we talk about them. It’s not just that language directs thought (that’s Whorf’s idea), but that these two things are linked and our language also provides a window into how we think about things.
Probably the most common metaphor for the brain is the “brain is a computer” metaphor, but there are other, older ideas.
The hydraulic brain
One interesting metaphor for brain and mind is the hydraulic metaphor. This probably goes back at least to Descartes (and probably earlier), who advocated a model of neural function whereby basic functions were governed by a series of tubes carrying “spirits” or vital fluids. In Descartes model, higher order thinking was handled by a separate mind that was not quite in the body. You might laugh at the ideas of brain tubes, but this idea seems quite reasonable as a theory from an era when bodily fluids were the most obvious indicators of health, sickness, and simply being alive: blood, discharge, urine, pus, bile, and other fluids are all indicators of things either working well or not working well. And when they stop, you stop. In Descartes time, these were the primary ways to understand the human body. So in the absence of other information about how thoughts and cognition occur it makes sense that early philosophers and physiologists would make an initial guess that thoughts in the brain are also a function of fluids.
Metaphors for thinking
This idea, no longer endorsed, lives on in our language in the conceptual metaphors we use to talk about the brain and mind. We often talk about cognition and thinking as information “flowing” as in the same way that fluid might flow. We have common expressions in English like the “stream of consciousness” or “waves of anxiety”, “deep thinking”, “shallow thinking”, ideas that “come to the surface”, and memories that come “flooding back” when you encounter an old friend. These all have their roots (“roots” is another conceptual metaphor of a different kind!) in the older idea that thinking and brain function are controlled by the flow of fluids through the tubes in the brain.
In the modern era, it sis still common to discuss neural activation as a “flow of information”. We might say that information “flows downstream”, or that there is a “cascade” of neural activity. Of course we don’t really mean that neural activation and cognition are flowing like water, but like so many metaphors it’s just impossible to describe things without using these expressions and in doing so, activating the common, conceptual metaphor that thinking is a fluid process.
There are other metaphors as well (like the electricity metaphor, behaviours being “hard wired”, getting “wires crossed”, an idea that “lights up”) but I think the hydraulic metaphor is my favourite because it captures the idea that cognition is fluid. We can dip our toes in the stream or hold back floods. And as you can seen from earlier posts, I have something of a soft spot for river metaphors.