Use of metaphors LO5631

Dave Birren, MB-5, 608-267-2442 (
Wed, 14 Feb 1996 23:45 CST

Replying to Gray Southon in Use of metaphors LO5602:

Gray sez:

>Why use metaphors when you can use reality?
>Trust is a reality in life - we cannot live without it. WE could not
>interact with anything without an element of trust.
>Rather than confusing things with metaphors, why not consider the role trust
>does play, and how it can be more effectively used?

I could wax long, if not eloquent, on this point. But I'll offer just a
couple of points to indicate the extreme importance of using metaphors for
communication and learning.

1. I've been criticized for years for my extensive use of metaphors, but
the simple fact is that I don't think linearly; I think symbolically, and
my preferred mode of understanding and learning is the metaphor. I can
learn through someone else's description of reality as they perceive it,
but it comes out black-and-white for me; there's much more color and depth
and meaning if I can relate it to what I already know, using my own
symbols. As Paul Simon might have said, "Mama, don't take my metaphors

2. There are as many realities as there are the number things to perceive
times the number of people to perceive them. I can't calculate that, but
I think it's a lot. It's hopeless to expect others to understand us
unless we recognize that we all speak slightly different languages. So
it's important to use terms and symbols and idioms that connect with what
others already think they know.

3. People are creative; we combine thoughts and ideas and experiences and
symbols in new ways all the time, and it just isn't a linear, b&w process.
It's intuitive, and that's the domain of the metaphor.

OK, I said I'd be brief and that's it. The implications for learning are
obvious so I'll sign off. It's late, and I'm about ready for some really
creative unconscious unconscious metaphoring.


David E. Birren                          Phone:   (608)267-2442
Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources     Fax:     (608)267-3579
Bureau of Management & Budget            E-mail:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. (from T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding")

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