- Metaphors are an integral and ancient part of human systems of communication.
- Metaphors stimulate both cognitive and emotional centers of the human brain in unique ways.
- Nature metaphors can help people absorb climate change information in a more emotionally connected way.
This post was written by Beth Mark, M.D., and the Climate Committee at the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry.
Metaphors have a special place in language. They get into one’s feelings and associations faster and deeper than other linguistic forms. It is now known they even have unique neurobiology in the brain, traveling in different channels of cognitive and emotional processing. It turns out metaphor represents a biological property, a capacity of minds that allows one, possibly through mirror neurons, to soak up relationships between oneself and the outside world.
Consider the following example:
“He’s gonna blow!” This warning was sounded by a 7-year-old guest at a flag football birthday party. After a controversial call, all the kids scattered away from one of their peers as if they had only seconds to escape a smoking volcano.
Their classmate (the designated volcano) stood red-faced, flailing his arms and screaming his objections to the call. However, that warning, coded in the metaphor of a volcano, effectively communicated complex information to a group of first graders. There was no need for sophisticated words like “temperament” or “emotional dysregulation.” In just three words, the metaphor captured the feeling, conveyed the danger, and motivated everyone to take appropriate action.
After the game was over, a parent who had been observing from the sidelines asked their first-grade son about the moment. The son shrugged and then said matter-of-factly, “He gets really angry about stuff like that.”
Human children can mirror volcanos. Prehistoric hominids likely made these associations unconsciously, long before they had language to describe them. However, language has likely co-opted this cognitive process as cognition and language have co-evolved.
Humans take to metaphors like fish to water—pun intended.
Human thinking, attitudes, and behavior are so structured by metaphor that the average individual may use six of them per minute. Like the proverbial fish that does not recognize it is in water, most people don’t recognize what they think and say is continuously created and imbibed from the metaphorical environment in which they live. Within minutes, one can shift from using metaphor to convey feelings (at rock bottom or over the moon) to describing tasks at work (a thorny problem versus a walk in the park).
Metaphors are also frequently called upon to explain abstract and intangible concepts. Scientists use metaphors routinely to understand and communicate scientific phenomena—from the origins of the universe (Big Bang theory—but not the TV show) to the science of climate change (greenhouse effect).
While metaphors can convey a snapshot of the science in scientific communication, they are not yet used as intentionally to relay and explore the feelings (ranging from anxiety to despair) that may be evoked by the information as they could be. This is a missed opportunity. Metaphors help people better identify and appreciate both others’ and their own overwhelming feelings, and they can also affect how people gather information to solve important social problems.
Consider, for example, climate change and the accelerating pace of global warming reported by the scientific community. If one allows oneself to fully step into the riptide of grim information and predictions about climate change’s effects, it can be hard not to panic. One might find oneself frantically trying to swim against this tide of data, looking for a way out of a whirlpool of worry.
Can metaphors help contain and provide emotional support as a person grapples psychologically with both the concept of climate change as well as its impacts? Can they help capture a facet of where human beings are at as a species on the planet at this time and better intuit the inevitable transitions to come? Can metaphors help connect people more deeply to their responses to this crisis? There is literature to suggest that they can.
The metaphor of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly
Think of the soft caterpillar spinning itself a chrysalis, encasing itself in a hard, protected case. That period of quiet encasement is a time of profound change. To become the butterfly, the caterpillar must literally destroy itself, dissolving in an act of self-annihilation into a liquid substance. Paradoxically, this destructive enzymatic dissolution is the same process that turns on the genetic messaging to rebuild, developing the chrysalis into a butterfly.
Here is one useful metaphor for the radical transformations necessary to confront the climate crisis. It is necessary for human beings to tolerate a state of disorganization, of terror, during the ongoing climate crisis—just as the caterpillar instinctively senses and allows the chrysalis to hold the state of disorganization, of self-dissolution so that it can transform into something better suited to its environment and future well-being.
Just as the caterpillar instinctually enters the chrysalis phase despite imminent risks, regardless of how radically different the future may be from the present it knows, humanity must similarly learn to tolerate dramatic personal and societal changes demanded by climate change to emerge stronger and better adapted to the natural world.
The metaphor of the tidal pool
A tidal pool is a rare and unique place—both ocean and land—a place where conditions are constantly changing. As the tide goes out, the plants and animals living in the pool endure long periods exposed to sun and shore birds. As the tide comes in, crashing waves pound the pool, threatening to dislodge and destroy the tiny ecosystem.
The one constant in tidal pool living is that there are no real constants—there are times of calm and creature comforts interspersed with times of danger and challenge. To live in a tidal pool means vulnerability is the norm, and the instinct and ability to adapt to a changing environment are essential.
Human beings are currently living in a metaphorical tidal pool. Like a starfish clinging to rocks in a tidal pool, humans cling to their carbon-intensive lives with their comforts and pleasures, despite the ever more frequent crashes of disorientation and danger from natural disasters. The metaphor of the tidal pool viscerally captures the current existence consisting of waves of danger and vulnerability alongside periods of pleasure, comfort, and calm and illustrates how one might cope with this tumult.
Riding the Wave
The metaphor of “riding the wave,” a fundamental concept of Dialectic Behavioral Therapy, is a useful image to hold onto when trying to fully engage in the science and feelings about climate change.
Just as a surfer learns to read the natural motions and changes in a wave in order to stay balanced and move ahead, one can ride the wave of powerful surges of climate emotions, acknowledging them with interest and without judgment. Using this metaphor, one can imagine how to allow and let go of the strong feelings that come up when considering climate change, accepting one’s limited role in a huge natural system, and the constant ebb and flow of positive and negative states as one rides the current into the future.
Unfortunately, there are no “rules” about how to live with the feelings evoked in a time of climate change that are as established and agreed upon as the rules for flag football. Yet, just as those first graders instinctively and naturally looked to metaphor to capture the feelings, the dangers, and the action needed for the good of both individuals and the group, adults can rely similarly on metaphor.
Metaphor, a uniquely human way of thinking and feeling, is a more potent way to grasp the challenges faced during this time of changing climate and systems rather than solely dealing with this crisis in dry facts and abstractions.
Metaphors can be grounding, embodying, less intellectualized, and put our minds in closer touch with the natural world in need of repair. As in the example of “He’s gonna blow,” metaphors are a feature of human communication that can help us capture, process, and cope with a range of climate emotions, productively convey the dangers to others, and dive into meaningful actions as individuals and as communities.
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Cerulo, K. A., Leschziner, V., & Shepherd, H. (2021). Rethinking culture and cognition. Annual Review of Sociology, 47, 63-85.
Bowes, A., Katz, A. Metaphor creates intimacy and temporarily enhances theory of mind. Mem Cogn 43, 953–963 (2015). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-015-0508-4