Metaphors, similes and analogies are all ways to help us understand complex ideas by comparing them to something simpler. Some brain studies suggest that metaphors may be the human link between sensory experiences and abstract concepts. For example, in an online neuroscience course, the instructor uses metaphor liberally to explain abstract concepts. She compares the “resting potential” to the “action potential” of a neuron by saying that electricity is like water. If the water is on a flat surface, all is quiet and does not move. (“This is like the resting potential.”)The “action potential,” however, is like a waterfall that acts on the water and causes it to move. The higher the waterfall, the higher the “current.” The metaphor makes a complex and abstract idea easier to understand.
In addition, not all metaphors need to be verbal. For example, physicist Heisenberg has revealed the unexpected math behind Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night,” which explains the concept of “turbulence” even better than current science can do so.
Some innovators have used metaphorical connections to create new and improved products. For example, the scientists at MIT Media Lab wanted to create a programming language that even a nine- year-old could learn to use. Perhaps because of their long association with Lego, (and history with Seymour Papert), they created, Scratch, which uses Lego-like units to build and coordinate logical sequences into programs. Legos are very concrete and available to the senses: smooth, rectangular blocks that snap together. Programming languages use numbers and symbols in sophisticated ways to create interactive games and other products. Scratch bridged the two worlds and translated units of programming language into simple blocks that could be snapped together on a computer screen.
These new findings imply that an in-depth focus on sensory experiences can have great benefits for developing quite abstract concepts and even simplifying complex processes—allowing learners to truly “grasp” these ideas; that is, develop deep understanding.
Here’s a game to help young people begin to play with similes, a kind of metaphor:
Choose one selection from each group below and combine to make a mixed-up simile. Do so randomly to make it more interesting! Then draw an illustration or write a poem, song or story to go with your simile. Add your own ideas to each group and try the activity again.
|What to Describe||Comparison Words||The Descriptive Word|
|A friend is as
A voice is as
My pet is as
My favorite celebrity is as
My imagination is as
Love is as
A promise is as
Independence is as
|big as a
little as a
quiet as a
noisy as a
fast as a
bold as a
strange as a
cute as a
__________________ is as ____________ as a ____________ .