The Frontal Cortex

Brain Metaphors

Over at BLDGBLOG, Geoffrey makes an astute observation about how the latest consumer technologies have a way of becoming metaphors for the mind. Before the brain was a binary code running on three pounds of cellular microchips, it was an impressive calculator, or a camera, or a blank slate. In other words, we’re constantly superimposing the gadgets of the day onto the cortex. Geoffrey notes that a recent article featured on the BBC on fMRI scans of taxicab drivers (“Taxi drivers have brain sat-nav”) is very similar to an earlier study, except that the most recent article used satellite navigation as a metaphor for the spatial memories storied in the hippocampus:

It’s interesting to note, meanwhile, that this appears to be an almost complete retread of news released more than eight years ago. There we learn not only that “the hippocampus is at the front of the brain,” but that it “was examined in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans on 16 London cabbies.”

Cabbies’ brains, that article reports, “‘grow’ on the job.” However, it’s also interesting to speculate here that “sat-nav” was not referred to by that earlier article because certain technologies – such as dashboard navigation and handheld GPS – simply had not yet reached an adequate price-point, or the required level of social acceptance, for “sat-nav” to be useful to that writer as a metaphor. If this were true, then perhaps you could track the infiltration of GPS and sat-nav technologies into the fabric of everyday life by the speed with which they have become recognizable as urban-spatial metaphors.

Thanks for the tip Phil!


  1. #1 Ren Galskap
    September 23, 2008

    I have a friend whose wife was studying neurophilosophy about ten years ago. This phenomenon of recent technology becoming a metaphor for the mind was one of the things she studied. When telegraphs were the hot new technology making the world flatter, telegraph networks became a metaphor for the mind. One of the things my friend’s wife pointed out was all of these technologies make very poor models of the mind. As a computer programmer, I’ve always used the computer as a model for the mind. I don’t know whether that’s just more crude pattern recognition or a deep seated cognitive bias. :)

  2. #2 Patrick Byers
    September 24, 2008

    I don’t think it’s any coincidence that we continue to make these connections. The inventions that we are comparing to our brain all have functions which are extensions of what our brain does. In many cases, it could even be said that things have been invented to take the load off of our brains or to overcome its inherent limitations: For example, cameras are extensions of our own eyes which allow us to see things from great spatial and temporal distances.
    These things may be seen as poor models for the mind, but I think that this is looking at the problem from the wrong angle. Our brains are not so much like these things as they are like certain parts of our brains.

  3. #3 Tyler
    September 26, 2008

    Ren, considering mind metaphors rather than just brain metaphors, the same goes a lot further back than even telegraphs. A lot of Ancient Greek works referenced stage puppets (neurospasta) as metaphors.

    Of course, one thing in general with mind metaphors is that the analogies also get more complex as the potential sources of analogies do as well. First we have strings on puppets, then messengers (telegraph networks) to explain the strings; lenses became a vision analogy before full cameras were adopted as analogy.

    As far as the bias toward computer analogies, it seems to hold more meaning inasmuch as we’ve got an analogy that runs down to base logical systems. We’ve made an artifact capable of pure symbol manipulation, not unlike tokening hypotheses. The problem now is to describe exactly how that occurs and translates.

  4. #4 jb
    October 4, 2008

    One of the earliest metaphor for mind from India and the Buddhist tradition is that of an elephant, since this was the most powerful, intelligent, and caring animal known. There is a traditional painting/teaching on the nine stages of calm-abiding or shamatha that starts with a monk running after a wild elephant who is following after the monkey of distraction and monkey’s attraction to sense objects. The ninth stage shows the monk able to control the elephant effortlessly with no harness at all. The training is done with a rope and elephant goad which symbolize bringing the mind back to an object of meditation and alertness that detects straying. (Not unlike how elephants in zoos are trained with operant condtioning). This trained and relaxed mind is the prerequisite for insight meditation through which one attains full enlightenment.

  5. #5 jb
    October 8, 2008

    Addendum to the elephant model of the mind. Go to’s Incubator and see “No Longer A Mind Of Our Own” for the uncanny overlap of the human and elephant mind.