Some of our analogies about thinking and consciousness historically tend to mimic the contemporary technologies of their times. For instance, mechanical automatons were popular in the seventeenth century. The mechanical or clockwork devices performed lifelike tasks for entertainment. Rudimentary manufacturing tools operated in much the same automatic manner.
The apt metaphor was coined because many people and animals unconsciously perform rote activities. For instance, a farmer guides his oxen over the area of his field to plow rows for planting crops. After awhile the farmer and the oxen plod along without thinking. Their bodies go through the motions without any need to analyze nor to be very aware of what they are doing. This is still relevant to people who toil away on factory assembly lines. Tasks we claim we could “do in our sleep” fall into this category.
During much of the 20th century, memory and recall used to frequently be compared to tape recorders. As in when we witness an event then it is filed away on a mental “tape”. To recall or to remember the event, we “rewind” the mental “tape” to play it back. When we want to tell about the result of the event further along the timeline, we use the phrase “fast-forward”.
The fast-forward phrase remained in the lexicon even after the introduction of video tape, compact discs, and DVDs. When some people talk about their personal lives, the fast-forward phrase is sometimes used when they describe a series of events. For instance, “I fell onto the sidewalk and broke a leg. Fast-forward to a week later and I met an old friend in the clinic’s waiting room who also broke her leg.”
One of the most popular metaphors links mental analysis with mechanical gears. Such as when a person is concentrating on figuring out the solution to a mental puzzle, we say his gears are turning. On another level, if we wish to understand a concept from a different point of view or paradigm, we shift our mental gears. The question remains, does this refer to an automatic transmission or a stick-shift with a clutch? If we’re having difficulty coming up with an answer, then we’re stuck. This describes a mechanical machine that is not an automaton.
In the 21st century, a favored brainiac analogy is to compare the brain to a digital computer, when thinking through a problem logically. Critical thinking requires the sophisticated mental “software” of the mind. If our thoughts wander into unreality, we have the architectural analogy of “castles in the sky”. We might refer to the culinary delight of “pie in the sky”.
Isn’t it interesting how our brains have evolved the ability to create mental stories that use emotion and analogy that are “transmitted” through the technology of spoken and written language? Through trial and error, our species has learned that effective thinking requires both the logical thinking of reason, and the emotional thinking of analogy and metaphor.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders something from Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer, Ken Liu. “The way a story makes an argument is quite different from the way a persuasive essay does it. Emotional truth and the logic of metaphors dominate.”