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This newsletter is the seventh in a series on complexity. Our informal
and formal educational systems, and our everyday life experiences, help
us learn to deal with the complexities of complexity.
Understanding and Mastering Complexity:
The Central Roles of the Varieties of Analogy
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
This is the first of three newsletters on the important roles
that analogy, caricature, humor itself, and analogical extensions play
in helping us to understand and then to master complexity.
Concepts are evolving fluid entities. Do those five words (each of
which is itself a concept) adequately explain what the entire set of
words conceptually means? Probably not.
Thought requires concepts, and analogies are perhaps the best way to
gradually understand a concept. Analogical thought identifies and uses
common elements between an understood concept and one that isn't yet
Thus, the analogy “a heart is like a pump” can help children understand
what a heart does to maintain blood circulation if they have seen and
understand what a pump does to regulate water circulation. Hearts and
pumps aren't the same thing conceptually, but they can be analogous to
each other. The human ability to understand, create, and communicate
analogies is perhaps our greatest cognitive property, since analogical
thought provided the basic creative spark that led to advances in
science/technology/the arts/religion/government/etc. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analogy.
Many children's stories/fables/parables/proverbs/myths/etc. are
analogous because children have to develop an understanding of many
complex and often moralistic concepts. Aesop was a Greek slave who
lived 2500 years ago (Aesop, BCE). One of Aesop's better-known fables
helps to explain a complex mental concept that Social Psychologist Leon
Festinger further explored 70 years ago via his cognitive dissonance
theory: the inner tension we feel when we're trying to reconcile two
conflicting cognitive thoughts. We normally resolve the conflict by
modifying one of the conflicting states and then creating a
justification for our subsequent behavior (Festinger, 1956).
Here's Aesop's much simpler analogical explanation of the implied
cognitive dissonance situation: A fox tried unsuccessfully to reach
some grapes. After failing and giving up, he said to himself that the
grapes were probably too sour to eat anyway.
The fable is often told to children as an introduction to the ways we
humans confront rejection, one way being to convince our self that we
didn't really want the sought for reward anyway. Rejection is an issue
we often confront in life when we don't get a toy we want, don't get
selected to be on a team, are rejected for a job, or don’t get a
promotion. The fable is so well known that most folks immediately
understand the analogy sour grapes as describing how we often
Other related well-known analogies can add to the subsequent
understanding. For example, the optimistic there's a silver lining,
count your blessings, or that's the breaks layer on other analogies
that can amplify sour grapes. Actually, much of our common discourse
involves strung together sequences of analogies that we automatically
connect to basic concepts towards understanding even more complex
related concepts. Our brain thus converts folk knowledge into complex
Douglas Hofstadter and Emanuel Sander have written a sprawling
book on analogies, Surfaces and
Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking (2013). It
certainly covers everything anyone could possibly want to know about
analogies. The almost 600-page book can have a wonderful appeal for
those who professionally teach, speak, or write. The authors' extended
explanations of analogies and related concepts continually sparked
further thoughts in my mind.
Another, and more accessible, book that makes heavy use of analogy is
Thomas Armstrong's, The Human
Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life (2007). In
explaining the complexities of life's various stages, Armstrong draws
on many wide-ranging analogies that explain the complexities of the
life stages that readers have yet to experience, or early life
experiences they may have forgotten.
I've probably gotten to my final life stage, and can report that
Armstrong's analogies seem well drawn to me. For example, many world
myths involve infants sent down a river to be reared by others, and
Armstrong writes of the post-conception fertilized egg that travels
down the Fallopian and vaginal tubes towards the complex ocean of life.
The Cultural Need for Analogies
Analogies seem to automatically connect to concepts a person already
understands, and this capability is very important for children who
currently understand a limited number of basic concepts but need to
amass many thousands more, and still lack the cognitive skills to
logically make connections. Try it: What visual thoughts automatically
come to your mind when someone tells you about a computer addict who
tried to get rid of a fly that landed on his screen by clicking on it
and dragging it off?
Aesop lived during the BCE years, when analogy was almost the only way
to adequately explain the natural world. So fables, parables, myths,
and scriptures explained nature and its human response for many
millennia. During the past few hundred years, scientific and
technological advances have moved us towards a deeper understanding of
complex physical and biological concepts. The analogies had suggested
an approach for more careful, scientific exploration of the phenomenon.
Many folks are uncomfortable with the developing scientific concepts.
They still prefer the scriptural and mythic analogical explanations
that they grew up with. I guess it's OK because without these historic
lead-up analogies we humans probably wouldn't have used our imagination
to develop the scientific and technological advances that can get us
Mind and brain provide good examples. Mind arrived first, a disembodied
analogy to explain rational thought. During the past century brain
increasingly became the conceptual reality of what folks formerly
thought the analogical mind is supposed to do. Cognitive neuroscience
is now progressing so rapidly that mental analogies that seemed beyond
scientific analysis are now being scientifically explained with
increasing credibility as brain phenomena.
Consciousness and morality are good examples. Scientists search for the
brain equivalents of what had been a mental (philosophic and
theological) phenomenon for millennia. It's simply amazing what
scientists have learned about the underlying biology of consciousness
and morality during the last 30 years (Sylwester, 2013).
Mind and brain (like heart and pump) aren't necessarily the same
phenomenon, although some influential folks still think they are.
Quoting from Brooks (2013):
An important task these days is to harvest the
exciting gains made by science and data while understanding the limits
of science and data. The next time somebody tells you what a brain scan
says, be a little skeptical. The brain is not the mind.
This doesn't suggest that mind is a negative construct, but rather that
the scientific community now celebrates it as a necessary analogical
phenomenon to “prime the pump” (analogy alert) towards the imaginative
scientific search for the real concept of what a brain actually does.
Further, those who think that machine consciousness is a probability
are pushing towards an extended expansion of the concept of brain.
Perhaps some phenomena exist (such as beauty, love, and god) that are
genuinely beyond scientific exploration and can thus exist only as
analogy. The issue is whether that would be because they are actually
beyond scientific exploration or because of the way we've historically
I think it's the latter. The powerful defining human verbal analogies
go back well before science, and as suggested earlier much of the arts
is analogical. The scriptural parables and mythic fables thus sparked
artistic analogical representations, and science eventually emerged
from them. As suggested above, some religious folks are so caught up on
the conceptual reality of their analogies that they're willing to wait
for a celestial afterlife to get to the real concepts. In the meantime,
they often decry the wonderful scientific discoveries that emerged from
their own analogies—discoveries that are already moving them in the
direction towards conceptual understanding.
Given the complexity of contemporary human life, it's important that
educators explain the varieties of analogy and the role that they play
in helping our society move from "it's kind of like this" thinking to a
clearer understanding of conceptual reality.
From Analogy to Concept to Intelligence
What is intelligence? Is it the number of concepts we know and can use?
Hofstadter and Sander (2013) suggest (seemingly with tongue firmly in
cheek) that most of the many theories of intelligence:
…hover near it but fail to pinpoint the core of
don't get near the heart of the matter, let alone hit the nail on the
head. Never quite managing to put their finger on its essence, they
merely skirt the crux, flirt with the nub, and miss the gist, curiously
unable to zero in on the kernel of the phenomenon of intelligence.
Intelligence is rather the art of rapid and reliable gist-finding,
crux-spotting, bulls eye-hitting, nub-striking, essence-pinpointing. It
is the art of, when one is facing a new situation, to swiftly and
surely home in on an insightful precedent (or family of precedents
stored in one's memory). That, no more and no less, is what it means to
isolate the crux of a new situation. And this is nothing but the
ability to find close analogies, which is to say, the ability to come
up with and use strong and useful analogies.
So that's what intelligence is. Either that or else something like it.
Hofstadter, D., and Sander, E. (2013) Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. New York: Basic Books.
Sylwester, R. (2013). Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments. Eugene, Oregon: Information Age Education. Retrieved 9/12/2013 from http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Newsletter.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the
University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter.
His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit three books for IAE. See http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Newsletter. He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information: email@example.com.
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