Information Age Education
   Issue Number 121
September, 2013   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, three free books based on the newsletters are available: Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments, Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education, and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

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

Robert Sylwester
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 understood.

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

Sour Grapes

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 rationalize rejection.

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 cognitive concepts.

Analogical Books

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 beyond them.

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 defined them.

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? Not really.

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 intelligence; they 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.


Aesop (620-560 BCE). Retrieved 9/12/2013 from's_Fables.

Armstrong, T. (2007). The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life. New York: Sterling.

Brooks, D. (June 18, 2013). Beyond the Brain. The New York Times. Retrieved 9/12/2013 from

Festinger, L. (1956). Retrieved 9/12/2013 from

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

Robert Sylwester

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 He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information:

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