08 January 2016

Image Schemas, Metaphor, and Thought.

Along The Yellow Brick Road
My understanding of myself and the world is quite strongly influenced by the writings of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. These two scholars are at the forefront of the idea of embodied cognition and between them have developed some of the basic terminology. In particular Mark Johnson explored some of the theoretical nuts and bolts of how we understand our world. The idea is that we structure our experience via what he calls the image schema. These can be represented by diagrams or content rich images or even propositional statements, but in practice they are more primitive than any of these. Schemas drawn from experience that can apply to other domains, particularly abstract domains, form the basis of metaphor.

In this essay I will outline three image schemas: path, link, and cycle, drawing primarily on a section in Mark Johnson (1987: 112-121). While there are many schemas and each of them might require a book in their own right to fully explore them, I found Johnson's outlines evocative and thought provoking. Using the path schema I will try to give a brief overview of the idea of image schemas and then add notes on link and cycle schemas, trying to show why this way of thinking is relevant to understanding thought itself. 


Some of the key early experiences we have as infants involve gaining control of our body. Moving our hands to where our eyes are looking, and moving our body from place to place for example. The path schema emerges from these kinds of experiences. Our body is in one place and we want to move it to another place. As we go from our starting point to our end point we traverse all the points in between, which form a path. Before we move we can project the path in imagination. If I plan to go down to the kitchen from my writing desk, there is a virtual path in my mind, based on my internal map of the house. Incidentally we now know these internal maps are stored in hexagonal arrays of neurons in the brain, called "grid cells". We literally locate ourselves on this internal map when we think about our location. The discovery earned the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Even more interesting is that in 2015 we discovered that the timing of when the grid cells are active also locates us in time (Kraus et al 2015).

Since we often travel with a purpose in mind, we experience paths as directional, though of course a path usually goes both ways (except in Ikea). This gives us the bare bones structure of the path schema. It consists of
  • A starting point or source and,
  • An end point of goal,
  • connected by contiguous intermediate points.
This kind of structure, which is well defined and yet simple, is a feature of image schemas. Each is well demarcated in this way. They must also be pervasive in experience and for that reason widely understood. The ubiquity of schemas is what underpins our effortless use of metaphors, and also our ability to understand the metaphors of a long dead language like Pāḷi. 

The path schema is important for how we understand time in the English speaking world. We experience time as a path with the past as source and the future as goal. We are traversing the intermediate points. We don't know the future yet because we haven't arrived there. We look back to the past. However, in some cultures time is experienced as though we are standing in a river looking downstream - i.e. we are standing still and it is the path that moves. The past is downstream, in front of us and moving away; we can see it because it has happened. The future is upstream, behind us moving towards us, we cannot see it because it has not happened yet. These are both valid ways of describing the experience of being in time. 

Central to the experience of time is entropy. The universe because less ordered over time and we intuitively understand this because experience of non-living objects tends to confirm it. If a cup falls and smashes we go from more ordered to less ordered. Living beings use energy to hold themselves in an highly ordered state while alive and then rapidly become more disordered at death. We have internalised this law of physics before we can speak. If we see the film of this event backwards it is immediately apparent that it is backwards. Time is a path from more order to less order. Theoretical time travel notwithstanding, this is how we experience it. 

A key observation from the above examples of experiences of paths is that the desire to be in a particular location is the purpose for following a path. And on arriving we feel our purpose for following the path has been achieved. Thus there is an identity between our starting point and the state of desire; and also between our final location and satisfied purpose. This relationship is not itself metaphorical. It is simply that the path schema fits both situations. And this gives rise to the possibility of metaphorical mappings. For example we can state the metaphor: PURPOSES ARE PHYSICAL GOALS. So we say of a successful actor that "they have arrived". We can also arrive at a conclusion, or follow a path to enlightenment. Because the path schema applies in both domains, we can use the language of one to describe the experience of the other. 

This metaphor is very important in Buddhism. For example, we talk about the "path to purity" (visuddhimagga) or the "Noble Eightfold Path" (āryāṣṭāṅgamārga). We use these kinds of metaphors from Iron Age India without any need to stop and decode the idea of a path to an abstract quality like "purity" or "awakening". We can do so because image schemas underpin how we structure experience independent of culture and language. This is why these metaphors transfer effortlessly from the dead languages of Iron Age to living languages. This is a good demonstration of just how important images schemas are. There are, of course, some Pāḷi or Sanskrit metaphors that we do not get or some that we use that ancient Indians might not have understood. For example, in July 2012, I discussed the MIND IS A CONTAINER metaphor that is so vital to how we understand psychology in the present and tried to show that it is absent from Pāḷi literature. This difference affects our ability to translate between the two times.

These metaphorical mappings are not arbitrary, but are constrained by the structure of the schemas we use and by the applicability of the schema to the domain. Another common use of the path schema in Buddhist thought is paying homage to the three jewels. We bow, or make the añjali gesture, towards a shrine, stūpa, or buddharūpa and metaphorically something traverses the path from us to the image. Our transmission of homage, or worship, or however we conceive of what we are offering, goes from us (starting point) to the shrine (end point) traversing all the contiguous points in-between. This helps us feel connected to the three jewels, though here we are also invoking the link schema which I will come to shortly.

Another important application of the path schema is for arguments. As Michael Palin said "An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definitite proposition." (Argument Sketch) Again the path schema fits. We have a start point (proposition not established, ignorance); an end point (proposition established, knowledge); and a contiguous series of connecting points (statements that are logically connected). And this enables us to use the important metaphor for discourse: AN ARGUMENT IS A JOURNEY. When making an argument we lay out our reasoning, one step at a time, trying to avoid being side-tracked, and arrive at a conclusion. The latter in Pāḷi is niṭṭhaṃ gacchati "arrive at a conclusion". Because an argument can be understood in terms of the path schema we can use the language of a journey following a path to talk about it. And because the path schema is ubiquitous and widely understood we don't have to explain our metaphor - it is immediately apparent to any English speaker, or Pāḷi speaker for that matter.

This overview of the path schema gives an idea of the basic features of any schema and how they underpin metaphors and other kinds of cognitive processes.

Link Schema

Like the path schema the link schema emerges from experience. The link schema is formed by our own relationships and the integrity of our body. When we grip an object in our hand we form a link between us and the object. A common action is that of binding two objects together. The schema here is precisely this: two or more objects, concrete or abstract, that are in contact within our experiential field. The most basic form of contact is physical adjacency, but we can also apply the schema to notional or abstract adjacency such as contiguous moments in time, or objects with shared characteristics. The caveat of "within our experiential field" is important in deciding what is intuitive and what is not. If the connection is not visible, or we should say sensible, to us then the possibility of linkage intuitively seems remote.

As social animals physically connecting with our social group is typically quite important even if it is formalised almost to the point of abstraction, as in a handshake. At the very least proximity to our social groups alone produces a sense of well-being. As infants we feel a sense of both physical and emotional connection to parents and other family members or carers. Separate an infant of any social animal (though perhaps not insects) from its mother and it feels a powerful anxiety. We come to see ourselves as bonded to members of our family and our circle of friends. We physically express our connection through hugs, kisses, touching, hold hands, and having sex, all of which also shape our experience of connection. As we grow older shared experiences form connections between unrelated individuals. A shared ordeal, such as a disaster, or a initiation ceremony, can create a life-long bond. The human experience is one in which we perceive ourselves as being at the centre of a web of an interwoven complex of concrete and abstract linkage: physical, spatial, abstract, notional, temporal. Everywhere we look we see and experience connections.

All of these metaphors for human connection—e.g. being BONDED by genetics or shared experience—are possible because the link schema applies in many domains and allows us to use the language of physical bonds metaphorically.

Ariel Glucklich has argued that a pervasive sense of interconnectedness is important for human beings. He sees it as the heart of the magical healing art of tantric wizards in Benares. In a passage I have cited many times, for example in Mantra, Magic, and Interconnectedness (27 June 2008), in which he says:
Magic is based on a unique type of consciousness: the awareness of the interrelatedness of all things in the world by means of simple but refined sense perception... magical actions... constitute a direct, ritual way of restoring the experience of relatedness in cases where that experience has been broken by disease, drought, war, or any number of other events. (1997: 12)
We may also experience events as linked or contiguous in time. And this allows us to perceive temporally linked events as having a causal relationship. We experience memories as providing links between temporal events. Thus the link schema is very important in the concept of causality. As David Hume discovered, we never see an even which could be called "causality". We see a sequence of events and project the idea of causality onto those events. Although we don't see causality, we do experience it. The idea of causality emerges from our experience of gaining control of our eyes and beginning to direct our gaze; from gaining control of our limbs and directing., e.g. where they reach and what they grasp; and from experience our will as setting us in motion towards all kinds of goals. In other words we begin to experience ourselves as agents of cause and generalise from this experience that all events have causes.

The coherence of connections between sequences of events underlies the idea of the arrow of time. If we show a movie backwards it is immediately apparent that events are proceeding in the wrong temporal direction. A backwards sequence is not coherent with our expectations of how the world works based on experience. Non-living objects do not fly up into the air, for example, without the application of some force. The force itself ought to leave some sense impression that accompanies the action. So a broken cup does not fly back to the table and reassemble itself. Experientially this never happens. Our sense of what is coherent derives from everyday experience from the moment our minds start processing sense data (probably in the womb).

The link schema also places limits on what seems intuitive. For example in the phenomenon of quantum entanglement there appears to be actions that are related in time (i.e. that happen simultaneously) and causally (observing the quantum state of one of a pair of entangled particles causes the second to adopt a quantum state determined by the first), but which can be separated by arbitrarily large distances in space. The counter-intuitive nature of this proposition was summed up by Einstein's quip that it amounted to "spooky action at a distance". Unfortunately we seem to be stuck with spooky action at a distance at the nano-scale, despite the fact it is powerfully counter-intuitive.

More apposite to Buddhist readers I have pointed out that the Doctrine of Karma requires action at a temporal distance, i.e. events that are causally linked but separated in time, often by many years or even lifetimes. This situation is disallowed by the Doctrine of Pratītyasamutpāda or Dependent Arising and it counter-intuitive compared to experiences of causality and time. Around the time that the Abhidharma was being codified, a number of solutions to this problem were proposed including the Sarva-asti doctrine which argues that dharmas must always be existent and only sometimes active, and the Doctrine of Momentariness which argued the opposite, that dharmas are only briefly existent, but always active. Of course "existent" (astitā) as it was used by the ancient Indians doesn't apply since it always implies permanence, but neither does non-existence (nāstitā) since this would preclude us actually having experiences. It was Momentariness that won the argument in Buddhism, but I've also showed that it fails to account for the phenomenon that it purports to explain (see The Logic of Karma).

Pre-Classical Buddhist texts largely eschew the language of causation, even though this is emphasised in the received tradition. In fact the Buddhist texts propose another kind of link, one which is based on presence rather than sequence. The key word is paṭicca  (Skt pratītya), the etymology of which is "going (√i) back to (prati)" and we can read as "based on" or "dependent on". The doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda is not a doctrine of causality at all but one in which arising is dependent on coexistence (sam-utpāda). The most apposite analogy for this is the requirement for foundations to support a wall, or walls to support the roof of a house. The foundations must exist before the walls can be erected, so we can can say that the foundations are a necessary condition for walls of the house, but the foundations do not cause the walls to go up. And this is the nature of conditionality also. 

Two kinds of abstract links are also very common. The first is shared characteristics, i.e. perceived links between objects of perception that have characteristics in common. Such links between perceived objects are what enable us to categorise perceptions and structure them into a comprehensible world. The subject of categorisation is covered in great depth in Lakoff (1987). Lakoff describes a philosophy of categorisation that draws on Wittgenstein's "family resemblances" amongst other sources. A category has a prototype, an image of the ideal member of the category defined by our experience of interacting with the world, and membership of the category is greater or less depending on the number of shared characteristics the object of perception shares.

The second is functional links. A functional link exists between objects or processes that are otherwise (potentially) unrelated if they work together to achieve a common goal. Level and fulcrum or wheel and axle do not fit into similar categories, but work together to form a useful mechanism.

Combinations of the link and path schemas are the basis of formal logic. A logical syllogism is a path in which propositions are linked by particular kinds of relations. Schemas emerge from experience thus even logic, usually thought of as a purely abstract process, is fundamentally embodied. Without the the experience of embodiment the structuring concepts used in logic would not make sense to us. Indeed, as Lakoff and Johnson (2003) repeatedly emphasise, virtually all abstract thought involves metaphors for which the source domain is our physical experience of the world, and the rationale for mapping one domain onto another rests in the applicability of image schemas that emerge from and structure experience. If we add the observations of Mercier & Sperber about the nature of reasoning then we see that Classical accounts of it were fundamentally and profoundly wrong. Making sense of experience is possible only when we consider the mind as embodied and how that embodiment contributes to the schemas that we use to make sense of the world.

The link schema really is pervasive and at the heart of how we orient ourselves in space and time, and how we perceive ourselves more generally. As social animals, connections define us. The link schema structures our perceptions of connections, shared features, and functional unities. It also enables us to make sense of notional connections such as causality or logical connectedness; making possible the notion of actions having consequences for example. The link schema also underlies our use of metaphor itself since in order to use metaphors we must understand the source domain and the target domain as having shared features which are isomorphic with the schema.


The final schema I want to explore in this essay is the cycle. The cycle schema is another pervasive aspect of experience. We experience many natural cycles such as the annual cycle with its seasons; the phases of the moon and with them the tides and also the menstrual cycle which seems to be related to the lunar cycle; the diurnal cycle; our heartbeat, breathing, and digestion. Cycles of emotional arousal (mediated by the sympathetic nervous system) and recovery. We also experience conventional cycles such as weeks and weekends, months, terms, semesters, meal times, the working or school day, and holidays. Conventional cycles can overlay natural cycles.

Cycles as schema can be represented as a circle, though this can be misleading. A circle is an image, with more content than a schema. In fact again we see that the cycle is related to both the link and path schemas. The cycle schema is a path, or a series of contiguous links, in which the beginning and end-points are contiguous. The simplest form of this is a closed loop, of which the circle is an ideal. The journey around the loop is typically in one direction, one must go forward to return to the point of origin.

However, we also experience cycles as having a climatic quality. We think of the annual cycle for example as having a nadir in winter to which we descend through autumn (or fall), and a zenith in summer to which we ascend through spring. In this case the simple circle doesn't suffice and we can instead imagine a sin wave. 

Relation between circle and sin wave
The animated image on the right shows the relationship between these two. In this climatic version of the schema we often think of the cycle as having distinct phases. Researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson described a cycle of human sexual response in terms of arousal, plateau, climax, and resolution. To some extent we can link this to the cycle of anticipation, seeking, reward, and satiation typically thought to underlie our responses to pleasurable sensations of all kinds. In this case we do have evidence from physiology that this experience is embodied in the form of the  different hormones and neurotransmitters that characterise the different phases of the reward system.

Mark Johnson insists that this climatic structure is not inherent to natural cycles like the annual cycle, that we project zenith and nadir onto the year (usually coinciding with mid-summer and mid-winter). I'm not so sure about this. Other cycles are built into this annual cycle which seem to me to undermine this claim. For example the length of the day and the average temperature also fluctuate cyclically because of the physics of the solar system. We're naturally more active in summer than we are in winter. These natural variations seem to me to contribute to the the experience of a climatic structure. 

Another image to which the cycle schema can be applied is the helix. Although the earth orbits the sun once per year and seems to return to the same spot each time, in fact the sun is in orbit around the galactic centre (the plane of the ecliptic is inclined by about 60º with respect to the plane of the sun's orbit ) and so the orbit of the earth describes a helix. In this sense a cycle is not simply a closed loop which always returns to its origin, but any cyclic phenomenon that recurs regularly or quasi-regularly.

Cycles constitute temporal boundaries for activities and tend to be rigid. Hence the persistence of the 60 seconds, 60 minutes, 24 hours, of the clock. Also the persistence of the seven day week. Apparently the Soviets tried to change this to five days and it was, according to Johnson, "disastrous". This system of time keeping goes all the way back to ancient Babylonia. 

The experience of cycles and the cycle schema may well explain why astrology continues to seem plausible to some people. The cyclic schema makes the idea of a relationship between those cycles we experience, between emotional states, or good and bad fortune, and the cycles of the observable planets. The planets were imagined to have agency and personality, especially they were seen as manifestation of gods (our names for the planets are the Latin names of Greco-Roman gods). The discovery of the true nature of the planets, of more and more remote planets not visible to the naked eye, of the precession of orbits, and the ambiguity in the definition of a planet have complicated the practice of astrology, though despite what some critics say, serious astrologers have tried to adapt to all this new information. However, there is no question that extremely remote lumps of rock or balls of gas orbiting the sun can affect our lives in the way that astrologers claim. They cannot.

Even with conventional cycles, such as the week we can experience a qualitative difference between the phases of the cycle. This is why despite 24/7 shopping many of us still feel differently about the different days of the week and the weekend. Again this difference is not inherent in the cycle - there is no inherent difference between Monday, Friday, or Sunday, but we experience them as being different. Such cycles can become so pervasive that they define the character of our experience.

The cycles that we live in are multiple, overlapping, and sequential. Many metaphors emerge from the applicability of cycles to experience, for example THE LIFE CYCLE IS A YEAR means we can talk about someone being a spring chicken, or being in their autumn years. The metaphor SITUATIONS ARE MARRIAGES is quite peculiar, but if I say that I'm in a new town, country or relationships and the "honeymoon period is over" you know what I mean (the underlying schema is related to the climatic cycle of novelty, familiarity, and indifference). A common metaphor in scholarship based on the climactic cycle schema is A SOCIETY IS A PERSON. Historians of the past we particularly fond of this one, seeing the phases of conception, birth, infancy, maturity and dotage as mirrored in civilisations: e.g. in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Some early WEIRD scholars of Buddhism mapped this scheme onto the emic categories hīnayāna, mahāyāna and vajrayāna, seeing in this a climatic cycle, with vajrayāna representing the inevitable decline of Buddhism as it aged and became senile, helped by the Victorian contempt for magical thinking, and the embrace of teleological thinking, the idea that everything has a purpose and moves inexorably towards a predetermined end. The latter underlies the apocalyptic and millennial ideas that Christians share with some Buddhists who are convinced that we must be in the end times. That Buddhism had died out in India only reinforced this notion. In fact Buddhism has gone through many climatic cycles phases of decline and renewal, often many overlapping phases at once, and the idea of an overall arc has long been shown to be nonsense. 

The Classical Theravāda commentator Buddhaghosa used the idea of niyāma or restriction to describe the cyclic nature of unseen processes like kamma and citta. Both kamma and citta are like the life-cycle of a plant, in that if one sows rice one reaps rice. He called this restriction bījaniyāma "the seed limit" and used it to analogically explain that kusala actions gave rise to kusala vipaka or phala (literally fruit). Similarly with akusala actions and akusala fruits. He expanded the metaphor by adding that just as the trees flowered and fruited in the right season (utu) so kamma and citta produced their results at the appropriate time, a principle he called utuniyāma "the seasonal limit". The restrictions on kamma and citta were called kammaniyāma and cittaniyāma respectively. Buddhaghosa's fifth example of the cyclic niyāma was the miracles which inevitably manifest at key points in the life cycle of a Buddha (conception, birth, enlightenment, teaching, dying), which he called dhammaniyāma "the nature limit" (as in, it is the nature of a Buddha that their life is accompanied by miracles). This system was distorted by early translators so that it seemed to described causality in the universe seen at different scales. This distortion was popularised by the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order, Sangharakshita, and recently refined by Subhuti into a grand meta-narrative. Buddhaghosa had something quite different in mind.

India and Buddhism are famous for their cyclic eschatology, the course of the life of an individual and the universe itself are governed by climatic cycles. Although in truth our Buddhist eschatology is a hybrid of cyclic and lineage eschatologies (see my Taxonomy of Afterlife Beliefs). Without making an effort to abandon seeking sense pleasure as a means to happiness one is reborn time and again in circumstances that are dependent on how one has lived. And if one is able to abandon pleasure-seeking then one is not reborn, though in pre-classical Buddhism which rejected absolutes, nothing more could be said by way of clarification of what happened to a tathāgata after death. The question was unanswerable (avyākṛta). The Upaniṣads have a similar eschatology, the major difference being the means of achieving liberation (ātman vs anātman) and the destination (Brahman vs avyākṛta).


To summarise, an image schema emerges from our physical experience of the world, it is pervasive in experience and thus widely understood. It has a simple, well-defined structure. It can be represented by diagrams, but our use of it is not necessarily visual or diagrammatic. Isomorphism, a similarity of form, in different domains allows the image schema to apply to many domains. This wide applicability of a schema is what enables us to effortlessly use metaphors in which we describe one domain in terms of another. The source domain is usually experiential, but the target domain may be experiential, entirely abstract, or somewhere in-between. For example if we talk about the flow of money around an economy, then we are applying the metaphor MONEY IS A FLUID and this is possible because a fluid schema exists and there is some isomorphism between our experience of fluids and our experience of money that allows the schema to apply in both domains and allowing us to use the language of one to describe the language of the other.

There are many image schemas, Johnson mentions about 50 in his book and seems to place no limits on the possible number. Because all human beings have the same kinds of bodies and sensory processes we can say that schemas are not cultural, but part of our shared heritage. As we've seen, metaphors used in the ancient dead language Pāḷi are often immediately clear. If a Pāli text refers to "grasping an concept" or "following the path to enlightenment", we understand without having to do anything more than translate the words. The metaphor is effortlessly, immediately apparent to us because we also have an object schema and a path schema that allows the mapping. Indeed we have these very same metaphors in English. 

The necessity of isomorphism between source and target domains of a metaphor does places limits on how and where metaphors apply. For example, a wall is not a path. The experience of a wall typically lacks the structural features which would allow us to map the path schema onto it. An exception to this might be that some walls are think and have a path along their top, as in a castle wall. But more typically the wall is characterised by the barrier schema, related to force schemas, which are also discussed in Johnson (1987).

One of the important assumptions of this work is that what gets stored in the brain is not individual metaphors, but the image schemas themselves. What is missing, so far as I know, is evidence from neuroscience supporting the philosophy. The description of image schemas is compelling and has good deal of explanatory power but we have yet to see the neural correlates. In the case of spatial and temporal location we now know that this information is stored in the brain in a hexagonal array of neurons which literally map out the space around us. And since the neurons involves fire in a sequence we also use them to orient ourselves in time, a discovery that was announce in 2015. We also know a good deal about how the cycles of our body are mediated by the sympathetic nervous and endocrine systems.

In a forthcoming essay I will again dip into Johnson (1987). I'll look at metaphors related to the body and how the entailments of metaphors guide how we make inferences from experience. This is an important process in understanding the history of religious ideas. 



Glucklich, Ariel. (1997) The End of Magic. New York, Oxford University Press.

Johnson, Mark. (1987). The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason. University of Chicago Press.

Kraus, Benjamin J. et al. During Running in Place, Grid Cells Integrate Elapsed Time and Distance Run. Neuron, 88(3), 578-589. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2015.09.031

Lakoff, G., (1987) Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George. (1995) Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html

Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. (2003) Metaphors We Live By. New Ed. [Originally published 1981]

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2011) Why Do Humans Reason. Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 34: 57 – 111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968. Available from Dan Sperber's website.
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