25 February 2016

Body Metaphors

Portrait of Vesalius from
De Humani Corporis Fabrica
In a recent essay, Rumination, the Stress Response, and Meditation (22 Jan 2016), I mentioned the work of pioneering medical researcher Hans Selye (1907 – 1982). He was the first person to describe a generalised response to injury or disease which he termed stress. His name cropped up in the book I've been reading, Mark Johnson's The Body in the Mind. That book had already sparked one other essay on the fundamentals of thought and metaphor: Image Schemas, Metaphor, and Thought (8 Jan 2016). So Johnson's ideas have provided me with rich pickings so far. This essay draws on the same few pages in The Body in the Mind as the rumination essay. Johnson argues that Selye's discovery was not merely an advance in medical science and treatment of disease, but introduced a change in the paradigm (my word) of how we think about the body. According to Johnson, Selye moved,
"... from one dominant metaphorical grasp of the situation, namely BODY AS MACHINE (and thus not organic or homoeostatic), to a novel understanding, that of the BODY AS HOMOEOSTATIC ORGANISM. (Johnson 1987: 127)
In this essay I want to take this idea of a change in the underlying metaphor of how we think of the body, place it in a different, broader context, and try to say what it means for how we understand the body, i.e. our own bodies. This essay assumes that the reader is familiar with the concepts of images schemas and with Lakoff and Johnson's theory of metaphor. 

In this view metaphors are not the flowery ornamentation that a poet or orator uses to spice up their spiel. Metaphors are a fundamental aspect of thought that allow us to understand one domain in terms of another. As such metaphors are essential to abstract thought. The source domain is usually grounded in bodily experience. The metaphors that we use for a domain of knowledge place constraints on the inferences we can make in that domain. Metaphors structure our understanding. They are shaped by, but also actively shape, the way that we think about any given subject. Johnson's argument here is that Selye made a leap that opened up a whole new vista for thinking about the body and medicine precisely because the leap involved a new metaphor. His observations forced him to consider a different view of the body that could not be expressed in the existing BODY AS MACHINE metaphor.

I will begin by sketching out in broad brush-strokes how views of the body have changed, looking at some cultural phenomena that could only have emerged in their own era as an illustration of how metaphors structure our understanding. Finally I'll note that, despite paradigm shifts, old metaphors linger and shape our understanding long after the philosophers change their minds about something.

The Pre-Enlightenment Body.

Some initial thoughts about how we conceived of our bodies in pre-scientific, pre-Enlightenment Europe can be found in two previous essays: Metaphors and Materialism. (26 Apr 2013), which also references the work of Lakoff and Johnson on metaphors; and Spiritual I: The Life's Breath.  (06 June 2014) which looks at how Vitalism has influenced our ideas of what life is.

Mind/body dualism is often ascribed to Descartes, but in my opinion it goes back to the dawn of human intelligence. Ancient theories of the body involved a pronounced dualistic outlook in which matter is cold, lifeless, dull, solid, heavy, and inflexible; and spirit is warm, vital, bright, translucent, light, and changeable. Value was very much identified with spirit, which survived the death of the body and granted the person immortality (either immediately or after some time) - this is one of the essential bases of religion (see The Complex Phenomenon of Religion 25 Sep 2015). While the body was a special kind of matter, i.e. meat (from an Old English word meaning "food") or flesh, it was still not valued. Indeed under Christianity, all value is based in the afterlife, in everlasting life in heaven, with God. The body in this view is merely a container for the soul. Interest in the body in the ancient world tended to focus on the location of the soul or spirit and with the circulation of breath or vital energy that enlivened the matter of the body. In Greek myth, Prometheus, infuses clay with fire to make living humans. In Christian myth breathes life into inert matter. In the story of Pinocchio the vivifying force is magic. Even vivified, the matter that makes up the body is base and unattractive, and this led to a harsh attitude to the body.

In the Christian and Muslim worlds, punishments routinely involved torture, mutilation, or drawn out deaths and sometimes still do. Extreme punishments like being hung, drawn, and quartered (i.e. hung till mostly dead, followed by being disembowelled, and then pulled apart by horses) were not only inflicted, but were a kind of public entertainment. There's a gruesome depiction of such an event at the beginning of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish for anyone with a strong stomach.

The ancient Greeks, like the ancient Indians, seem to have had no clear idea what any of the internal organs did. Indeed they came up with fanciful guesses at the functions of the internal organs. Their guesses were outrageously and often hilariously wrong, though of course it's wrong to laugh at them because they were doing their best (and because some people still believe in those guesses). For example, the heart was considered to be the seat of emotions or intelligence, though these functions have also been attributed to the liver. Until quite recently no society associated the brain with thought. And so on.

In addition the Greeks invented a theory that the disposition of the person was due to the circulation of four humours (Greek χυμός, chymos (literally, "juice" or "sap"): blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. The humours could be characterised as wet or dry and as cool or warm. Blood for example was warm and wet. Black bile cool and wet. The revival of interest in Greece during the renaissance led to Arabs and Europeans taking up this humour theory again. Medical procedures like blood-letting were common when this was the paradigm. As in ancient China and India, Greek medical knowledge was not based on observation, but worked from a theory and tried to fit observations to it. It suffered hugely from confirmation bias. In fact a lot of the time medical practices based on this theory must have slowed healing and even hastened death.

Now textbooks will tell you that these theories have been replaced by more modern theories. But a good deal of the language, imagery and particularly metaphors associated with humours survive in English. Many people still talk as though their emotions are located their heart. Our heart's still fill with joy" or are "heavy with sorrow" for example. We still use images of the heart to symbolise love and affection. Words for dispositions like phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, and melancholic are still in current use to some extent (mostly in literature these days). We still describe a peevish person as "bilious"; something that is exasperating as "galling".

From this archaic worldview we also a number of surviving superstitions. One of the most common is that being cold and wet gives rise to illness, causing one to "catch a chill". This is based on the idea that cool and wet in the environment affect the humours causing an abundance of black bile (cool, wet). The idea is given credence by numerous popular culture references - actors in films and television often get soaked and before a few minutes have passed they are already sneezing with sinusitis. Despite the completely wrong-headed rationale and the complete lack of evidence of efficacy, medieval medical practices from India (āyur-veda, "life-knowledge") and China (acupuncture) remain extremely popular New Age treatments for disease. They are especially popular for diseases in which the medical profession is not proficient in diagnosing and treating, which includes many of the stress related illnesses.

So the fact that metaphors in the medical profession did change, with a consequent change in how disease was viewed and treated, does not mean that the metaphors necessarily died out. Sometimes they are like zombies and keep crashing about the intellectual landscape eating brains. Another of my essays on Vitalism, for example, referred to it as the philosophy that would not die.

The Enlightenment Body is a Machine.

With the Enlightenment, some people in Europe started paying attention to the world around them and discarding theories which were based on the ancient guesses of the Greeks (and others). Some of the early successes came in the field of astronomy. Observation gave rise to a new worldview: heliocentric rather than earth-centric. And the motions of the heavenly bodies were discovered to be described by relatively simple mathematical formulas. At the same time engineering was achieving new heights: stronger, lighter materials, allowed the instantiation of designs that would previously have been impossible. The invention of the steam engine in particular not only changed the industrial landscape, but captured the public imagination. The "engine" became a new source domain to make metaphors with. Out of this emerged the new metaphor: BODY AS MACHINE. It was accompanied by the metaphor: UNIVERSE AS MACHINE, but that's another story.

A machine is a contrivance made up of mechanisms that uses an external power source to do work. The BODY AS MACHINE metaphor gave rise to new theories of medicine in which internal organs did particular jobs. For example the heart is a pump; it pumps blood through pipes. This view of the body gave rise to the lesion theory of disease. In this view disease is localised and specific. A disease indicates that one of the mechanisms has gone wrong (but it still has little or no basis in biochemistry). Specific injuries lead to specific symptoms, so diagnosis is about identifying the most significant symptom and ignoring other symptoms. Medicine is the art of identifying and excising damaged parts. Surgery takes off under this view, especially with the discovery of anaesthetics.

In this case it is quite clear that the metaphor is not just a product of the worldview. We don't take up a worldview and then spin metaphors to suit it. The metaphor is the worldview. The metaphor structures our understanding, limits the kind of inferences we can draw, and defines the kind of actions we take in response to knowledge. The BODY AS MACHINE metaphor is an essence aspect of a mechanistic worldview.

One of the phenomena that emerged from this metaphor was Frankenstein's monster: a being made from bits and pieces of dead bodies and (re)vitalised, at least in the movies, by electricity. In fact Mary Shelly based her story on the Prometheus myth, but seen through the lens of the BODY AS MACHINE metaphor. Frankenstein's monster, assembled not from clay, but from body parts scavenged from various corpses, is only possible if the body is a machine, the parts and mechanisms and the external energy source is electricity. The identification of electricity with the vital spirit was a parallel development. Vitalism was undermined by the mechanistic worldview, but those to whom the idea of Vitalism appeals are extremely adept at adapting to circumstances and finding new gaps into which the spirit can fit. 

However, once again, just because philosophers and medical professionals have moved on, does not mean that the public has followed them. Both stories, Pinocchio and Frankenstein, are popular favourites constantly reprinted and rehashed (For example the story I, Robot, a 1951 book by Isaac Asimov and 2004 film starring Will Smith). The popular imagination still seems to see the body in dualistic terms. The idea of turning dead matter into a living being is one that continues to fascinate people, so that even quite crude stories that deal with the issue are fairly popular. Artificial intelligence continues to fascinate the public and researchers alike, because it seems to be the next iteration of the myth.

Hans Selye started out with the BODY AS MACHINE paradigm. He was researching the effects of sex-hormones. He would grind up ovaries and placenta and inject extracts into rats and observe what effect this had on the organs of the rat. What he found was a pattern of physiological changes that was the same whatever he injected the rats with. This ran deeply counter to the lesion theory of disease in which specific diseases caused specific symptoms. His aim was to identify the specific effects of specific sex hormones, but if every sex hormone caused the same symptoms this was incomprehensible in the existing paradigm. At first he thought that he must be failing to isolate the responsible compound. He tried using extracts of other endocrine glands and was dismayed to find exactly the same cluster of symptoms. Eventually he twigged that there was a general, non-specific reaction to the injury caused by the injection of foreign matter into the body: inflammation in particular. He changed his research topic to investigate this generalised response.

In permitting himself to think of a non-specific, non-localised response to injury as such, Selye broke out of the strictures entailed in the BODY AS MACHINE metaphor. For the body to have a non-localised response to a specific injury it could not be a machine, it must be something else. Today we would call this something else a "system" or an "organism".

The Body as Organism.

Although Selye's discovery of the generalised stress response was made in early 20th Century, it was not until his older contemporary, Walter B Cannon (1871 – 1945), published his book The Wisdom of the Body (1932) that the change was cemented. It was Cannon who introduced the idea of homoeostasis, i.e. systems which is feedback to maintain an equilibrium. In this new view it was realised that the body was made up of a number of interacting systems that had evolved to keep the internal milieu of the body within certain limits. For example the body can operate optimally only in a fairly narrow range of temperatures, i.e. ca. 37 ± 0.5 °C. We have processes to warm the body up and processes to cool the body down. Both operate at the same time and work together to keep the body at an optimum temperature whatever the ambient temperature around us is. This idea of homoeostasis is what made sense of Selye's discoveries. He was interacting with homoeostatic processes in his rat victims. The injuries he caused initiated general responses such as inflammation. The image schema underlying homoeostasis is one of balancing opposing forces, as discussed in Johnson (1987: 80ff). And this image schema allowed us to use the metaphor BODY AS HOMOEOSTATIC ORGANISM.

In this view, life is a system of feedback mechanisms that respond to an energy gradient. Most life now uses the energy gradient caused by sunlight falling on the surface of the earth. However, a recent theory plausibly suggests that life got started around deep sea thermal vents where hydrogen gas and methane bubble up through fractured rocks into cold sea water creating an energy gradient that enables hydrogen to react with carbon-dioxide dissolved in the water to produce organic compounds. (For more on this theory see this article or this video)

Identifying the body as an organism, involving a number of interacting homoeostatic processes, enabled the medical profession to recognise diseases through a clusters of symptoms instead of focussing on one defining symptom. The far reaches of this are the syndromes – regular clusters of symptoms that are recognised, but for which there is no known cause or treatment (other than relief of symptoms).

One phenomenon that emerged out of this new metaphor was James Lovelock's idea of Gaia, i.e. the biosphere of the earth as a coherent collection of homoeostatic processes that changed the conditions on the surface of the earth so that it was more conducive to life, and hold it in that state through feedback processes. Chemical and biological processes, for example, keep the temperatures stable and in the sweet zone for the chemistry that is the substrate for life (i.e. carbon compounds suspended in liquid water). Biological processes also keep the level of oxygen steady at a much higher level than inorganic chemical processes alone could achieve. When this oxygen first started appearing as a waste product of certain types of metabolism, it was toxic to most life. Fortunately certain types of bacteria evolved that could metabolise corrosive oxygen; and even more fortunately some of these organisms when on to form a permanent symbiotic relationship with other organisms giving rise to complex cells with mitochondria.

Another area of modern life dominated by the metaphor of the homoeostatic organism is economics. Mainstream economists model the economy in which processes like supply and demand tend produce equilibriums in, for example, prices. Disruptions to that equilibrium are termed "shocks" another term adopted by Cannon. Heterodox economists argue that the economy ought not to be modelled on an organism, but instead be treated as a complex inorganic system, such as climate, using the mathematics developed for predicting the weather and other complex phenomena. However, as Lovelock has showed, on earth climate is not simply a complex inorganic process, it is a homoeostatic process in which living things play an important role in keeping the atmosphere in a state that is conducive to life. So perhaps equilibrium theory is not so bad after all.


I've tried to show how metaphors for understanding our own bodies have changed over time. No doubt this broad brush-stroke picture is over simplified and a lot more could be said about the body. The idea was to show that the metaphor theory is applicable to the body and provides us with some insight into how we understand ourselves. An important point to try to emphasise is that this theory is not one of metaphor as ornamentation, but of metaphor as fundamental to how we structure our worlds based on experience. 
"Understanding is not simply a matter of belief. It emerges out of embodiment – of perceptual mechanisms, patterns of discrimination, motor programs and various bodily skills. And it is equally a matter of our embeddedness within culture, language, institutions, and historical traditions." (Johnson 1987: 137)
The metaphor  BODY AS HOMOEOSTATIC ORGANISM doesn't simply open up new ways of thinking about the body, it requires new ways of thinking and at the same time places new limits on how we understand the body. It changes the way we interpret experience and the inferences we draw from what we know from experience. The metaphor structures our understanding. 
The key point in all of this is that the BODY AS MACHINE metaphor was not merely an isolated belief; rather it was a massive experiential structuring that involved values, interests, goals, practices, and theorising. (Johnson 1987: 130)
So this change is non-trivial. It constitutes a revolution, the consequences of which are still being played out in the daily lives of people around the world. The embodied cognition theory of metaphor helps us understand firstly, that this is a revolution, and secondly the importance and dynamics of intellectual revolutions.

Some metaphors don't work, because any given image schema does not map onto all possible target domains. This places constraints on how metaphors apply and the kinds of inferences that we can draw. We don't think of the body as a path for example. We do think of the body as a container. The path image schema doesn't map onto the body easily. Within the body we do have nerve pathways, and blood vessels can sometimes function as a pathway also. Abstractly we have metabolic pathways. But the body itself does fit the schema. Therefore abstractions such as "arriving at a conclusion" don't work with the body. Journey metaphors don't really work for the body. They can work for a person. A person may be on a journey of discovery for example. But the body isn't. However, within these limits there is a great deal of freedom. Once the mapping is established, for example IDEAS ARE OBJECTS, then any operation applicable to objects may be applied to ideas. So discovering a new metaphor opens up a whole new dimension for thinking about any subject. 

One of the entailments of the metaphor BODY AS HOMOEOSTATIC ORGANISM is the idea that processes have a purpose. The state of equilibrium becomes the purpose of the organism. The notion of purpose has a huge influence on how we understand our world. Things have purposes. Living things also have a purpose. Many people believe that animals purpose is to be food for people. From an evolutionary perspective organisms occupy niches in ecosystems, which are homoeostatic systems encompassing an area and all the living things in it. Each species, by following its purpose, contributes in some way to the ecosystem. Most humans are happier if they think they are contributing to some higher purpose. One of the successes of religion is that it provides a purpose which unifies and guides the activities of large groups of people. This idea is explored by Ara Norenzayan in his book Big Gods (2013).

States of equilibrium are common images in Buddhism. Nirvāṇa is sometimes characterised as a state of equanimity in which the forces of attraction and repulsion that we experience in relation to sense objects are nullified, leaving the individual in a balanced state (upekṣā) that is impervious to external shocks. If one is not susceptible to the forces of attraction and repulsion then one has attained stability.

This kind of analysis of how we use metaphors opens up important new ways of understanding ourselves and how we understand ourselves. Metaphors are not arbitrary, but they are changeable. If we think of argument as war, to take an example from Lakoff & Johnson (2003), then our approach to discussion may well be very different than if we think of it as a dance.

Recently the metaphor THE BRAIN IS A COMPUTER has become quite popular. It is not the only metaphor, but we tend to understand ourselves in terms of the most sophisticated technology to hand. No doubt in the stone age, people characterised themselves as flint cores that are shaped by the napping of experience until they are fully formed and sharp edged in their prime. But this also means that with age they become less sharp and eventually have to be discarded. In the 1970s Elton John declared himself to be a "rocket man". Nowadays the computer seems like a promising schema. Although to my mind nature makes a better model for computing than the other way around! Quantum mechanics has provided some notable metaphors, but casual users almost always misunderstand what the metaphors represent - for example the "observer" in the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment is not a person, but any physical interaction with another particle (See Buddhism and the Observer Effect in Quantum Mechanics).

This meta-knowledge about the influence of metaphors on how we think may enable us to choose what metaphors we use to describe our lives and our actions. There are as yet very few explorations of the metaphors used in Buddhist texts, and none that I know of that look at how Buddhism is presented in modern terms. As much as I could wish for a really thoroughgoing, excoriating critique of Romanticism in modern Buddhism, I think it might be even more interesting to set out the principle metaphors what we use and what that entails for us. Once we understand that the metaphors we use to structure our understanding, then we might be able to adapt how we talk about Buddhism to make our discussions more apposite.



Cannon, W. B. (1932). The Wisdom of the Body. New York, Norton.

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

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

Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton University Press.
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