27 July 2012

The 'Mind as Container' Metaphor

"Whatever complex biological and neural processes go on backstage, it is my consciousness that provides the theatre where my experiences and thoughts have their existence, where my desires are felt and where my intentions are formed."

Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy
ONE OF THE MOST fundamental metaphors we use when talking about mind is: the mind is a container. The container prototype is very important in terms of how we interact with the world. A container is a physically finite and bounded space, with a clear distinction between inside and outside. Containers often, but not always, have lids which seal the inside from outside, or vice versa.

Our body is a physically a container with a sealable opening at either end: a mouth and an anus. We put food into our body via our mouth. The mouth itself is a container, because we put food into it as well. Various things happen inside our body And shit comes out of our anus. Similarly we breath into our lungs (which are inside our body) and out. Virtually all other animals follow a similar body plan, and set of biological processes.

But these metaphors have implications which go well beyond the way we talk. George Lakoff and his colleagues, especially Mark Johnson, have shown that abstract thought is always metaphorical, and that the metaphors we draw on for abstract thought are often based on how we physically interact with the world.

So when "a thought comes into our head" there are two metaphorical processes happening. Firstly we are allowing that our head is a kind of container. This might be obvious because physically our skull is a hollow chamber of bone filled with our brain. It also has some extrusions attached and several openings. But the head here is also standing for the what goes on 'in' the head, a form of metaphor called metonymy: where a part stands for the whole, and sometimes vice versa. Our head is the container of thoughts; that is the head here stands for the mind as the container of thought: the thought is in [the container of] the mind, which is in [the container of] the head. The head is a particular kind of container, more like a room which we inhabit. Experientially when the thought comes into my head, I become aware of it because it enters the space "I" also occupy.

The second metaphorical process that is happening is that both "I" and the thought are (metaphorically) solid objects with shape and mass. We can take an idea and turn it over in our heads, kick it around; we juggle priorities, manipulate data and crunch numbers; we weigh alternatives, and can be weighed down by our cares. "I" am the same kind of object because I exist in the same domain as the ideas - thinking goes on in my head, and I am thinking my thoughts.

As metaphors there is absolutely nothing wrong with these abstractions. Abstraction allows us to be much more sophisticated in how we interact with the world and each other. Abstraction allows us to use our imagination to consider how things might be, to think about new ways of using tools for example, or new ways to modify tools to do a certain job. In part at least this ability to abstract is related to a set of neurons called mirror neurons. These neurons are active when we do an action, but also when we see an action being performed by someone else. If the action is a facial expression, then something interesting happens: observing the action our own neurons become active and we have a sense of what it would be like to have that facial expression. This allows to know how someone is feeling by observing their face (and their body language and listening to the tone of voice). This is a very useful facility to have.

However we are not usually aware of what we are doing: we have the result without understanding the working. In fact the working only became visible when we started to use powerful real-time brain scanning techniques. When we respond to a smile we aren't aware of the mechanisms that allow us to parse the visual information, recognise the face and the expression, and translate that into an internal state that we can feel, and then formulate a response. We just smile back or mutter humbug or whatever.

Similarly when a thought comes into our head we see this is a naive realistic way: just as though something with shape and mass has entered a room in which we were already an occupant. For many centuries philosophers took this metaphor as real and asked a lot of questions about the container and the nature of the container. Alternatively as the ODP definition says we think of consciousness as a special kind of room (a theatre) in which we observe the experiences we have, with the implication that we are the audience watching the action on the stage. Since we started to learn about the function of the brain we have extended the metaphor to make the brain the container of consciousness or personality.

But as comfortable as this way of referring to our minds it's still just a metaphor, not a reality. Remember that a metaphor is when you explain one thing in terms as though it were something else. It's very important to remember what it is you are describing, which is a hard thing to keep in mind. The mind is also sometimes a leaky container!

Most people, I think, would be surprised to learn that this metaphor is not universal. Luhrmann (2011) surveying the ethnographical literature on hallucinations, notes some research conclusions: "The Iban [tribe of Borneo] do not have an elaborated idea of the mind as a container". (p.79) In the context of research on psychosis this means that "the idea that someone could experience external thoughts as placed within the mind or removed from it was simply not available to them."

We also know that people experience the complete breakdown of the sense of in-here and out-there under certain circumstance (e.g. Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke). So the metaphor is not universal, not hardwired. It is a culturally conditioned aspect of a virtual model which our organism generates for the purposes of optimising its interactions with the environment. But the metaphor is so pervasive in English that it's very difficult for me to write a sentence about the virtual model without referencing the mind as container metaphor.

I might add that all of the aspects of consciousness are similarly contingent and plastic.

I came across a quote from Wittgenstein recently which seems apposite: "meaning is use". By this he seems to have meant that a word takes it's meaning not from a relationship with the object it names, nor by the ideas the objects engender, but only from the way that speakers use the word. There is something in this. However I would add some caveats because the study of sound symbolism, and embodied cognition don't allow for a strict application of 'meaning is use'. Research in sound symbolism tells us that the sounds we use to make words are symbols, and that there is a relationship between the symbols we choose and the objects and events we are observing or thinking of. The case I've been making above is that how we think, the very metaphors we use to represent abstract ideas are based on how we physically interact with the world. So, yes 'meaning is use' but use is not arbitrary, it is motivated (to use de Saussure's term) by these existing relationships, i.e. it operates within limits and tends towards pre-determined states.

The thing I wanted to draw out is that the question 'what is consciousness' might not be a sensible qustion. We might accurately answer that consciousness is the experience of being aware, of having a sense of agency and a first-person perspective. In effect there might be no 'Problem of Consciousness'.  There is certainly an experience, but does it point to a real container, a real theatre in which we experience consciousness? The answer would seem to be that is does not.

I think this would be the Buddhist answer as well, or it would be outside of Western Buddhism. As I suggested above it's very difficult for use Westerners to think of consciousness at all without unconsciously invoking a metaphor which we habitually take to be real. The very terminology we use asserts the reality of the abstractions and metaphors we use to describe the experience. In a targeted, but not comprehensive search I have not found viññāṇa being used in the sense of a container of experience in Pāli. Indeed just what viññāṇa refers to is not entirely clear to me except that it is an essential component of perception; and that it is consistently distinguished from the sense objects (rūpa, sadda, etc) and from the sense organs (cakkhu, sota, etc), and that it comes in six varieties (cakkhu-viññāṇā, sota-viññāṇa, etc.) including mano-viññāṇa. So the one thing this does not look like is the theatre of experience. If, for instance the Buddhist texts say that we experience vedanā in viññāṇa, then I have yet to find the passage where they do. In what sense does viññāṇa resemble our Western conceptions of consciousness at all? My response would be that it doesn't resemble it at all.

One can broaden search quite easily by looking for viññāṇasmiṃ/viññāṇe (the locative singular), which we would expect to translate 'in consciousness' if viññāṇa were a container. We find many examples of this grammatical form in Pāli. One of them is indeed treating viññāṇa a metaphorical container. At M iii.18 and many other places the assutavā [i.e. the ignorant, or uninformed person] seeks (in vain) for self in viññāṇa and viññāṇa in self. But it's clear that the view being described is not one that the knowledgeable Buddhist would subscribe to.

At M i.139 we find another use of the locative (with the sense of 'with reference to'). Here it is the well-informed (sutavā) disciples of the nobles, and they become fed up (nibbindati) with reference to rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra and viññāṇa. At M i.230 a materialist says of the khandhas: With viññāṇa [and the others] as self (atta) a person (purisapuggala) from resting in viññāṇa (viññāṇe patiṭṭhāya) produces merit or non-merit. Gotama proceeds to demolish the views of the materialist, treating the khandhas as he customarily does: not mine, not me, not myself.

And that accounts for all of the occurrences of viññāṇāsmiṃ/viññāṇe I found in a brief survey of the nikāyas. No doubt there are others, but they don't stand out. Buddhist texts, so far as I can tell, are aware that some misguided people do use the 'mind as container' metaphor, but the Buddhist Theory of Mind does not. For Buddhist thinkers there is no theatre of experience, there is just experience. The implication for us is that the experience of being in a theatre of experience, is just another experience. Perhaps the difference lies in the lack of theatres in Iron Age India and the largely outdoor lifestyle of the Buddhists. Virtually all of the action of the Pāli Canon takes place outside.

In any case we think very differently from the ancient Buddhists about the mind. Recall also that they did not see emotion as a separate category of experience but lumped it in the citta. (Cf Emotions in Buddhism) Judging by their language we can see that they lived in very a different world to us. Our conceptions about the world, the mind, and life generally are often not applicable to the past; nor theirs to the present. Our scientists and philosophers have spent time and resources looking for this theatre, and ironically neuroscientists seem to be confirming that our ancient forebears were right: mind as a container is a figment, generated by hypostasizing a metaphor we once used to describe the experience of having experiences.


This essay was inspired by reading: On Containers and Content, with a Cautionary Note to Philosophers of Mind, by Eric Schwitzgebel.

Mind Metaphors in Pāli

iti kho, ānando, kammaṃ khettaṃ viññāṇaṃ bījaṃ taṇhā sineho... hīnāya dhātuyā viññāṇaṃ patiṭṭhitaṃ (AN i.232 )
Thus, Ānanda, action is a field, cognition is a seed, and craving is sap... cognition is established on a low level. 

Seyyathāpi bhikkhave, kūṭāgāraṃ vā kūṭāgārasālā vā uttarāya vā dakkhiṇāya vā pācīnāya vā vātapānā. suriye uggacchante vātapānena rasmi pavisitvā kvāssa patiṭṭhitāti. (SN 12.64 )
Just as if, bhikkhus, a roofed house or roofed hall with windows in the north, south or east. When the sun rises where do rays land when they come through the windows? 
Yaññadeva bhikkhave paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ tena teneva saṅkhaṃ gacchati... Seyyathāpi bhikkhave yaññadevāpaccayaṃ paṭicca aggi jalati, tena teneva saṅkhaṃ gacchati. (MN 38)
Bhikkhus, whatever condition cognition arises upon, it is called after that... just as whatever condition fire burns, it is named after that.

Magic trick
Pheṇapiṇḍūpamaṃ rūpaṃ vedanā bubbuḷupamā
Marīcikupamā saññā saṃkhārā kadalūpamā,
Māyūpamañca viññāṇaṃ dīpitā diccabandhunā.
(SN 22.95)
The kinsman of the Sun has taught that:
form is like a ball of foam, sensation is like a bubble,
perception is like a mirage, intention is like a plantain,
cognition is like an illusion, 

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