How Metaphor Might Save Your Marriage

How Metaphor Might Save Your Marriage

By: Curtis Kelly

We keep coming across things in brain studies that suggest metaphor plays a greater role in language and thinking than most teachers realize. (I will claim it plays a role in marital bliss as well.) Indeed, Lakoff and Johnson’s famous Metaphors We Live By proclaimed the centrality of metaphor to language and has given us a whole new understanding of how abstractions are made, but it is not the kind of book the average teacher will pick up and read. At least I didn’t; to write for this issue, I spent about 20 hours listening to their video lectures instead.

Nonetheless, we sensed there was something important in this theory, even though we were not sure what, so for a long time we had wanted to do an issue on metaphor, for our own sakes as much as for yours. And what a wonderful experience it was studying metaphor to do so. The process took us to places we never expected, and we hope you feel the same after reading what we found. We have not pushed into new territory as much as made George Lakoff’s words digestible and explored the connection of metaphor to the classroom.

But, before we start the issue, I’d like to rewind this tape a few months to when I was preparing a presentation on stories. I was trying to figure out why stories are so powerful and why the information given in stories is learned about twice as quickly and retained about twice as long as information given by other means. I found numerous reasons, as I have written about here, but the one that stood out was the metaphoric quality of stories. Whether you realize it or not, every story includes you in some way, because, as E. O. Wilson said: “The stories we tell ourselves and others are our survival manuals” (2011, p. 10). Or, as Mar and Oatley (2008) wrote, stories are simulations that help us navigate the complex world of social interaction. That is also why people who read fiction tend to understand others better.

So, I was thinking about the neuroscience of stories and figuring out what to say about this very slide:

I couldn’t quite figure out how to explain it, so I decided to go out for a bicycle ride and let ideas percolate. To be honest, I also wanted to get out of the house. My wife and I had had one of those stupid little quarrels about something meaningless, the silly kind that all married people know.

So, I grabbed my iPhone and saddled up. I put on my favorite podcast, Radiolab, and heard this amazing rebroadcast of a Rough Translation interview. There was a doctor, Mohamed, who became a political prisoner in Somalia. The poor man was placed in solitary confinement for ten years. In his continued misery, he began to have terrible thoughts about his 20-year-old wife. He imagined her out there having fun while he languished. He felt abandoned because she never sent him a message, even though he knew it was impossible for her to do so. Bitterness began to brew.

At some point, almost by a miracle, Mohamed got a single book, Anna Karenina, from the warden. He virtually memorized it and it became his “survival manual.” Tolstoy’s story about Anna, a shunned mistress, made him see his own situation differently. The story is about how Anna, abandoned after an extramarital affair, was snubbed in society, maybe the way Mohammed’s own wife was being snubbed. He realized that his wife had not abandoned him. He had abandoned her. He was the one who criticized the government and got arrested. He was at least safe in prison, while she was out in the world by herself, being disparaged by others for his actions.

After he got out, they were reunited and once more the book came to his aid. It made him fall in love with her again. In the podcast he said: “I should make a monument to that book.” I should as well. I came to understand that every story is a metaphor of a challenge we face in our own lives, and that is what I said in my speech.

The podcast had another effect on me as well. On my bike ride home, I stopped at a convenience store and bought my wife’s favorite sweet. That little gift, a smile, and talking about what we would do that afternoon instead of what happened that morning would be my apology.

So, you see, metaphor is more than just a literary device similar to simile (actually, simile is just metaphor in a bowtie). It is a way to take understanding of one domain and apply it to an analogous domain to gain understanding there as well.

Curtis Kelly (EdD) has come to see metaphor as a primary process of the brain that allows us to adapt and overcome every challenge. Lakoff’s work is currently his favorite sweet.

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