I love analogies. I started getting into them as a result of my atheism–I realized over a long period of time arguing with believers that analogies tend to work better than anything else does for communicating a point. Analogies are easy for the brain to digest. You need analogies to ground ideas that are otherwise too abstract. It’s all well and good to say “You can’t prove a negative”, when someone asks you to prove their god doesn’t exist, but it’s better to say, “Prove Zeus doesn’t exist”, and let the analogy speak for itself. If airplanes are aerodynamic, then analogies are brain-o-dynamic.
The flywheel analogy that I wrote about yesterday was something I wanted to remember because it’s a helpful way of thinking about a problem that is concise and effective. Thinking about the flywheel analogy will get the idea that “I need to work for a few days before seeing results” into my brain better than saying that will.
This is a long-winded way of explaining why I tend to collect analogies enthusiastically. Here’s a few I’ve enjoyed thinking about recently:
How Forming New Concepts is Like Playing Dig Dug
The last relationship I was in was a new type of relationship for me. It felt more casual than most of the relationships I’d been in previously. At times, this made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t have a concept for what I was doing. The more I spent time with her, the more I got this sense, in my brain, of burrowing. Every time I hung out with her, some animal part of my brain spent that time carving out a new conceptual space, which we might call “casual relationship”.
Imagine you’re playing a game of Dig Dug (or SimAnt), but hidden in the undug areas are concepts. You don’t know where or what they are, but you know they’re there. That’s what it felt like. I didn’t know exactly what I was digging toward in the relationship I was in, but I knew I was making a new space in my brain. Space for a new idea, a new concept, that I didn’t have before. The next time I have a casual relationship, it’ll be easier, because I have a nice little casual relationship braincave carved out to put it in.
The same idea helps when dealing with cognitive problems. I have a fair supply of insecurities about not being valued by other people as a friend. Sometimes dealing with those issues is as simple as repeatedly telling myself I’m wrong. Other times, I get a sense that I need to do some digging. I need a completely new conceptual framework from which to look at the problem. Somewhere, in the vast, unexplored concept-space in my head, is an idea or set of ideas that will give me a more effective, more useful perspective on a problem. I just need to dig around a bit until I find something.
I used to feel really uncomfortable with casual sex, for example, because I was uncomfortable when it didn’t feel like the sex I had in serious relationships. I spent a lot of time agonizing over that fact that it didn’t and trying to figure out how to make it feel the same. Then at some point, I realized that the point isn’t for it to feel the same, the point is that it feels different and that’s fine, because it is different. Just like playing a game of monopoly is going to be a completely different experience with completely different people. That perspective–the step back from “Why isn’t this like that”, to, “This doesn’t have to be like that”–is something I dug up one day.
How Your Subconscious is Like an Elephant
Buddha, for example, compared the mind to a wild elephant:
“In days gone by this mind of mine used to stray wherever selfish desire or lust or pleasure would lead it. Today this mind does not stray and is under the harmony of control, even as a wild elephant is controlled by the trainer.”
The Roman poet Ovid captured my situation perfectly. In
Metamorphoses, Medea is torn between her love for Jason and her duty to
her father. She laments:
“I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.”
Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about controlling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.
I love it. I constantly get into situations with people where I want to say something like, “I’m angry but not angry”. I want to say, “I’m angry at you, but I don’t think that anger is rationally justified, but in spite of the fact that it isn’t, it’s still important for us to find ways to work through it so that it goes away.”
That’s a hard thing to communicate concisely and effectively. I like the elephant for it. “The elephant is angry.”