Sunday, September 27, 2009

Magical metaphorical landscapes

I love metaphors. They get me so excited. They take me on writes of fancy to the fun parks, wunderkammers and mystery destinations where my brain loves to play....with words. 

Writes of fancy is also the name of a new book I am writing with a friend about whatever ideas pique our collective curiosities.

Metaphors are special language tools that open up spaces between concepts that we can then turn into technologies to grant us extra powers. Think the cartoon family, the Incredibles.

Shakespeare was a master of the art, contributing hundreds of new words to the English language. So was Einstein, who asked us to board imaginary trains and elevators to experience the relativity of the speed of light.

Advertising copy writers use metaphors to direct our attention to new-to-the-world features we might not otherwise recognize. Authors use metaphors to enrich their stories and connect us to their characters. Scientists use metaphors to explain their big ideas in "word pictures" we can easily understand.

Consider for a moment "metaphorical landscapes". What is it about landscapes that help us think about metaphors? Perhaps there are mountainous metaphors that raise rich concepts to new heights. Meandering metaphors that flow through your mind. Volcanic metaphors which erupt from time to time. Earthquake metaphors that shake what you believe to your foundations. Or even metaphorical autobahns which speed your new concepts to their destinations.

In fact, all language is metaphor. Linguist Guy Deutscher, author of The Unfolding of Language, shows that our language is built on the top of "a reef of dead metaphors", a living layer on the accumulated bodies of their predecessors.

We don't even know they were once metaphors. Audiences now erupt in laughter like volcanoes. Business tries to curb the power of the unions, like the bit in the horse's mouth designed to hold it back. Ground breaking ideas began with shovels. The offices of our internal political enemies leak like taps.

Here's how I go about playing with metaphors:
  • Start with a concept/situation. For example, a very large number of cockroaches scurrying around the kitchen.
  • Ask yourself what is another word for a large number/something that moves? It could be an army, troop, battalion, plague, river, torrent, waterfalls, shoal (like fish) or flock (like birds).
  • Try out combinations of these words with cockroach e.g. an army of cockroaches, a battalion of cockroaches, a torrent of cockroaches, a waterfall of cockroaches, a shoal of cockroaches.
  • Choose one of the metaphors that seems to work best and explore it more deeply using its' characteristics e.g. army - march, beach landing, storm the battlements, house-to-house fighting, insurgency, assault, attack, bomb, shoot. 
  • And here's the end result: An army of cockroaches stormed my kitchen sink and engaged in house-to-house fighting with the dish mop, the squeegee, the tea-towel, the dirty plates, the food scraps and the sink plug, then launched a final assault on the drain hole dungeon.  
So here's a workshop to explore the power, wonder and occasional insanity of metaphors:

1. State a current/issue/opportunity/problem. e.g. sadness.
2. Think of a weird/disconnected/absurd/wildly off the mark alliterative (first letter the same) word that is vaguely descriptive of the issue - sadness - and transform it into something new e.g. serendipitous sadness, silly sadness, stupid sadness, sensible sadness, sumptuous sadness, smiling sadness.
3. Choose one of your combinations of words and make a list of all the kinds of things the new combinations of words helps you imagine. e.g. silly sadness might suggest hosting a sadness party, or playing silly sadness games, or doing silly things to divert your attention, or realizing how silly it is to focus on being sad.
4. Now, thinking about your new word combinations, imagine/describe a new physical, psychological or cultural tool (e.g. attention diverter, sadness sponge, prizes for the silliest case of sadness) that would help you participate in that activity and the roles that participants might play, (e.g. sado-masochistic party hostess, sadness disposal technician, happiness games designer), and the rules of communication for these new activities, (e.g. zen transformation of sadness into happiness, sadness abandonment, sadness/happiness displacement process).

Note: You can even raise your metaphors to new heights, by piling metaphors on top of metaphors, the equivalent of Alfred Jarry's pataphorical thinking. e.g. Metaphorical sadness madness. Happiness-sadness spree. A flight of fancy in infancy from sadness to happiness? A delightfully disturbed romantic dalliance? Sado-masochistic Zen transformation that diverts attention from any kind of reality and hurts so much it is relatively enjoyable.

#Deutscher, G. (2005).  The unfolding of language. London: Heinemann.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Our Feigenbaum minds

Recent research suggests there may be a pattern to how our brains are becoming smarter in a partnership with the tools we have created over the past 50,000 years since our species migrated out of Africa. That's the good news.

The bad news (which could also be good news) is we may all be rushing headlong towards a chaotic stage of human development during which our brains, bodies and our tools will become transformed in startling new ways and faster than some of us can manage.

There have been five to six waves of revolutionary change which are reflected in the employment statistics. Right now agricultural jobs have almost disappeared and knowledge jobs are soaring. The changes have occurred as a result of a switcheroo to new kinds of technologies which automate the work of the previous cultural-technological period. It all began with the transition from the Hunter-Gatherer Era to the early agricultural societies around 8,000 BC.

Think technologies as whole ecologies with each new kind of tool being dependent on other technologies and human capabilities. For example, the motor car depends on the widespread and instant availability of gas, freeways and roads, services stations, traffic lights, mechanics and highway patrolmen and comes to serve shopping malls, drive-in restaurants and tourist destinations

The waves of change are arriving in ever shorter cycles, a typical period doubling cascade. It took 30-40,000 years for hunter-gatherers to become farmers, miners and builders. It was during this period that two human revolutions occurred simultaneously, the shift to growing crops and a shift to the processing and use of minerals to construct buildings and implements. It was to take another 8,000 or 9,000 years for human to become manufacturers on a large scale, and 200-300 years to switch to a society dominated by the computer, and just 30-40 years to raise the bar to a knowledge-creation society.

Except for an Agricultural period anomaly, the ratio of the length of each successive new cultural period to the previous period is remarkably close to the Feigenbaum number, 4.669, a fundamental constant that explains how and when chaos (and new order) emerges in complex adaptive systems. An explanation for this inconsistency is that two great waves occurred in parallel - agricultural and mineral processing/construction - whereas all the others occurred serially. On the other hand, time may not be the main factor, but something that changes over time. Three possible candidates are:
  • the rate at which language propagates or 
  • the rate at which "body parts" from ancestor tools are acquired, copied or adapted or
  • both.
The Agricultural era disparity can be resolved if we think of the Agricultural Era as two simultaneous tool-brain-work paradigms. If we separate the mining of minerals such as clay, iron and copper and the processing and use of these minerals in the construction of buildings from agricultural activities - tilling, planting, reaping - there is much closer agreement between ratio of the length of the eras, as measured in years, and the Feigenbaum number. Compare 4.669 with the actual average of 4.9.

Other research points to the power of the tool-brain-work hypothesis to explain human and brain development. Chater and Christiansen# show there is a symbiotic relationship between tools and our brains, simply because brains and tools develop each other. Language co-evolves with brains as a “complex and interdependent ‘organism’ under selectional pressures”  due to the survival of those members of the human species who use language to adapt to new circumstances.

They also show how words we invent to describe the functions of new tools also spread along with the adoption of the tools. When we learn to drive motor cars, we also learn about engines and tires, steering wheels and bonnets, fenders, speedometers, gear sticks and clutches. Which are so much different from buggy, sulky, reins, bridle, shaft and spokes.

Here are some words that entered the English language during 2009. They are associated with the environment, medicine, publishing, warfare and psychology. Some are instantly recognizable. Others are not. If the technology becomes widely adopted, so do the words. If the technology lives in a niche, the words rarely become popular.

The kinds of words we use, also determines how our brains work. It's hard to be a plastic surgeon using the language of an accountant. It's almost impossible to become a facilitator when you have learned to be a lecturer. But there is hope. Some horse and buggy drivers did learn to drive cabs, managers learned to do their own typing and most of us can operate a photocopier.

And even though human brains are plastic and we strengthen the most used synapses and prune the least used connections, it is difficult to make the switch to a new way of working or learning. This has huge implications for rapidly changing times, where each new wave of technology demands new kinds of words and new ways of organizing your brain.

If you were born 30-40,000 years ago your brain would have been programmed for an hunter-gatherer world which is a quite different to the way kids brains work today. Kids arrive Knowledge Age-ready, simply because the tools, the language and the ways they are used just happen to permeate the environment into which they are born. The computer. The Internet. iPods. Facebook. Games. And global connectivity.

That's why Industrial Age teachers are boring Knowledge Age-ready kids with lectures, no conversation and limited or no access to the tools they use in their home lives. Their brains are stuck in the language and methods of a bygone era.

The problem is that new waves of technological change are arriving in cycles which are shorter than a human lifetime (or working life). We are having to reinvent ourselves several times to continue to earn a living. And we could now be headed for really serious trouble. Because in complexity theory terms, when you get to the fourth or fifth bifurcation in a period doubling cascade, the system becomes totally chaotic.

On the other hand, we might be able to discover how to navigate our way through the chaos to a new kind of order and develop a new dynamic between our brains and our tools. Perhaps we might join forces with our tools and become a single species, a process which has already begun with the invention/creation of synthetic body parts and the manipulation of genetics to create quasi-cellular life.

So here's a workshop to explore how this process happens and what might be coming next:

1. Here's a bunch of words that appeared in the dictionary in 2009. Explain the origins of one or two words that you recognize and guess the origins of one-or two words you have never heard before. Carbon footprint,  cardioprotective, earmark, fan fiction, flash mob, frenemy, goji, green-collar, haram, locavore, memory foam, missalette, naproxen, neuroprotective, pharmacogenetics, physiatry, reggaeton, shawarma, sock puppet,  staycation, vlog, waterboarding, webisode, zip line.
2. Why do you think some words have spread and are recognizable and others have not spread and we dont know what they mean?
3. Here's a list of technologies that were invented during earlier periods of human development. e.g. horse and buggy, grammaphone, sailing ship, terrace house, castle, book, newspaper, typewriter.  Choose one of these words and brainstorm words associated with that technology. e.g. book - cover, page, typeface, preface, contents, read
4. Here's a list of recent inventions. Choose one and brainstorm words associated with that new tool. Twitter, mobile phone, computer, global positioning system, condominium, skyscraper, submarine, jumbo jet.
5. What technologies did you grow up with and what did you do for entertainment/fun?
6. What technologies do our children grow up with and what do they do for entertainment/fun?
7. What technologies did our grandparents grow up with and what did they do for entertainment/fun?
8. What kinds of things do our grandparents have difficulty doing or understanding in today's world?
9. If there is a pattern to our brain development which parallels the changes in our tools, what might be coming next?
10. Here are three choices to discuss/analyse. The waves get shorter and human society becomes chaotic and disintegrates. A new higher-level kind of order emerges from the human-tool system. Human society spins its wheels and stays where we are right now. What do you think will happen and why?
11. What can we do to help prepare society for tomorrow's world, especially to change the way we learn and what we learn?

#Christiansen, M.H., & Chater, N. (2007). Language as shaped by the brain. Retrieved April 13, 2008 from the Santa Fe Institute website,

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Our "trigger-happy zombies"

What if our brains were unable to automate the simplest activities? So every moment of every day was complex and confusing? What if every day we pushed the porridge up our nose at breakfast, or forgot how to clean our teeth, use our computers, drive the car or read a book? What if we had a Groundhog day every day?

Fortunately, thanks to the orchestration functions of our frontal lobes, especially the left, we are able to automate most functions involving thought and action.

Our brains routinely invent “kinetic melodies”, those automatic motor and speech routines that help us perform very complex and co-ordinated actions with little cognitive effort.

But sometimes this "trigger-happy zombie" does stuff for us we later regret, a fraction of a second before we become consciously aware of it.

We automatically lock the car with the keys inside. We blurt out words that wound or tell a truth we wish to conceal. We "mispeak" our accomplishments. We embellish a story with new details when swept up into the logic of the narrative. Or we make split second decisions that endanger the lives of others.

Without thinking about it consciously!

Here's a fun warm-up for a workshop:

What's the worst thing your "trigger-happy zombie" (your left frontal lobes) has done for you automatically and what were the consequences?