Metaphorical drift

I went to a talk yesterday by a PhD student, Jocelyn Spence, part of her talk revolved around the way that we interact over photographs. She pointed out how, when we talk, we shape each others thinking and gradually reminiscences turn into memories and then into stories. She showed a schematic devised by her supervisor, David Frohlich, to capture this (Frohlich & Fenell, 2007).

From the empirical paper about metaphor (Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2011) we can be confident that preceding metaphors shape the direction of thought. When it comes to reminiscence then metaphors and ideas shape the direction of the associations that our brains make for us. (I don’t think that it is something we necessarily control.) I’d love to know the mechanistic underpinnings of that associational process but perhaps (following Eco) we don’t need to perhaps we can take a black-box approach, i.e. model the observed behaviours and gain insight that way. (I’m beginning to sound like a professor I once knew!)

There was a recent article in New Scientist (Buchanan, 2011) regarding how the maths used to describe quantum theory works surprisingly well to describe adult cognition. “This is not to say there is anything quantum going on in the brain, only that “quantum” mathematics really isn’t owned by physics at all, and turns out to be better than classical mathematics in capturing the fuzzy and flexible ways that humans use ideas.” One of the analogy is between the properties of electrons and the interactions of words and thought:

One aspect of [the realm of quantum uncertainty] is that the properties of particles such as electrons do not exist until they are measured. The experiment doing the measuring determines what properties an electron might have.

Hilbert’s mathematics includes this effect by representing the quantum state of an electron by a so-called “state vector” – a kind of arrow existing in an abstract, high-dimensional space known as Hilbert space. An experiment can change the state vector arrow, projecting it in just one direction in the space. This is known as contextuality and it represents how the context of a specific experiment changes the possible properties of the electron being measured.”

So, the context is our perception of (and response to) the room of people sharing thoughts and memories stimulated by images and objects. That creates the ‘state vector’ which directs the drift of memories. This is, perhaps, a way of restating the agency of objects.

I’m hoping that someone out there is doing the maths, so that I don’t have to


Buchanan, M. (2011) ‘Quantum minds: Why we think like quarks’, New Scientist, 5th September

Frohlich, D. & Fennell, J. (2007) ‘Sound, paper and memorabilia: resources for a simpler digital
photography’, Personal & Ubiquitous Computing, 11, 107–116

Thibodeau P.H. & Boroditsky, L. (2011) ‘Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning’, PLoS ONE, 6(2): e16782. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016782


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, object handling, Perception. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Metaphorical drift

  1. Pingback: The Junction Box Speculation | holding the moment of holding

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