Open Thinkering


TB871: Sending people off on the wrong plane

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

Here are the front pages of some newspapers published in England this morning, with most of them covering the 80th anniversary of ‘D-Day’:

As you can see, metaphorical language abounds: “grasp,” “flinch,” “ditches,” “bails out,” “pressure on,” and of course “going down of the sun.” As a football fan, the photo of a face next to the words “JACK OUT” conveys quickly and succinctly that Jack Grealish hasn’t made “the cut” for the England squad to play in the upcoming EURO 2024 Championships.

There are many metaphors that have evolved over time to become such a part of everyday language that the roots are lost. Some of these lost conceptual metaphors are deeply embedded in our embodied experiences. For instance, why do people talk of being ‘in’ time, ‘in’ position, ‘out of’ favour, ‘out of’ luck, or ‘in’ love? These all use what Lakoff and Johnson (1980) call the container metaphor. Love, luck, favour, and position in space or time are states, and states are often described as if they were, metaphorically speaking, containers which someone can be inside or outside. The very notion of ‘being inside’ or ‘being outside’ has potentially much deeper roots in our embodied experiences, such as that of being inside the womb rather than outside of it.


We live embodied lives and so metaphors that involve tangible objects can be quite helpful in making sense of that physicality.


However, for situations where information plays a significant but often unclear role in the ways that people think, feel, perceive and judge, it may be problematic to rely on physical metaphors. There are situations where perception, sense-making and emotion, and not physical movement, are of prime concern. And, following Gregory Bateson (1972)… not everything that we might want to communicate is accessible to the conscious mind. Is it possible that in such situations, physical metaphors may lack the variety to deal with the phenomenon of interest? Could they be misleading and sending people off, as it were, on the wrong plane?

(The Open University, 2020)

This is really interesting to me, especially as we start to interact with un-embodied ‘consciousnesses’ such as AI. Reflecting on my interactions with LLMs such as ChatGPT, when I ask for a metaphor the most common examples tend to be one of a garden, the solar system, or an orchestra. Even though LLMs are trained on data created by humans, because they are not embodied, I suppose they’re less likely to use physical metaphors.

Given the above quotation, I’m not sure if this will be more or less useful in terms of human development? If we use physical metaphors unthinkingly, then perhaps being more intentional about them could be useful. Or will using fewer physical metaphors make things feel less human?


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