Lessons from Frankenstein: Bad metaphors make for lousy science

Humans are metaphor machines, constantly seeking to understand one thing in terms of another.

Ever since Dr. Frankenstein gave his monster a brain, science fiction has dealt with how the mind might work in the future. But will mind control and mental telepathy ever become historical fact? In a recent article Clarkesworld Magazine took a largely skeptical view, pointing out that these prominent sci-fi tropes lean on some metaphors that have outlived their usefulness to science.

The brain, for example, is not just a series neuronal connections, or a computer-like structure, but a chemical vat as well. Precisely mapping the hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections in our wetware won't recreate the brain. The would-be Dr. Frankenstein would have to account as well for the emotions produced by those brain states, and that deductive roadblock is a notoriously hard problem known more widely to philosophers of science than to its practitioners.

Similarly, our bodies are not just transportation for our heads, but a crucial environment in which thought and emotion are situated. This embodied thinking has an epistimal corollary: We know more than we can tell. It's a fact that any experienced and skilled craftsperson can confirm.

Our walking-around bodies are doing some of the "computing," and yet few think of the human body in those terms.

Or take the idea of memories. They are not "film-like," but something really quite different. Clarkesworld Magazine:

However, as research has revealed in recent years, our memories don't work like video cameras at all. Instead, our brains identify the most novel or important elements of what we perceive and store those elements in locations scattered throughout the brain, while everything else is discarded. Even a momentary image we retain isn't stored as one piece. In his book Brain Rules, developmental molecular biologist John Medina says: 'If you look at a complex picture, for example, your brain immediately extracts the diagonal lines from the vertical lines and stores them in separate areas. Same with color. If the picture is moving, the fact of its motion will be extracted and stored in a place separate than if the picture were static.'

If that's the case, you might well wonder why you can vividly remember every detail of playing Monopoly with your cousin when you were twelve, or a toast at a wedding you went to last week. The answer, disturbingly, is that our brains make up details to complete the picture. Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert puts it this way in his book Stumbling on Happiness : '... information acquired after an event alters memory of the event ... First, the act of remembering involves filling in details that were not actually stored; and second, we generally cannot tell when we are doing this because filling in happens quickly and unconsciously.'

One - ahem - novel solution to this impoverished metaphorical condition might come from artists, who are constantly playing with new metaphors in the search for a descriptive match between churning thought and outcome. When it comes to the human brain, former IdeaFestival presenter Jonah Lehrer's book, "Proust was Neuroscientist," describes the many different ways this restlessness - and often poorly received art - has strongly hinted at discoveries later confirmed by science. Artists often ask better questions.

Better questions will be on tap at the 2010 festival. The lineup of creative people like Jon Landau, who co-produced the Oscar winning film, "Avatar," or Sapphire, who wrote the book "Push" - on which the similarly awarded film "Precious" was based - might just surprise you with their insight into the human condition. Come prepared, in other words, to replace your worn out metaphors. Insight may follow.