Metaphors of Mental Experience

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In their book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson revolutionized the study of linguistic metaphors, and also made a substantial contribution to cognitive psychology generally. They demonstrated convincingly -- or, it might more accurately be said, called to our attention something that should really be quite evident -- that metaphors are a basic ingredient of human thought. As they summarized their findings, "We have found...that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature."

That is, their thesis is that we use metaphors widely to think about things in general. My own interest in this area is more specific. I began to notice some time ago how many metaphors we use about thinking itself. That is, whereas Lakoff and Johnson are concerned with metaphors for all kinds of things, I'm more specifically interested in metaphors and similar idiomatic expressions for how we desribe our thought processes and interior mental experiences. Accordingly, I began about two years ago (before I encountered the work of Lakoff and Johnson) collecting and cataloging these colloquial expressions for mental events as I ran across them in various places. The list is now sufficiently large that I see possible value in placing them on the web.

I'm in substantial agreement with the theories of Lakoff and Johnson, and believe their work has done psychology a great service. However, when they broach the subject of metaphors of mental experience, I am not completely persuaded by some of their interpretations. An example would be their suggesting that the metaphors "falling under hypnosis" or "falling asleep", on the one hand, and "waking up" on the other, occur because we sleep lying down and stand on awakening. There's perhaps some truth to that, but I think things are more complex.

In particular, I approach this from the standpoint of phenomenological psychology. That is, I believe that people have subjective, sensory, or sensory-like experiences associated with mental events. When a person says, "I see what you mean," they don't only mean this as a metaphor for visual seeing. They also 'see', with something akin to an interior sense of seeing. Similarly, a phrase like "lofty-minded" is not just what Lakoff and Johnson call an "orientation metaphor." I believe this again relates to subjective sensations, either proprioceptive, or along modalities of sensation that haven't been fully recognized by empirical science (in large part, because they are private, and perhaps subtle).

An example

Consider this example: Imagine some children ask their father, "Daddy, can we go to the park today?" The father thinks about it briefly and replies, "Well, I don't see any reason why not." Now behind that statement, I propose, is the factual assertion that he did not see any reason. Implicit in the statement is that he performed a mental operation, one we are all familiar with. This mental operation, which has no precise name, and belongs more or less to the vast realm of experience connected with what Michael Polanyi (1964) called tacit knowledge, is that whereby one may look, within the mind, for images that represent possible reasons not to do something.

This occurs as a mental mode -- computer scientists might think of it as a subprocess, subprogram, or even an agent -- in which one directs attention to an inner realm in which images customarily appear. Again, we have no name for this realm, but if I ask you to imagine a dog, and you see an image of a dog, then this place where you're seeing it is what is meant. Lacking a better term, we may call it the sensorium of imagination .

Directing his attention to this sensorium, then, the father, keeping in his mind the general topic, looks to see if specific images associated with possible negative outcomes occur. Does he see, for example, the image of a rainstorm spoiling the outing? Does he see an imagined scene associated with another competing activity or engagement? In directing his attention to the sensorium of imagination, images such as these may spontaneously appear, or not. If they do not, that is what he means when he says, "I don't see any reason why we can't go to the park."

At least, I propose, such is the ordinary meaning of the statement. It is also true that people may speak more or less precisely, or may mis-speak. A person in another situation might say, "I don't see a reason why not" when it would be more correct to say that they don't think, believe, or feel there is a dissuading reason -- but, technically, those are all saying different things and reporting different psychological experiences than not seeing a reason.

My conjecture -- I only call it that at present -- is that there are more such inner senses than are currently recognized, or at least well-studied, by cognitive science. The case of the father not "seeing a reason" is a case in point: this is a real psychological experience -- but it is just barely within the realm of what is scientifically recognized.

This realm is not well understood scientifically in large part because it relates to private experience. However, we do appear to have many colloquial, idiomatic, or "folk" expressions that relate to these things. Moreover, were we to expand the radius to include poetry and literature, we would likely find a great many more ways of indirectly, metaphorically, or obliquely referring to and describing such mental experiences.

The fact that we have many colloquial or artistic expressions for things that are not officially recognized by science is, to my mind, something extremely important to notice. It implies the existence of two different realms of collective verbal intelligence: one associated with folk or colloquial language, and the other associated with scientific language. This would seem to have rather broad sociological and psychological implications.

In any case, I believe the basic point is to suggest that we might better notice and study these expressions for the sake of what they may reveal about the nature of our minds. Among the practical questions they may help us address are these:

One last remark before proceeding: I am continually surprised by how many of these metaphors and colloquial expressions there are. I list below about 200 of them. However, as I still encounter new ones on a regular basis, I couldn't say that this represents even half, or even 10% of the potentially relevant ones in our common language.

Metaphors and Idiomatic Expressions

Note: The division of metaphors into separate categories is only provisional. The last category, Miscellaneous, contains those not obviously belonging to the other categories, or which appear to fall in more than one category.

Also, we have not made a clear distinction between metaphors and non-metaphoric idiomatic expressions. That is, all are idioms, but only some are metaphors. We are interested in both -- or, for that matter, any terms or phrases or terms by which people denote or describe mental experience.


Expression Attributes (keywords) Comments
clear reasoning  
clear-headed, clear-minded  
clouded judgment  
get the picture  
look at this way  
mental focus  
mind's eye  
point of view  
reflect on  
see point, meaning, reason, connection  


Expression Attributes (keywords) Comments
bright idea  
bright/dim person  
dimly see a point  
in a different light  
in the dark  
light bulb went off  
lucid explanation  
see in a flash  
shed light on  

Expression Attributes (keywords) Comments
back of the mind  
big ego  
broad/narrow minded  
cross ones mind  
deep/shallow thought  
expanded/reduced consciousness  
forward thinking  
from another angle  
from left field  
get details/facts straight  
hanging over ones head  
head in the clouds  
higher reason  
higher/lower consciousness  
know off the top of your head  
line of thought  
lofty minded  
off in different directions  
on a tangent  
open/closed mind  
out of ones mind  
over ones head  
place before attention  
raised/lowered consciousness  
side of a problem  
sink in  
think over  
think straight  
wider/narrower consciousness  
wits about you  
wrap mind around that  

Expression Attributes (keywords) Comments
small still voice  
voice of common sense  
voice of conscience  
voice of higher reason  
voice of reason  
Note: items below from Google search  
louder voice of knowledge  
the voice of Love  
the voice of our integrity  
voice of divine wisdom  
voice of experience  
voice of God  
voice of guidance  
Voice of Peace  
voice of the spirit  
voice of thy inner GOD (Higher Self)  
Voice of Truth  

Physical or dynamic
Expression Attributes (keywords) Comments
bear in mind  
chain of thought  
change mind  
clear the cobwebs  
collect oneself  
collect thoughts  
come to ones senses  
comes to mind  
compose oneself  
creeping doubt  
cross the mind  
dawn on  
don't go there  
dwell on  
entertain idea  
flight of fancy  
follow argument, reasoning, logic  
gather the wits  
go down a path  
had an idea  
idea popped into head  
inpenetrable logic, puzzle, problem  
inspired thought  
keep in mind  
led astray  
led to believe  
load off the mind  
make head spin  
make sense  
mental adjustment  
mental balance  
mental block  
mental construct  
mental disorder  
mental flaccidity, laxness  
mental power  
mind in whirl  
mind made up  
mind playing tricks  
mind set on  
mixed up  
one track mind  
out of sorts  
pay attention  
prey on the mind  
rack ones brains  
sort out  
spinning ideas  
stream of thought  
take it to mean  
the thought occurred  
think straight  
thinking carried away  
to impress one  
train of thought  
unbalanced, imbalanced  
wandering mind  
weigh a decision  
worked up  

Expression Attributes (keywords) Comments
beside oneself  
change ones mind  
conflict of interest  
find/lose oneself  
forget/remember oneself  
half a mind  
lose one's mind  
of two minds  
ones right mind  
presence of mind  
right mind  
torn between  
undivided attention.  
what possessed me?  

Expression Attributes (keywords) Comments
better judgment (as though a faculty)  
chain of thought  
cloud nine  
common sense  
eccentric thinking  
frame of mind  
half a mind  
idea suggests itself  
in one ear, out the other  
in/out of character  
loose associations  
mental state  
mind your manners  
mixed up  
never mind  
one-track mind  
out of sorts  
presence of mind  
seventh heaven  
strike a nerve  
swell-headed, swollen head  
touch upon  
train of thought  
twisted logic  
wool gathering  

To Cite this Article

Uebersax, John S. (2007). "Metaphors of Mental Experience". Online article. Retrieved from on mmm dd, yyyy.


  • Lakoff, George; Johnson, Mark. Metaphors We Live By. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. ISBN: 0226468011.

  • Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. ISBN 0-226-67288-3.


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John Uebersax PhD

Vers. 1.0: 28 Feb 2007