Conceptual metaphor: a potential means of integrating empirical and phenomenological perspectives

There is a very close link between linguistic metaphors and mental imagery (this similarity is explicitly recognised in the distinction noted in the CBT literature between ‘autobiographical’ and ‘metaphoric’ imagery). Put simply, metaphors are linguistic expressions of thinking in pictures. And, just as with mental imagery, there is a general acceptance within counselling and psychotherapy that working with both client and therapist generated metaphor can be therapeutically beneficial. Indeed, there have been some well-known therapists such as Kopp (1971) whose therapeutic proficiency is directly linked to their acknowledged mastery of the use of metaphor in clinical work. Probably the most well-known would be Erickson (1901-1980), the founder of hypnotherapy (Erickson and Rossi, 1979), who was particularly skilled at creating apt metaphors for clients’ presenting problems. The aptness of these metaphors is predicated on a structural similarity to the client’s difficulty that does not include explicit reference to the problematic issue. A well-chosen metaphor can then allow a nonthreatening means for the client to explore and potentially transform their perception of their difficulties. And yet, despite the universal recognition of the usefulness of metaphor in therapy, it has been viewed until recently as merely a helpful linguistic tool that the therapist could employ to promote therapeutic insight. However, over the last couple of decades, there is evidence for a new understanding of the therapeutic potential of metaphor, and this has been informed by a revolution in the way in which we understand the role of metaphor in cognition. The recognition that metaphor is integral to the way we think has, by association, very significant implications for the study of mental imagery in counselling and psychotherapy. Lakoff and Johnson’s (2003) theory of conceptual metaphor has become increasingly well-known and influential across a wide range of disciplines: it is assumed, therefore, that most readers will be familiar with its basic premise but perhaps not fully conversant with some of its implications for therapeutic practice. Because of the importance accorded to this theory in this book - not only do I highlight its potential to integrate empirical and phenomenological perspectives, it also explicitly informs the imagery practice presented in Part Two - I am restating its basic principles in some detail below before discussing its relevance for the therapeutic practice of mental imagery.

In cognitive linguistics theory, language is understood to arise out of our embodied experience of the world and to be primarily metaphoric in expression. Furthermore, these metaphors function in a fundamental way to structure our thinking and perception. It is the most familiar unconscious metaphors that are the most basic in terms of this structuring process. Lakoff and Johnson assert that we are continuously employing concrete phenomena (which they term the ‘source domain’) to articulate abstract concepts (which they term the ‘target’). These source domains are generated out of our embodied experience situated within a particular cultural and historical context. A clear illustration of this is provided in Kovecses’s (2002) discussion of the universality of metaphoric conceptualisations of anger: across a range of unrelated languages, e.g. English, Zulu, Japanese and Hungarian, there is a remarkably similar conceptualisation of anger as energy held in a pressurised container. Lakoff and Johnson (2003, 1999) argue that this universality arises from the embodied experience of physiological symptoms of this state. However, there are variations in linguistic metaphorical expressions that are influenced by cultural factors. For example, in Japanese the pressurised container is in the ‘hara’, i.e. belly and intestines, whereas in English it is situated in the head.

The key concept in Lakoff and Johnson’s theory is conceptual metaphor. These metaphors are understood to be underlying schema or ‘experiential gestalts’ that can generate a whole range of linguistic metaphorical expressions. These schema are often so fundamental that we do not recognise their metaphorical nature - for example, when we use spatial metaphors for our experience of time, such as ‘there are good times ahead’. Here the source domain is our experience of being physically located in space and this is mapped onto the more abstract phenomenon of time.

However, whatever metaphor is used, it structures our experience and perception of the target phenomenon; it will highlight particular aspects of the target phenomenon and hide others. Lakoff and Johnson (2003) use the example of the conceptual metaphor argument is war (small capital letters are the accepted convention for conceptual metaphors) to illustrate this process. If this conceptual metaphor is operating, then the participants engaged in this activity become opponents who are out to win through scoring points; these would be viewed as the entailments of the metaphor. Argument activities that do not cohere with the conceptual metaphor would disappear as possibilities; for example, there would be no room for collaborative experiences of argument.

Linguistic metaphors represent only the surface level expressions of underlying cognitive structures. Gibbs et al. emphasise the nonverbal nature of conceptual metaphors, stating that these ‘ . . . image schemas are imaginative and nonpropositional in nature and operate as organizing structures of experience at the level of bodily perception and movement’ (2004: 1192). A research study conducted by Gibbs and O’Brien (1990) provides some tangible support for the use of mental imagery to represent conceptual metaphor. In a series of experiments, participants were asked to form mental images of metaphoric idioms. Gibbs and O’Brien argue that the remarkable consistency of these images supports the theory that these images were generated by conceptual metaphor. In addition, Lakoff (2001) argues that conceptual metaphor theory could be a particularly effective means of interpreting dreams.

Furthermore, in more recent work, Gallese and Lakoff (2005) have proposed an extension of the ontological base for conceptual metaphor to encompass all abstract thinking. The groundbreaking discovery of mirror neurons (Rizzolatti et al.,1996), i.e. the same neurons fire not only when we perform an action but also when we watch someone else perform the same action, is the basis of their claim that imagining and understanding originate from the same neural substrate (readers who are interested in recent developments within conceptual metaphor theory are referred to Gibbs’s [2011] evaluation of current research and thinking).

The theory of conceptual metaphor is impacting on a wide range of disciplines from archaeology to comparative philosophy, and has started to make its presence felt in the field of counselling and psychotherapy. Lawley and Tompkins (2000) have developed a new counselling and coaching approach, which they term ‘symbolic modelling’, that focuses on the surfacing of clients’ embodied metaphors, thereby bringing about meaningful change. Furthermore, other writers, such as Wickman et al. (1999), have identified the contribution that conceptual metaphor could make to theoretical integration; stating that it ‘ . . . provides a potentially powerful counselling framework generalizable across theoretical orientations’ (1999: 389).

In conclusion, it would appear that cognitive linguistics is providing both the theoretical grounds and, more recently, the empirical evidence for the argument that mental imagery arises out of embodied experience (Gibbs and Berg, 2002). This embodied meaningfulness offers a potential solution to the long-debated symbol grounding problem, i.e. the attempt to connect symbols to objective referents in the external world - meaningfulness is embedded in human perception and action.

The implications of this new understanding of metaphor for therapeutic work with mental images is clear - i.e. using mental imagery (or image schemas) provides direct access to the individual’s fundamental patterns of thought, behaviour and meaning making. And more than this, conceptual metaphor offers a potential explanation for the therapeutic efficacy of mental imagery that can integrate empirical and phenomenological perspectives.

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