A web of intrigue

The Spider’s Thread: Metaphor in Mind, Brain, and Poetry by Keith J. Holyoak (MIT Press; £27.00); Reviewed by Cathy Rogers.

Perhaps it’s appropriate for a book about metaphor that it doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin. Rather, it is the story of Holyoak’s quest to combine the objective view of the experimental psychologist with the subjective view of the poet – in order to create a kind of one-man-interdisciplinary analysis of metaphor. In the metaphorical blue corner, representing poetry, is Muhammed Ali. In the red corner, for psychology, is Barry McGuigan. Barry’s a fearsome fighter in the right match but he’s woefully underpowered here. In one of the many wonderful poems which herald each chapter, one has the lines:

The already known had once more been confirmed
By psychological experiment

Which says it all really. But the book holds together because, far from this unmasking feeling threatening (as well it might to someone whose primary billing is cognitive psychologist) Holyoak declares it one of his favourites. To push this thought probably too far, might the book actually be the howl of a psychologist desperate to escape the fetters of his discipline?

And so to the book itself. ‘The spider’s thread’, Holyoak posits, is language itself; only language offers the filaments to connect our subjective world to a shared one where communication is possible. And what better to oil those filaments than metaphors, whose charms lie in their roominess, their in-betweens? Metaphors are generous, playful; they cast the imagination as queen.

I love metaphors but I’m scared of poetry – it’s always felt a bit like gate-crashing a party. So my first appreciation here is of the generosity in both the selection and evaluation of the poems. From Sylvia Plath and Langston Hughes to Allen Ginsberg and Leonard Cohen to Coleridge and Yeats, there is no shortage of magnificent poetry. Poems are the stars because they can take metaphors and run with them. They extend them, bend them, corrupt them, defy them. The book has plentiful, delightful illustrations of their prowess.

Halfway through, Holyoak asks the question we’ve been expecting but dreading: ‘What have psychologists learned about how people understand metaphor and what do their findings tell us about metaphor in poetry?’ Even he concedes that a credible answer is ‘precious little’. The shrinking necessary to render big, deep things testable (decades of research hanging on the line, ‘my lawyer is a shark’) make any return journey hazardous. We dally into evidence of ‘conceptual combination’ - hearing a literal sentence (‘sharks can swim’) prior to a metaphorical one (‘my lawyer is a shark’) interferes with our understanding of the metaphor. We get a peek at analogical reasoning (‘blindness is to sight as poverty is to …’) which activates the left rostrolateral prefrontal cortex. We are treated to the revelation that poets deactivate their control networks when writing poetry (little surprise to anyone who’s had a eureka moment in the shower).

My overriding thought through all this was, ‘more poems please’. And back on track, we delve into the special relationship between poet and reader, authenticity, the potential (or lack of it) for AI ever to move us poetically, the unconscious and the strange. Holyoak ends with a heartfelt plea for a new kind of education by poetry, incarnating as it does, a holy trinity of critical thinking, imagination and empathy.

If you come to this book hoping to understand how metaphor works in the brain, you’ll likely find yourself wandering in foothills, disillusioned. But if you’re ready for a twisty climb, hand-in-hand with a curious, enthusiastic and steadfast companion, you’ll be rewarded with some wonderful views. This book is a love song to poetry and you’ll surely be singing along.

Reviewed by Cathy Rogers
Developmental Neurocognition Lab
Birkbeck, University of London

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