Metaphors behind the brain

NPO "Meditsynskaya Encyclopedia", Moscow, Russia

Did metaphors play a crucial role in the development of neuroscience? How they were used? Psychologists claim that metaphors serve two communicative functions: 1) the expression of otherwise inexpressible or 2) the use of a metaphor might be more economical and hence more effective way to understand the matter.

Neuroanatomy is full of metaphors: David's lyre, Ammon's horn, globus pallidus (a pale ball), locus coeruleus (a blue sport), pons (a bridge), aqueduct (a water-pipe), vermis ( a worm), velum (a sail), fissura calcarine (a spurred furrow), parahippocampal gyrus (a bend around a sea-horse), thalamus (a sleeping chamber), pulvinar (a pillow), mamillary (nipple-like) bodies, pallim (a cloak), tentorium (a tent) etc. Many clinical symptoms such as "sunset sign" (gaze paresis) in hydrocephalus, "cracked pot sign" in cranial fracture, "pill-rolling" tremor in Parkinson's disease, "pose of a hunting dog" (when patient is lying on the side with flexed legs abducted to the abdomen) in acute meningitis etc. are also metaphorical, as well as the so-called "vegetative (i.e. vegetable) state".

With the advent of modern diagnostic equipment new metaphors are being used. For example, in bilateral subdural hematomas "symptom of hare's ears" (when anterior horns of lateral ventricles are brought nearer and straightened) on CT- or MRI-scans has been described. "Salt and pepper symptom" could be seen on CT-scans (a combination of tiny zones of high and low brain density) in hemorrhagic cerebral contusion. The advantage of such metaphors is their vivid imagery and easy memorization.

All concepts of brain functioning are also metaphorical. The use of metaphors reflects the level of our knowledge about the nature. For example, Réné Descartes coined the term "reflex" from the idea that nerve impulses are reflected in the brain like in the mirror. Another Cartesian metaphor is that pineal gland regulates the flow of animal spirit similar to an oven-door. These were mechanical metaphors. In a computer era they underwent a considerable change. In late 1950-ies Carl Pribram claimed that brain functioning is analogous to computer programming. In the late 1960-s the same author suggested that metaphorically speaking the mechanism of formation the images of a surrounding world inside the brain is holographic.

Metaphors are important instruments for studying and understanding the brain both before and behind the mind.

Session XI -- Scientific Methods and Metaphors
Wednesday, 5 June 2002, 3:30 pm

Seventh Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Los Angeles, California, USA