What’s marriage like?

I’m getting married today. In my remaining few hours as an engaged person, I’m engaging in my favorite way to reflect on a complex, complicated concept – a metaphor dissection.

What are the metaphors we use for marriage?

Our talk of love is full of metaphors. One of the most well-known in cognitive linguistics is that love is a journey: relationships can be on the rocks, take a turn for the worst, or cruising along. We also like to talk about love as a rock: a stabilizing, timeless force in our lives. Last night while watching a 30 Rock rerun, I learned that love can also be like an onion: “you peel away layer after stinky layer until you’re just. . . weeping over the sink.”

Maybe we can use a lot of the same metaphors we use for love to talk about marriage as well. But while marriages might involve figurative journeys, rocks, and onions, marriage is also something distinct from love. Since it’s a complex and abstract topic, it seems natural that we’d invoke metaphors to talk about it, but as I started trying to come up with them, I had some trouble. Thus, I called on Google.

This is what Google thinks marriage is like

This is what Google thinks marriage is like.

These Google results are a nice mix of clever (marriage is like a garden because you reap what you sow) and discouraging (like a deck of cards?!). But metaphors are often more hidden than this search would allow me to uncover – we don’t often say that “love is like a journey,” but instead just whip out journey-related phrases when talking about love. Here’s my second attempt at uncovering marriage metaphors through Google:

And this is what Google thinks that marriage IS. If this doesn't quell any pre-wedding jitters, I don't know what will.

And this is what Google thinks that marriage IS. If this doesn’t quell any pre-wedding jitters, I don’t know what will.

After this search, I decided Google wasn’t the way to go. I thought about phrases I’ve heard about marriage. We’re tying the knot. What knot is this? Do I really want to be tied to another person? Similarly, we’re getting hitched. Hitched to what? Last I checked the only things we really hitch are trailers to trucks. These metaphors are pretty uninformative and don’t paint the greatest picture of marriage.

Then what are the metaphors we should use to talk about marriage?

I don’t know first-hand what marriage is like yet, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about my expectations of it. I expect that it’ll require effort. The effort might be planning long-distance Skype dates, remembering birthdays, and biting my tongue when the toothpaste isn’t squeezed the way I like it to be. It’ll require compromises, sacrifices, and honesty. But when we both put in that effort and maybe some warmth, what we’ll get out of it will be much greater than what we could have otherwise. It should be pleasant, satisfying, and fulfilling. It should make us smile, and when we share it with others, it should make them smile too.

By this definition, marriage is not much different from an oven. You have some raw ingredients, you mix a little of some with a lot of some others, and then you immerse them in warmth to bake. You have to be patient for a while, but then you end up with a batch of fresh-baked cookies. They’re warm, sweet, and satisfying, especially if you take a moment to savor them. And you can share them with other people, give them a taste of one of life’s simplest pleasures. All thanks to the oven. I hope we can have an oven-like marriage. We’ll have to invest in quality ingredients and put in effort to them together in the right proportions. We’ll have to be patient. We’ll savor what we get out, and we’ll share what we can with others in our life.


Since an oven is not a very sexy metaphor for marriage, I look forward to coming up with new and better ones as we learn more about what marriage is like for us. In the meantime, we’re going to tie the knot, get hitched (to what? I’m still not sure) and get working on the first of many batches of cookies.

Where is my data when it’s in a cloud?

I recently stumbled upon a cool Atlantic piece from a couple of year’s ago by Rebecca Rosen – Clouds: The Most Useful Metaphor of All Time? I was looking for metaphors used to talk about the internet, and of course the cloud is a ubiquitous one. I also find it a confusing one. I own that Kindle book, so why isn’t it on my iPad? or I wrote that note on my phone, so how’d it get in my email drafts? How is it that my cloud is “full?” Although I haven’t invested much time in learning about the internet cloud, Rosen’s Atlantic piece suggested that my confusions are more logical than I gave myself credit for. Clouds are used (both graphically and linguistically) for concepts that are vague and fuzzy:

What is it about clouds that has such sticking power? Clouds get traction as a metaphor because they are shape-shifters, literally. As a result they can stand in for many varied cultural tropes. Want something to represent the one thing marring your otherwise perfect situation? Done. Want to evoke the nostalgic feeling of childhood games of the imagination? Done. Maybe you want to draw a picture of heaven? You’re in luck. Clouds as metaphors pepper our language: every cloud has a silver lining, I’m on cloud nine, his head is in the clouds, there are dark clouds on the horizon. Clouds are the lazy man’s metaphor, a one-image-fits-all solution for your metaphor needs.

The point of clouds is that they’re vague. And in fact, how much do we really know about them, despite the fact that we see them almost every day? We do often talk about things we don’t understand in terms of other things we don’t understand. For example, to talk about love (a hard-to-understand idea), we often draw on terms from chemistry (an even harder-to-understand one). And even though we don’t really understand the metaphorical domain (chemistry), we feel like we understand the source (love) a little better thanks to our metaphorical use. So it is with clouds. For someone being introduced to the idea of the Internet’s cloud, they might initially get the gist pretty quickly – just as a cloud floats around in the sky, my data is floating around somewhere (or at the least, it’s not solely on my device). But then once you start using your cloud – accumulating books, songs, and documents – your understanding might become foggier. Because how do you get something back when it’s in a cloud? Wait for the rain? Jump on a plane? I’m still trying to figure this one out.

A metaphorical tour of the brain


Fun writing this piece on how we talk (and think) about the brain!

Originally posted on NeuWrite San Diego:

Albert Einstein once said: “The only source of knowledge is experience.” Not to undermine Einstein’s authority, but there are many phenomena, especially in science, that we just can’t experience directly. We can make diagrams, but we can’t actually see or touch things like dopamine or gravity. And although we’re constantly experiencing both of those things, we’re not aware that we’re experiencing them in the way that we know we’re experiencing blueness when we look at the ocean. If experience is the source of knowledge and we’re unable to experience so many scientific phenomena, how, then, do we know and communicate about them? Metaphor provides one way of doing so: we talk about abstract concepts in terms of more concrete ones that we do have experience with as a way of making sense of intangible ideas.

Neuroscience is filled with metaphors, many of which are hardly recognizable as such. The brain…

View original 1,013 more words


When we call something “meta,” we usually mean that it references its own features. A post on Reddit about being on Reddit or a documentary about Michael Moore might both be considered meta. Straightforward enough.

But why is a metaphor a metaphor? By definition, a metaphor doesn’t refer to itself – it invokes some other seemingly different concept. So I looked it up: I learned that the meta in meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) is different one from the one in metaphor. Metaphor is derived from both Greek and Latin words that mean to transfer. When I say that my mind is a computer, I transfer some computer-ness to the topic of my mind (though it doesn’t result in the computer losing any computer-ness, which is what transfer means to me… but I’ll cut the ancient Greeks and Romans some slack on that one).

After this small dose of etymology, I returned to metaphors. My preoccupation with the meta- in metaphor came about because I discovered a really striking meta-metaphor in this aeon piece by Michael Erard: Seeing through words. It’s too beautiful for me to paraphrase, so here’s a chunk of Erard’s meta-metaphor:

I think of it [metaphor] as a room: the windows and doors frame a view toward the reality outside. Put the windows high, people see only the trees. Put them low, they see the grass. Put the window on the south side, they’ll see the sun. Sometimes the room can be empty. Sometimes the views from the room are a bit forced. Or perhaps they’re new and therefore uncomfortable. In those situations, you have to direct people’s attention. You have to give them furniture to sit on that makes your architectural choices unavoidable.

Erard returns to this metaphor in order to describe his former job as a metaphor designer, a job that had him constructing and testing metaphors to help people better understand unfamiliar topics like social problems or solutions to those problems. Metaphors that facilitate understanding are often not the ones that make people stop and remark on how beautiful the comparison is, Erard points out, but his window metaphor made me do just that. Much of what makes his metaphor beautiful to me is that the mappings between windows and metaphors are numerous and subtle. Each time I reread this section of the piece, my eyes were opened to a new way that metaphors are window-like. Windows can be small or large, covered by curtains or bare, granting viewers a range of views from almost panoramic to small peeks; metaphors come in this variety too. Every once in a while we’ll find a window that may as well have not been put in at all, since another wall sits outside it; metaphors can be pointless too. It’s very rare to find a window-less building, and likewise rare to find a metaphor-less conversation, paragraph, or song lyric. Both windows and metaphors remind us that seeing is understanding, a metaphor so ingrained in our language that it’s hardly noticeable as a metaphor.

I really like Erard’s metaphor description – in fact, I might even say that it’s crystal clear (meta-meta-metaphor?).

Faith in science

We have a bit of a science problem in America. For some reason, our students aren’t learning it very well, or at least not as well as they are in many other countries. Most people seem to acknowledge this issue and advocate for an improvement in our education.

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 5.20.48 PM


And if students aren’t learning it, that probably means that adults, even those who are generally educated and motivated, probably have some conceptual gaps too (for example, when asked whether the earth orbits the sun or the sun orbits the earth – a question that gives people a 50% chance of getting it right if they guessed blindly! – only 74% of Americans correctly reported that the earth orbits the sun). Our widespread knowledge gaps are Problem Number 1.

A related problem is that many people tend to distrust science. For one, science is not always right on the first try (eggs are bad for your cholesterol! No wait, eggs are good for you!). Relatedly, some people do actually do crappy science (Problem Number 2), and other times good science gets reported badly (Problem Number 3). The recent “study” that recruited a very small number of participants, gave half of them chocolate, measured a ton of correlations to find a few that would reveal significant results, and published these results in a phony journal highlighted this. This hoax demonstrated both bad science and exaggerated, sensational reporting, and people who were initially fooled into believing that chocolate is the key to weight loss probably feel duped – rightfully so.

Problems 1-3 are a recipe for societal skepticism about science. It’s really difficult to evaluate science even when you’re being trained as a scientist, let alone if all of your training is in an entirely different field. Science can easily seem foreign, unrelatable, and unreliable. Who has the power to do something about this? Prominent scientists could maybe help sway the public’s opinion, but we might need a revolution in our cultural ethos towards science, and old people are rarely behind revolutions. What about wide-eyed and idealistic science grad students?

In a few hours, I’ll be on a plane heading to ComSciCon, a workshop on communicating science for grad students. The goal is to help us become better at communicating our own science as well as other people’s science – hopefully a step towards society’s impending science ethos revolution.

Are memories just pasta?

I just read a really fun description of memories in a Nautilus post: The pasta theory of memory & your personal beginning of time. It’s a post on childhood amnesia, the frustrating phenomenon that we just don’t remember much from the earliest part of our lives.

The piece is written by Dana Mackenzie, but the rich title inspiration comes from an Emory University psychologist that he interviewed, Patricia Bauer. Here’s how Bauer describes children’s memory:

“I compare memory to a colander,” Bauer says. “If you’re cooking fettucine, the pasta stays in. But if you’re cooking orzo, it goes right through the holes. The immature brain is a lot like a colander with big holes, and the little memories are like the orzo. As you get older, you’re either getting bigger pasta or a net with smaller holes.”

Why do I like this metaphor? It paints a nice picture of what happens. Kids still make memories, but those memories tend to escape. Older people’s memories are more likely to be contained by the colander brain.

This metaphor is compelling, but is it the best thing since sliced bread? Pasta easily trumps bread on my carbs hierarchy, but what about in the context of describing memory? Importantly, it demonstrates that children retain fewer memories than adults (which we probably don’t need much convincing of), but it doesn’t tell us why this is so. Why are children’s memories orzo-like, and how to do they become fettucine-like over time? There’s a lot about this process that scientists still don’t know, but the metaphor can’t capture those things they actually do know. For example, Mackenzie acknowledges in the piece, when we retell a memory, we increase our chances of remembering that event later (though retelling memories also introduces inaccuracies that seem to increase the more we retell…). A similar issue with the metaphor is that our brains are constantly changing, and a large part of the reason that kids don’t remember as much as adults do results from that dynamic property. But colanders don’t change as they age, so the pasta metaphor might make it less evident that the massive changes that take place in our brains underlie many of the memory differences throughout our lives.

Metaphors highlight some things – they play up certain features of the two things they’re comparing, and they downplay others. It’s probably not possible to accurately capture every important aspect of a phenomenon like childhood amnesia in one metaphor. And that’s ok, because metaphors can be supplemented by other information. But metaphors don’t only leave out relevant details. They can also mislead, as I think the static colander has the potential to do. Maybe the best way, then, to communicate the complexity of childhood amnesia is to remind ourselves (and those we’re communicating with) that although some features of children’s forgetting and orzo pasta do map onto each other well, other features, like the colander, fall short – at least until we design one that develops in a brain-like way over the course of its lifespan.

An exercise in wrongness

Wrongness isn’t a word, you say? Then I’m off to a great start. (It is, though).

My department makes a pretty big deal of our second year projects. We don’t have any qualifying exams, just an oral presentation and paper. We’re still 4 long weeks away from presenting these projects, but there have already been plenty of eye-opening moments for me to write about. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve done a project of this nature and magnitude from start to “finish” (are these projects really ever over?) largely independently. This means that there are a lot of surprise moments for making mistakes.

Going back to last summer when I started running the experiments that will be included in my project, I screwed up plenty of things. My sloppy programming meant that the experiment crashed sometimes. Other times, I failed to communicate important details to the research assistants running the experiment, and we had to trash the data. It turned out that the data collection was actually the phase of the project in which I made the fewest mistakes, though. The process of analyzing the data was a cycle of mistakes and inefficiencies that were usually followed up by more mistakes and inefficiencies. Every once in a while, I’d do something useful, and that was enough to keep me going.

Sometimes, I’ve gotten annoyed at myself for making these mistakes, especially when deadlines are approaching or when my advisor has to be the one to point them out to me. I’ve been frustrated by the messiness of the data, though logically I know that I should probably be skeptical if my data weren’t messy), and all those things I should have done differently continue to come to mind and nag at me.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Luckily, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. A handful of older grad students have told me about their second year project mistakes, and mine start to look like par for the course.

And then I discovered a Nautilus interview of physicist David Deutsch. It’s a pretty philosophical interview on the importance of fallibility, but the takeaway is that the ability to be wrong is something we should embrace because the very fact that we’re error-prone means that it’s possible to be right. He points out that so often in science, people prove things wrong that have been assumed for many years to be truths.

What makes progress possible is not whether one is right or wrong, but how one deals with ideas. And it doesn’t matter how wrong one is. Because there’s unlimited progress possible, it must mean that our state of knowledge at any one time hasn’t even scratched the surface yet. [As the philosopher Karl Popper said], “We’re all alike in our infinite ignorance.”

This interview lifted a lot of weight off my second-year grad student shoulders. I’ve made lots of mistakes throughout the process of putting together this project (and I’m not finished making them, I feel pretty confident), and therefore, there is a such thing as doing the work correctly. In the end, the p-values that I find when I analyze my data aren’t really the important part (though, unfortunately, they’re what will determine if and where the work gets published…). Instead, it’s a reminder to focus on the ideas – the ones the work was based on and the one the work opens up – and embrace the wrongness.