Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Live Blog - George Lakoff, "The Brain's Politics"

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Sep 11, '12 5:06 PM EST

    Hi Archinect!

    I'm at MIT for George Lakoff's talk,"The Brain's Politics: How Campaigns Are Framed and Why." The talk's blurb says:

    Everything we learn, know and understand is physical — a matter of brain circuitry. This basic fact has deep implications for how politics is understood, how campaigns are framed, why conservatives and progressives talk past each other, and why progressives have more problems framing messages than conservatives do — and what they can do about it.

    5:05: GL is starting with the notion of "metaphorical thought." In 1978 he was in a seminar at Berkeley. One day it was raining, as "it always rains," and one woman in the seminar came in crying. Though they tried to ignore the fact that she was crying, when it came to her turn to comment on the reading, she said "I'm sorry, I have a metaphor problem with my boyfriend"..."our relationship has hit a dead end street."

    GL: "We started noticing that there were certain expressions about love using a travel vocabulary. It was a linguistics class," so they decided to make a list:

    "It's been a long bumpy road"

    "We're going in different directions"

    "We may have to bail out"

    "Driving in the fast lane on the freeway of love"


    5:10: "I realized that...what was going on was not what Aristotle said." They looked for generalizations about the list of metaphors. In each case, the lovers are travelers, and there are some impediments to travel, and they're trying to get to some common destination, which are their life goals.

    "The young woman said, I don't care about your mapping. My boyfriend is about to break up with me; he is thinking in terms of this metaphor."

    "We're spinning our wheels." The wheels are on the car; you're putting in energy, but not going anywhere. How do you feel? (The audience responds: Frustrated!)

    Aristotle didn't say that metaphors map in this way.

    GL had spent the previous 15 years trying to map logic onto language, and trying to fit truth conditions onto language. Where is the metaphor? It's not in the world; it must be in the head. That wasn't what Anglo-American philosophers said.

    5:15: GL spent a year collecting examples of this, then he and Mark Johnson wrote the book Metaphors We Live By. "We noticed there were lots of metaphors...and many had to do with the body." Happy as up; sad as down. Same with experience: up is more, down is less, in the same way that things pile up on a table.

    "Then we noticed the same thing with the metaphor of love as a journey." It had to do with other metaphors of embodiment. Every day of your life there's a correlation between everyday purpose and reaching a destination: a baby wants to be snuggly, and it has to go to its blanket.

    "Why is a relationship a vehicle?" First, it's a container. Why? When you're a kid, you live with your family in a container. Intimacy is closeness, because intimacy refers to the people you've been close to physically since you were a kid. "When we started to look at other cultures, the embodied experience cases were widespread if not universal around the world, but metaphors like 'love is a journey' is not universal."

    "You also have a metaphor that live is a journey, but of a different kind." We think of action as motion, and an achievement as a destination. But in this culture, we think we need a purposeful life: we need life goals. "We even have documents for this: the curriculum vitae...and you all know about these documents."

    "How does that relate to 'love is a journey'? You have two people who are supposed to have compatible purposes in life; but the purposes aren't always compatible.

    5:20: "To understand a phrase like 'our marriage is on the rocks' requires all this knowledge" about the overall metaphor (that love is a journey with a common destination) and specific cultural knowledge about boats and rocks and why a boat can't go anywhere when it has run "on" to rocks. To know a culture is to know tens of thousands of metaphors like this.

    5:27: "Metaphor is a natural mode of thought that arises spontaneously and shapes how we think, reason, and understand the world. Mathematics is cognitively a system of precise embodied metaphors." This is from GL's book Where Mathematics Comes From. Scientific theories also use conceptual metaphor in their content; for example, "space-time," or understanding space in terms of time. 

    "The problem is that this contradicts what I learned here in terms of rationality." The Old Enlightenment theory of Reason (17th Century) says that thought is conscious, abstract, and based in reason. Emotion, in this view, gets in the way of reason. Cognitive science has shown that all of these things are not true. GL refers to Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error: he shows how people who lose their ability to feel emotion cannot set goals. They can't rationally pursue any goals because they can't set any goals, so they generally screw up their lives. "You must be emotional to be rational."

    This is where it turns to politics. GL cracks a joke, then he says "you're laughing but you should be crying."

    The Old Enlightenment Theory says that "Reason is what makes us human; therefore all humans have the same reason." "Not true: this is what we see with the Republicans and the Democrats; they have different forms of reason."

    5:35: GL is describing mirror neurons. It's not just that seeing something happen and doing something are connected, but that there's a semantic ordering of this happening at the same time. Paul Ekman's work on the physiology of emotions shows that the physiology that is attached to the pre-motor cortex is connected to emotions, and that allows us to feel empathy.

    We are wired to connect with each other, as well as with the world. "Canonical neurons" fire when we perform the "canonical action"--for example, bringing a bottle to our mouth to drink instead of sticking it in our ear. "The job of reason has to do with connecting the things in the world to us via our bodies." So reason can only fit the world via our bodies.

    There are different "cognitive primitives" which take the form of schema-circuits with embodied roles: process schemes for acting and experiencing over time, spatial schemas, force schemas, entity schemas, and so on. E.g. a schema for a container has an edge and an interior.

    The structures of actions and events are the same in every language: I am about to take a drink; I am beginning to take a drink; I have finished taking a drink.

    5:43: For his PhD dissertation in 1997, Srini Narayanan made a list of various schema, and used it to look at stories in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, to see if there's a bodily map that can be mapped through neural connections. There was: the more a neuronal group or circuit is activated, the stronger it gets: "neurons that fire together wire together." Connections are also strengthened when there is more "spiking": for example, in the metaphor, 'affection is warmth,' we are always computing temperature, but not always affection. "We can predict the direction of the metaphor based on neural connections."

    "Cascade theory." What about flying pigs? GL asks us how pigs fly (with wings), and what direction the snout faces (in the direction of flight). We know these answers because we can do "neural binding."

    What does all of this have to do with politics?

    5:50: Crucial Properties of Frame-circuits for Politics:

    Language activates frame-circuits. But negating a frame also activates a frame! So when Nixon says "I am not a crook," that didn't help.

    All politics is moral: Political leaders propose things on the grounds that they're right! The moral frames are the most general, or highest in the hierarchy of frame-circuits. Conservatives and progressives have very different moral systems.

    Biconceptualism: Many people have both moral systems at once, but apply them (via neural binding) to different issues. This happens via mutual inhibition. Not just in politics: imagine "Saturday night and then Sunday morning." But in politics, we call these people moderates, independents, and swing voters. To affect these people, "use your language, not the other side's language." GL says that conservatives tend to be trained, in think tanks across the country, to use their language. Democrats tend to miss this point; they often go to college and learn Enlightenment ideas about language being rational.

    GL is suggesting (this is fuzzy) that conservatives may more often go to business school and study marketing from professors who have studied psychology; whereas democrats tend to study political science or economics or other fields where they learn about rational actor theories. "Changing brains is not manipulation; it's smart, in politics. And conservatives have been doing this since the 60s. Mind change is brain change. Arguing against opponents using their language just helps them, because negating a frame activates, and therefore strengthens, that frame."

    GL presents the example of Bill Clinton's speech at the DNC. He liked the speech and his class liked the speech. Everyone agreed about this, but nobody in his class could remember any facts about Clinton's speech. What they did remember are the claims by the Republicans that Clinton was rebutting. The speech did work in that people remembered that he told them that the Republicans had been misleading; but it didn't work in the sense that one might think, in correcting facts.

    Moral Concepts are Metaphorical.

    There are two main metaphors for governance through family (which is the first way in which we're governed) in North America: strictness and nurturance.


    "This explains why one can be both pro-life and in favor of the death penalty." The idea in the "strict father family" includes the notion that the "strict father" is responsible for making reproduction decisions.

    These two moral views suggest two views of democracy. In the progressive view, democracy is based on the moral principle that citizens are responsible for helping each other; and freedom requires a robust public. For extreme conservatives, who wish to extend their moral view of the world by imposing their morality, the goal is "smaller government." This means eliminating the Public, by defunding public institutions until they are destroyed. "To progressives, this means destroying the moral basis of democracy."

    End. Applause. Question period:

    Question: How should progressives speak to conservaties in this case? Answer: The basis of GL's answer is that most conservativse, like most progressives, are biconceptual, so there is some common ground. When visiting your conservative relatives, GL counsels his students, don't "pick a fight." Instead, ask your grandfather about what things he has done in his life to help others that he is most proud of.

    Question: Why is the military the only exception for conservatives (in the sense that the military, internally, is a nurturing culture and the institution is well supported by conservatives)? Answer: The military is an extension of the "strict father" view in the sense that this strictness requires strength. It's related to masculinity. It's also related to the military-industrial complex, which is in turn related to a conservative, individualistic morality.

    Question: What do you think about hate and the role of hate in right-wing discourse? Answer: "This is not true of all conservatives, but it's very real." Strict-father morality includes the notion that those who are more moral should rule. There is a hierachy in the ordering of whites vs. blacks, straights vs. gays, men vs. women, America vs. the world; most conservatives tend to believe in the supremacy of America  but not all believe in all of the others. And above all, conservatives believe in the spread of conservativism and of conservative values.

    Most of the "questions" from the audience (the ones not recorded here) are pre-prepared soliliquoys...this is descending into nerdery of a particular order. I depart.

    Thanks for reading!



    • "this is descending into nerdery of a particular order. I depart." ha

      Sep 17, 12 11:05 pm  · 

      Hey Lian! I was just reading an old interview with William Gibson and Tom Maddox and this graph jumped out at me as it was only in your blog recently that i learned this guy's name...

      "TM: There's that key line "He fell into the prison of his own flesh," which is the whole point, in a way. I don't know--if you want some real ammunition for this that's not just bullshit Postmodernist criticism, there's a guy at Berkeley named Lakoff, George Lakoff. He's a cognitive psychologist, and he's testing a whole set of theories based on the notion that all knowledge is a "body" of knowledge, and that every single intellectual structure in the world is ultimately a piece of embodied spatial knowledge translated by metaphor into something else."

      Sep 22, 12 12:18 pm  · 

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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