Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Power of Analogy

Yesterday, I read a fascinating article co-written (with Emmanuel Sander) by one of the great science writers of our time, Douglas Hofstadter. "The forgotten fuel of our minds" can be found in the May 4 issue of NEW SCIENTIST. According to the two authors, new research examining the use of analogy in everyday thought suggests that it is far from an occasional tool for supporting a proposition or explaining something: it is the very basis of most thinking in the first place. Whether we are learning something new by mapping it onto pre-existing knowledge, or we are simply having a conversation, we take old ideas and use them in novel situations.
We use analogy whenever we use metaphors and similes, e.g., "His hair was like a bunch of ropes" or "Your premise doesn't hold water." And everyone uses expressions like these all the time. In fact, it is hard to imagine a conversation devoid of them altogether!
As I was reading, the power of analogy took place in my own mind. I drew parallels with my ongoing research into the omnivore brain. Could the ability to draw connections with previously acquired knowledge about the world (and oneself) have begun when we "learned" to be omnivores, about two million years ago?
Think about it: a herbivore (e.g., an antelope or a cow) doesn't need to differentiate much of its environment, but an omnivore, which must navigate a sea of choices (good, bad and in between) every time it wants to eat, does nothing but differentiate. It starts off its life by slowly learning safe choices from mother, then adds - presumably by trial and error - to this collection of useful facts as it goes along.
It is no accident that some of the smartest animals are the ones most diverse in their eating habits, e.g., bears, crows, raccoons. (Elephants being a notable exception that proves the rule.)

Humans pride themselves for their congitive abilities, citing logic, reason, and occasional intuitive powers among these strengths. The power of analogy contributes to our success as a species that confronts many choices - some lethal or at least challenging - every day. Wouldn't it be interesting if it is due to ancient adaptions to a diverse diet?

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