Unwanted Metaphors

As regular readers know, I am all for metaphors; I love them like I love the sour jelly beans at the bodega on 92nd Street. But sometimes, enough is enough.

“That’s where biological psychiatry was then,” she told me. “It was about the brain as a bowl of soup. You whip up a chemical, add it and stir”…

Setting aside the bowl-of-soup model did not mean deciding that neurochemicals weren’t important. Rather it meant deciding that neurochemistry, and particularly the chemistry dictating how individual neurons communicate with one another, was probably driven by traffic between different brain areas, and that identifying the patterns in that traffic might yield new understanding. (Or, using another metaphor, if the brain is an orchestra, then the neurochemical approach focuses on how well individual players listen and respond to the players adjacent to them; the network approach, like a conductor, focuses on how the orchestra’s sections — strings, winds, brass, etc. — coordinate and balance volume and tone. When both are working well, you’ve got music.)

–David Dobbs, New York Times magazine: “A Depression Switch?”

Need I say more? I certainly don’t enjoy thinking of my brain as a giant bowl of soup–though often it behaves that way, kind of splish-splashing around up there–but I certainly prefer the soup model to a symphony orchestra. Imagine the intrigues and infighting, in my own neurons! Imagine how they would kvetch about the chief neurons, behind their backs! And if there are brass players in my brain, I don’t want to know about it (sorry, Eric and others, just kidding haha!!!!) Etc. etc. And that last line: “When both are working well, you’ve got music”? In your dreams, maybe.

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  1. Marve
    Posted April 4, 2006 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    What a doozy.

    I can’t help but wonder, though–if my brain is an orchestra, what is it playing?

  2. Priscilla
    Posted April 4, 2006 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Now, how does your psyche hurt?

    All metaphors aside, that’s an interesting article.

  3. former music student
    Posted April 4, 2006 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Wow! I read the article Sunday afternoon. That particular section you cited has been lingering in my short memory.

    Brain as a bowl of soup caused me wired feeling, nausea.
    ‘Orchestra’ is a tool that is too often used as metaphor or analogy, for example, for a business organization. (because it is micro cosmos of the human society?)

    In my discipline, I see brain function as circuits/pathways … pretty complicated ones. The amazing truth is, there are millions of circuits/pathways in our brain, which are unused, unknown, but by accident or by some intervention can be activated and give light to one’s life.

    Our conscious self has no idea what’s going on behind, has no control. It cannot be a conductor. There is a world inside ourselves, which is beyond our reasoning, beyond our imaginary sense.

  4. noreen
    Posted April 4, 2006 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    I was dizzy and nauseated yesterday, so I had to leave work early. I wonder what my brain was playing then compared to now, seeing as how I seem normal again.

  5. Anonymous
    Posted April 5, 2006 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    How impulsive are you?
    (yet another brain wrenching article)

    Living On Impulse


  6. Molly
    Posted April 5, 2006 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Not by any means an excuse, but often, scientists (or people writing about science, for that matter) underestimate the layperson’s ability to understand science in a more prosy form and go far overboard on metaphors and/or anthropomorphization. I myself am often guilty of the above, although I try to confine myself to one per biological process.

    The orchestra trope is not necessarily inapt, though – for example, I know several people whose brains could be characterized by the following:


    Have some dignity. This is a baby orchestra.

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