Wired for Culture

wired for culture

What makes us human? In part, argues evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel in Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind, language is one of the keys to our evolutionary success, especially in the context of culture.

Humans had acquired the ability to learn from others, and to copy, imitate and improve upon their actions. This meant that elements of culture themselves— ideas, languages, beliefs, songs, art, technologies— could act like genes, capable of being transmitted to others and reproduced. But unlike genes, these elements of culture could jump directly from one mind to another, shortcutting the normal genetic routes of transmission. And so our cultures came to define a second great system of inheritance, able to transmit knowledge down the generations.

To be human at some point came to mean access to a growing and shared repository of “information, technologies, wisdom, and good luck.”

Our cultural inheritance is something we take for granted today, but its invention forever altered the course of evolution and our world. This is because knowledge could accumulate as good ideas were retained, combined, and improved upon, and others were discarded. And, being able to jump from mind to mind granted the elements of culture a pace of change that stood in relation to genetical evolution something like an animal’s behavior does to the more leisurely movement of a plant. Where you are stuck from birth with a sample of the genes that made your parents, you can sample throughout your life from a sea of evolving ideas. Not surprisingly, then, our cultures quickly came to take over the running of our day-to -day affairs as they outstripped our genes in providing solutions to the problems of our existence. Having culture means we are the only species that acquires the rules of its daily living from the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors rather than from the genes they pass to us. Our cultures and not our genes supply the solutions we use to survive and prosper in the society of our birth; they provide the instructions for what we eat, how we live, the gods we believe in, the tools we make and use, the language we speak, the people we cooperate with and marry, and whom we fight or even kill in a war.

Culture evolved primarily though language. This was the foundation of social learning. The best ideas were able to be passed on without having to reinvent them.

Pagel’s take on social learning is fascinating. “Theft” became part of our culture and part of what propelled us forward with such ferocity.

Social learning is really visual theft, and in a species that has it, it would become positively advantageous for you to hide your best ideas from others, lest they steal them. This not only would bring cumulative cultural adaptation to a halt, but our societies might have collapsed as we strained under the weight of suspicion and rancor.

So, beginning about 200,000 years ago, our fledgling species, newly equipped with the capacity for social learning had to confront two options for managing the conflicts of interest social learning would bring. One is that these new human societies could have fragmented into small family groups so that the benefits of any knowledge would flow only to one’s relatives. Had we adopted this solution we might still be living like the Neanderthals, and the world might not be so different from the way it was 40,000 years ago, when our species first entered Europe. This is because these smaller family groups would have produced fewer ideas to copy and they would have been more vulnerable to chance and bad luck. The other option was for our species to acquire a system of cooperation that could make our knowledge available to other members of our tribe or society even though they might be people we are not closely related to — in short, to work out the rules that made it possible for us to share goods and ideas cooperatively. Taking this option would mean that a vastly greater fund of accumulated wisdom and talent would become available than any one individual or even family could ever hope to produce.

This is the path we choose and our world is the result.

The Psychology of We

powers of two

Two categories of people that can be hard to have a conversation with are good friends and people who have worked together for a long time. Sometimes it’s like they are speaking their own language — and they are. But these connections can transcend conversation and touch on life.

In Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, Joshua Shenk explores how the identity of pairs resemble that of a mosaic, “a series of pieces that connect to one another.”

A good place to begin is with ritual, since this is often the foundation of creative practice. Igor Stravinsky came into his studio and, first thing, sat down and played a Bach fugue. When he was writing The End of the Affair, Graham Greene produced five hundred words every day, and only five hundred, even if it meant stopping in the middle of a scene. The choreographer Twyla Tharp rises every morning at 5:30, puts on her workout clothes, and catches a taxi to the Pumping Iron gym at Ninety-First Street and First Avenue in Manhattan. “The ritual,” she writes in The Creative Habit, “is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.”

Tharp’s point is that ritual emerges from the smallest, most concrete action. For pairs, the most basic thing is a regular meeting time. James Watson and Francis Crick had lunch most days at the Eagle pub in Cambridge. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg begin and end every week with hourlong private meetings. After they began to exchange their work, J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis set aside Mondays to meet at a pub and later met with a group, the Inklings, every Thursday night at Lewis’s apartment.

Meeting rituals may be tied to moments in time — as when partners like Buffett and Munger begin every day with a call—or to a physical space, as when Lennon and McCartney met at Paul’s house to write. Watson and Crick ended up sharing an office at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge because the other scientists in the lab couldn’t stand their incessant chatter.

Moving towards each other as people often means leaving the rest of the world behind. “Every real friendship is a sort of secession, even a rebellion,” C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves.

In the midst of the feverish and entwined six-year collaboration between Braque and Picasso that led to cubism, both artists signed the back of each of their canvases; only they would know who did what. “People always ask Ulay and me the same questions,” Marina Abramovic told me. ‘”Whose idea was it?’ or ‘How was this done?’… But we never specify. Everything was interrelated and interdependent.”

Partnerships often form impediments to others trying to look in. Outsiders are not part of the club, they are not doing the work, they don’t have the shared understanding, the common goals, the …

This is one reason many epic partnerships end up as historical footnotes or become entirely effaced: “Things were said with Picasso during those years,” Braque said, “that no one will ever say again, things that no one could ever say any more, that no one could ever understand… things that would be incomprehensible and which gave us such joy.” This was one of the very few lines either man ever spoke about the relationship that helped give birth to modern art.

In addition to the physical gestures that a pair can share, there is also an unmistakable private language. This is the key to high-bandwidth communication.

Many pairs have what we could fairly call a private language. Tom Hanks described the communication between director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer as “some gestalt Vulcan.” Akio Morita and Ma- saru Ibuka, the cofounders of Sony, “would sit there talking to each other,” Morita’s son Hideo said, “and we would listen but we had no idea what they were saying … It was gibberish to us, but they were understanding each other, and interrupting them for any reason was forbidden.”

Private language emerges organically from constant exchange. Intimate pairs talk fluidly and naturally, having let go of what psychologists call “self-monitoring”—the process of watching impulses and protean thoughts, censoring some, allowing others to pass one’s lips. … The psychologist Daniel Kahneman makes the same point. “Like most people, I am somewhat cautious about exposing tentative thoughts to others,” he said. But after a while with Amos Tversky, “this caution was completely absent.”

You just get so high-bandwidth,” Bill Gates said about talking to Steve Ballmer, his longtime deputy at Microsoft (and eventual successor). “Steve and I would just be going from talking to meeting to talking to meeting, and then I’d stay up late at night, and write him five e-mails. He’d get up early in the morning and maybe not necessarily respond to them, but start thinking about them. And the minute I see him, he’s [at the office whiteboard] saying we could move this guy over here and do this thing here.” Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg used that same term, high- bandwidth, to describe his exchanges with his COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We can talk for 30 seconds and have more meaning be exchanged than in a lot of meetings that I have for an hour,” he said.

More than shared language, people develop into shared rhythms and syntactical structures of speech.

This is due in part to the astonishing power of mimicry, which psychologists call “social contagion.” Just by being near each other, the psychologist Elaine Hatfield has shown, people come to match accents, speech rates, vocal intensity, vocal frequency, pauses, and quickness to respond.

Psychologists used to think that people imitated each other in a deliberate attempt to be liked, but mimicry is far more pervasive than this — and largely nonconscious. Intimate partners share physical postures and breathing patterns too. They use the same muscles so often, the psychologist Robert Zajonc and colleagues found in a study of spouses, that they even come to look alike. Warren Buffett has said that he and Charlie Munger are “Siamese twins, practically.” In addition to wearing the same gray suits, the same Clark Kent glasses, and the same comb-overs, writes Buffett biographer Alice Schroeder, they also share a “lurching, awkward gait” and a flickering intensity in their eyes. Whether or not this is due to what Zajonc calls “repeated empathic mimicry,” we can’t be sure, but one does wonder.

The larger point about any physical convergence is that it reflects what psychologists call a “shared coordinative structure.” Shared mannerisms, like similar walking gaits, often come along with shared emotions and ideas. Just as physical qualities are “highly communicable,” write psychologists Molly Ireland and James Pennebaker, so are behaviors, affective states, and beliefs.

Language is an unusually potent mechanism for psychic convergence, because it is so closely tied to thinking. “Linguistic coordination,” Ireland and Pennebaker explain, leads to “the cultivation of common ground (i.e., matching cognitive frameworks in which conversants adopt shared assumptions, linguistic referents, and knowledge).”

Of course eventually this goes telepathic.

Barry Sonnenfeld, who has directed photography on several films for the Coen brothers, remembers Ethan saying, after a take, “Hey, Joel, you know what?” And Joel replying: “Yeah, I know, I’m going to tell him.” When the writer David Zax visited The Daily Show to profile Steve Bodow, Jon Stewart’s head writer at the time, Zax could understand only a small fraction of their exchanges, given the dominance of “workplace argot and quasi-telepathy.” “If you work with Jon for any length of time, you learn to interpret the short hand,” Bodow said. For example, Stewart might say: “Cut the thing and bring the thing around and do the thing.” ‘”Cut the thing': You know what thing needs to be cut,” Bodow explained. “‘Bring the thing around': There’s a thing that works, but it needs to move up in order to set up the ‘do the thing’ thing, which is probably the ‘blow,’ the big joke at the end. It takes time and repetition and patience and frustration, and suddenly you know how to bring the thing around and do the thing.”

What’s Accomplished in Conversation?

The Domestication of Lanague
What is a conversation? A simple question that’s difficult to answer. We think we know until we try to explain it to someone else.

In The Domestication of Language, Daniel Cloud explores the wonderful world of conversations.

Our difficulty in accounting for conversation isn’t a sign that nobody’s ever tried to understand it. The intense focus on rhetoric by classical philosophers, for example, was the organized study of a certain rather formal kind of public conversation, and our interest in the phenomenon has continued until the present.

Cloud points us to H.P. Grice and his 1975 paper “Logic and Conversation.” Grice, according to Cloud, argues that human conversations happen around a shared purpose.

We sometimes may be deluded in thinking that such a shared purpose exists—for example, when talking to a confidence man—but the supposition is required to make us willing to participate. The purpose may be obvious—the car is out of gas, we have to figure out what to do—or frivolous, extremely serious, or horrific. The torturer seeks to create a common interest so he can have a truthful conversation with us, even though his method involves the stick and not the carrot.

Grice admitted that he was perplexed about the exact nature of the understanding involved. … Common interests in the absence of enforceable contracts create coordination games … Each of us would rather converse on some mutually agreed topic than not converse at all, provided that all the others do. It isn’t a helpful form of participation in the conversation to periodically interject irrelevant remarks on completely unrelated topics, so we would prefer that all participants converse about the same topic as everyone else is or at least change the subject in culturally acceptable, legitimate ways. We often would be happy to converse about some other, slightly different topic if that topic had been raised by one of the participants instead. There always are alternatives, unless the people are enacting a play or another ritual, and real conversations change and drift as they go along, so the topic may well morph into one of those almost equally good alternatives. The conversation may acrimoniously disintegrate into no conversation, on no topic, if it goes badly, or it may gently evaporate into a resolve to have other conversations later. There always are different conversations we could have had instead. If someone new enters the discussion, we’d prefer that he stick to the topic, though if we were discussing something else, we’d prefer that he discuss that instead.

Topics are temporary and convey and establish conventions. They are also malleable and complex, changing directions in real time.

A shared common ground is first established, and then it’s extended and amended by the successive remarks of those involved. The changes may be incremental, or—if it’s possible to bring the other participants along with us, if people are agreeable and the transition isn’t too complicated to be made in unison without much preparation—they may be abrupt.

Conversations are not intended for everyone. From professions that have specialized vocabulary to conversations so generic only people who know each other would understand the hidden meaning, we have ways of excluding people, who, even if physically present, will not be a participant or even benefit.

What’s also true of most conversations is that not just anyone can participate. Perhaps we all haven’t been properly introduced. Or the conversation may be one that only topologists or elk hunters or members of the president’s national security team can engage in, or one that only Romeo and Juliet can be a part of. We may seek admission to a conversation and be welcomed or rebuffed. Yet this isn’t usually because there’s something scarce being shared by those conversing, which they would necessarily receive less of if someone else participated. Although there are conversations like that, many conversations are not. Sometimes new participants, even excluded ones, would have added something. In the language of economics, conversations are excludable and non-rivalrous. People can be prevented from benefiting from them or they can be excluded, but those who share in them don’t necessarily diminish their worth for the others. …

It seems that a conversation—like the highway system or the community that speaks Welsh—is a particularly informal, spontaneous, and fleeting club, an ephemeral microinstitution that flickers into and out of existence in a few seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, or years after its initial convening and that is organized around a temporary set of conventions about its topic, manner, and so on. By seeking admission, we represent ourselves as willing to conform to these conventions unless we can persuade the other participants to amend them. Sometimes some of the conventions established in a conversation also acquire contractual force—for example, when the conversation itself is a negotiation—but many do not.

How can participants in a conversation advance a common interest? Grice argues that most of what is conveyed in conversations is “implicature.”

Consider the following exchange:

a: Will Susan be at the game?
b: She has to teach that day.

In Grice’s terminology, B has implicated, but not said, that she won’t be at the game. … This conclusion depends on the common knowledge, known by both participants to be known by both participants, that teaching would preclude going to the game, perhaps because they will take place at the same time. Knowing this, A can work out what B is trying to tell him, what B is attempting to implicate

Grice distinguishes between this sort of context-dependent, situational implicature, which he calls “conversational implicature,” and mere conventional elisions of the following kind: “Socrates is a man, and therefore mortal.” Here I’ve left out a premise that would be required for the “therefore”; I’ve neglected to mention that all men are mortal. But I didn’t have to, because you and I, like everyone else, already know that. Without having to think about it, you naturally will assume that I am assuming that you will extract this information from the incomplete argument I’ve offered. Grice calls this slightly different phenomenon … “conventional implicature.”

How do we work out the intended conversational implicatures? Through various maxims.

[T]hese maxims (are organized) under the more general principles of quantity, quality, relation, and manner. We assume that the speaker is telling us as much as we need to know for the purposes of the conversation, but no more (quantity). We assume that he’s attempting to tell us only things that he knows to be true and is not asserting things that he believes to be false or for which he has no evidence (quality). We assume that what he’s saying is somehow relevant to the mutually understood, though constantly evolving, topic of the conversation (relation). We assume that he’s attempting to be perspicuous, that he would prefer to avoid ambiguity and obscurity, avoid prolixity, and present his narration or his argument in an orderly way (manner).

In answering A’s question about Susan, B must be understood to be telling A as much as he needs to know for his question to be answered. Likewise, A must assume that B believes it to be true that she has to work and has reasonably good grounds for that belief. A must assume that this information is somehow relevant to the topic raised by his question. Assuming these things, A is in a position to interpret B’s remark as intended to produce the implicature that Susan will not be at the game because it conflicts with her work. If her work has a special relationship to the game or its venue that means that the remark should produce the opposite conclusion, then B has failed to follow the principle of quantity correctly, because he’s left out something he would have had to tell A to make his remark interpretable. He has assumed the existence of a piece of common ground that’s actually missing.

Common knowledge is really the key to conversations because it’s the key to common ground.

Common knowledge, first created as common ground in formal or informal conversation and then conserved and referred to in later conversations, marks the boundaries of skill-centered speech communities, of the subcommunity of shamans or eel farmers or navigators or structural biochemists or Shinto priests. These are things that these people must know in order to converse with one another, making them unable to converse as freely with people who lack their skill set.

In conversation, the method used for creating new items of common knowledge is the participants explicitly or implicitly informing one another of things, so conversations create parts of their own common ground as they go along. By so doing, the participants may become partly isolated from the rest of their speech community, which now doesn’t share the newly created common ground. New tacit conventions also are negotiated indirectly and obliquely in particular conversations, by means of concerted choices among competing, unstated alternatives, which can make it even harder for an outsider to follow them.

A conversation consists of a series of its participants’ dovetailed and cumulative modifications of their common ground, and at the end of the conversation, they may share different knowledge or intentions (“Then yes, let’s do that”) or expectations (“Well, then I guess we can expect the same thing to happen every time”) or different explicit conventions (“OK, I guess next time, whoever called originally should be the one to call back”) than they did before.

This new knowledge has become common knowledge in the group conversing and now can be used as such, can be assumed to be part of the common ground for subsequent discussions by the same group. B will expect A to remember that Susan has to work on the day of the game. We’ll be expected to remember the new plan or expectation or convention that’s finally been arrived at.

Cloud argues that conversations convert knowledge, expectations and beliefs from private knowledge to common knowledge within the conversing group.

What is common knowledge can support conventional (as opposed to conversational) implicatures, so the group’s stock of possible conventional implicatures is enlarged as a result. From now on, it may not be necessary to mention that Susan has to work on the day of the game; perhaps it can simply be assumed. Every successive conversation among a certain group means that less must be said in subsequent conversations, that more and more can be “taken for granted.”

This fact can produce a sort of cultural microversion of songbirds’ local dialects, local, group-specific assumptions that make it harder and harder for newcomers who lack the same shared history to participate in the group’s conversations. Conversations make us clannish; they erode the barriers to communication and trust within the group while erecting new ones around it, in a tiny, temporary, ultrafast cultural version of one of John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry’s (1998) “major transitions.” A conversation creates a club that subsequently may function in some ways like a single, self-interested unit, which may see itself as competing with other, rival clubs and may exclude interlopers or impose its own rules on new entrants.

Conversations are much wider than the term implies. In fact, no words need be spoken at all.

When the master holds out his hand for a hammer, the apprentice can understand the gesture as a request of that kind only because he assumes that the master isn’t making an unnecessary gesture, isn’t trying to trick him, is asking for something relevant to the collaborative task at hand and not his hunting spear, and isn’t making a gesture he thinks the apprentice will be unable to interpret.

If you’re into the evolution of language, you’ll love The Domestication of Language.

David Foster Wallace: Five Common Word Usage Mistakes


I’m a big David Foster Wallace fan. His 2005 commencement speech will go down as one of the best ever.

If you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently … You get to decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

He’s also a big proponent of thinking.

I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

Here is DFW’s 2002 Pomona College handout on five common word usage mistakes for his advanced fiction writing class.


1. The preposition towards is British usage; the US spelling is toward. Writing towards is like writing colour or judgement. (Factoid: Except for backwards and afterwards, no preposition ending in -ward takes a final s in US usage.)

2. And is a conjunction; so is so. Except in dialogue between particular kinds of characters, you never need both conjunctions. “He needed to eat, and so he bought food” is incorrect. In 95% of cases like this, what you want to do is cut the and.

3. For a compound sentence to require a comma plus a conjunction, both its constituent clauses must be independent. An independent clause (a) has both a subject and a main verb, and (b) expresses a complete thought. In a sentence like “He ate all the food, and went back for more,” you don’t need both the comma and the and because the second clause isn’t independent.

4. There are certain words whose appearance at the beginning of a clause renders that clause dependent. (They basically keep the clause from expressing a complete thought.) Examples include since, while, because, although, and as. You may have learned to call these kinds of words Signal Words or Temporal Adverbs in high school. They, too, affect the punctuation of a compound sentence.

The crucial question is whether the clause that starts with a Signal Word occurs first in the sentence or not. If it does, you need a comma:

“As the wave crashed down, the surfer fell.” “While Bob ate all the food, Rhonda looked on in horror.”

If the relevant clause comes second, you do not need a comma:

“The surfer fell as the wave crashed down.” “Rhonda looked on in horror while Bob ate all the food.”

5. In real prose stylistics, though, the Signal Word thing can get a little tricky. If you look at the last sentence of item (3) above, you’ll notice that there is no comma between “and” and “because” in the compound “…you don’t need both the comma and the and because the second clause isn’t independent.” This is because of the basic rule outlined in (4). But because is a funny word, and sometimes you’ll need a comma before its appearance in the second clause in order to keep your sentence from giving the wrong impression. Example: Say Bob’s been murdered; the question is whether Rhonda did it. Look at the following two sentences:

a. “Rhonda didn’t do it because she loved him.”
b. “Rhonda didn’t do it, because she loved him.”

Sentence a, which is grammatically standard, here really says that Rhonda did kill Bob but that her reason for the murder wasn’t love, i.e., that the reason Rhonda killed Bob was not her love for him. Sentence b says that Rhonda did not kill Bob and that the reason she didn’t is that she loves him. In 99% of cases, what someone’ll be meaning to say is what b says. So, though nonstandard in the abstract, b can be semantically correct, correct in a meaning-based context.


If you’re curious about grammar, read Tense Present, Wallace’s review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. If you’re curious about DFW, I highly recommend Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.

The History of English in Ten Minutes

history of english

“The English language begins with the phrase ‘Up Yours, Caesar!,’ as the Romans leave Britain …”

Where did the phrase ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ come from? And when did scientists finally get round to naming sexual body parts?

Voiced by Clive Anderson, this entertaining romp through ‘The History of English’ squeezes 1600 years of history into 10 one-minute bites, uncovering the sources of English words and phrases from Shakespeare and the King James Bible to America and the Internet. Bursting with fascinating facts, the series looks at how English grew from a small tongue into a major global language before reflecting on the future of English in the 21st century.

Building Blocks and Innovation

Most innovation comes from combining well-known, well-established, building blocks in new ways.


John Holland, a professor of two vastly different fields—psychology and engineering—at the University of Michigan, lectures frequently on innovative thinking.

According to Holland there are two steps to innovation. The first step is to try and find the right building blocks—the basic knowledge. Second, is the use of metaphors to relate understanding.

Holland is focused on innovation, but many readers of Farnam Street will recognize the first step—acquiring the building blocks—as the process for acquiring worldly wisdom.

Like us, Holland wants to connect well-known and well-established ideas from multiple disciplines in new ways to solve problems.

In our case, the basic building blocks are the big ideas in each major discipline. While this seems daunting, luckily, according to Charlie Munger “80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly wise person.”

Domain Dependence and Linking
It’s important that you can link these models together and recognize them outside of the domain they are presented. Many people, for instance, don’t link the supply and demand from economics and equilibrium from physics. Yet in many ways they are the same thing. If you can’t recognize the forces at play outside of the system in which you learned about them, you are domain dependent.

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb writes:

We are all, in a way, similarly handicapped, unable to recognize the same idea when it is presented in a different context. It is as if we are doomed to be deceived by the most superficial part of things, the packaging, the gift wrapping.

If you don’t have a basic understanding of each of the major models you won’t be able to link them together. And if you can’t link them together, you’re going to go through life like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

Construction of a Model
According to Holland, “the construction of a mental model … closely resembles the construction of a metaphor:”

  1. There is a source system with an established aura of facts, interpretation and practice.
  2. There is a target system with a collection of observed phenomena that are difficult to interpret or explain.
  3. There is a translation from source to target that suggests a means of transferring inferences for the source into inferences for the target.

Seeing new connections requires models and metaphors. Holland continues:

For most who are heavily engaged in creative activities, be it in literature or the sciences, metaphor and model lie at the center of their activities. In the sciences, both the source and the target are best characterized as systems rather than isolated objects. … In the sciences, decisions about which properties of the source system are central for understanding the target, and which are incidental, are resolved by careful testing against the world. As a result of testing and deduction, a well-established model in the sciences accumulates a complicated aura of technique, interpretation, and consequences, much of it unwritten. One physicist will say to another “this is a conservation of mass problem” and immediately both will have in mind a whole array of knowledge associated with problems modeled in this way.

“The essence of metaphor,” write Mark Johnson and George Lakoff in their book Metaphors We Live By, “is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”

Holland posits that metaphors help us translate ideas into models, which form the building blocks of innovative thinking.

“In the same way that a metaphor helps communicate one concept by comparing it to another concept that is widely understood,” Robert Hagstrom writes in Investing: The Last Liberal Art, “using a simple model to describe one idea can help us grasp the complexities of a similar idea. In both cases we are using one concept (the source) to better understand another (the target). Used this way, metaphors not only express existing ideas, they stimulate new ones.”

Metaphor and Innovation
From the Credit Suisse Thought Leader Forum:

To understand the problems in any discipline, it is necessary to have deep knowledge in that discipline. To resolve those problems, it is often necessary to look at the problem through the filters of a different and often distant discipline. The simplest analogy to the phenomenon is simply perspective. It is very difficult to understand, say, the traffic patterns of a city if you are stuck in your car at rush hour. With the distance provided by a traffic helicopter, however, it is much easier to see the major thoroughfares, the bottlenecks and the overall dynamics of the traffic system. The shift in vantage point offers better understanding and new insights for your strategy. For more abstract challenges, the use of metaphor serves the same purpose as distance in the traffic example. If we are stuck on the challenge of distribution in a global manufacturing company, for example, it may be useful to apply models from other disciplines as metaphors. The model that we have developed and used for our distribution system has been quite effective over the years, but we just cannot seem to resolve some particular challenge. Perhaps we can learn something from other kinds of distribution systems. How does an ant colony collect and distribute its resources? How does the human body manage its circulation and processing of nutrients and wastes?

Three Keys to effectively applying metaphors

There are three keys to effectively applying metaphors to achieve insight and innovation. First, you must develop a deep understanding of the metaphorical system. You will gain no new insights if you look at the human circulatory system and say, “Aha! The brain tells the rest of the body where to send things!” If you draw conclusions too quickly, then more than likely you have only recreated your existing model of distribution systems – you are seeing the human body’s circulation system as if it were the distribution system of a global manufacturing firm. If you invest the time and effort to understand this complex new system on its own merits, then you might discover something interesting about your own discipline. For instance, the human circulatory system is one of several overlapping hierarchical systems that allow the human body to grow, heal, change and yet maintain homeostatic balance. How do those systems overlap? How are the priorities of those different systems balanced? What overlapping systems exist in our global manufacturing firm, and how do they interact? An in-depth study of a new complex system should force you to ask new questions about your own, seemingly familiar system.

The second key to applying metaphors is to recognize the value of the cognitive leap. As you map the models from one system onto another, the fit will never be perfect. Our global manufacturing firm is not a human body. Therefore the solution to our challenge will not lie in our suddenly believing this to be true. Instead, the solution will lie one or two steps away. As we look at the human circulatory system, we will encounter questions and tangential thoughts. “What performs the function of ‘hormones’ in our organization?” We will not, of course, implement a system of complex chemical exchanges in our organization, but this might lead us to think about our communication systems or decision-making metrics in a new way.

The final key is often the most frustrating for managers — only a very few of the ideas that this process produces will be highly valuable. Some of the ideas will be useless. Many of the ideas will be interesting but impractical or irrelevant. Other ideas will serve as useful, incremental improvements to your system. But only a rare few of these ideas will be truly revolutionary. The secret is the same in any game of statistics – you have to try large numbers of these metaphors for the big ideas to hit. These ideas are the outliers, not the norm, and while metaphor can push your thinking towards the innovative, no process can guarantee that your new ideas will be both different and effective. Many managers are willing to try this approach once or twice, and give up when it does not immediately return impressive results. … In order to discover great innovations, you must engage regularly in the search and recognize that most of your discoveries will have either marginal or moderate value. Creative combination is a process that increases your odds of discovering breakthrough innovations, but it cannot guarantee success. This is a tool, not a silver bullet.

While the audio quality leaves much to be desired, Holland gives an interesting TEDx talk introducing a lot of these ideas: