Emerging Metaphors for the Human Body

Emerging Metaphors for the Human Body


Metaphors are the cognitive tools through which we understand ourselves and the world (Lakoff and Turner 1989: xi). One of the primary metaphoric resources is the human body. Probably, since we first became self-aware, we have been fascinated with our bodies: psychologically and culturally.

“Man is the measure of all things”


It might be a generalisation but when we use the human body as a metaphor for an individual, these tend to be synecdochal in function. This term is where one thing is used to refer to a related thing, e.g. we talk about the head of a class. On the other hand, when we talk about a collective of people, we tend to refer to them as a body or persona. Hobbes Leviathan is a famous example of this collective being envisioned as a whole persona. I’ve discussed this collective imagery as metaphors for social groups, cities and nations more extensively in an earlier post


Thomas Hobbes - Leviathan


Thinking through our Bodies


We can easily take a quick tour around our body to see how it influences how we conceptualise our reality though figures of speech:

  • Head of the class
  • Up to your eyes in trouble
  • A nose for mystery
  • Don’t give me lip
  • Keep a stiff upper lip
  • Chin up
  • Stick your neck out
  • Shoulder the burden
  • Keep at arm’s length
  • Up to your elbows
  • On the other hand
  • Get something off your chest
  • My heart feels like its bursting
  • I’m breathless
  • Feel it in my spleen
  • Don’t have the stomach for it
  • She doesn’t have the guts
  • He’s being a dick
  • Shake a leg
  • Best foot forward
  • Dip a toe in
  • Etc


This is a rich field of human enquiry and there are many studies that look at how we understand the world through our bodies. This makes sense given how psychologically aware of a sense of self and our bodies. It’s how we make sense of the world from childhood.   Sigmund Freud observed

“The ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from the surface of the body.”


In a brilliant summation Daniel Benveniste states:

Symptoms and the sense of reality are built out of the reified metaphors of the body.

From an open ear to an open mind; from a penetrating penis to a penetrating argument; from a receptive vagina to a receptive community; from a unified body and a unified

culture to the construction of monotheism; from excretion to repudiation; from urination to getting pissed off; from the naval to the center of the world; from dismemberment to postmodernity, over and over again the metaphors of the body are projected onto and into the world


So much of our use of this metaphor is reflexive and unconscious that it is invisible in many ways that we look at the world.

This can be reversed with this anthropocentric vision also affecting the way that we interpret what we see in the world. This is called pareidolia – were we see faces in patterns. This is a thematic form of apophenia, were we see patterns in random data.


See faces in objects - pareidolia


Cultural frames for metaphors


In my last post I looked at the specific example of the heart as a container-metaphor. What we find is that from a transcultural perspective, the idea of emotions, especially anger as a liquid under pressure within a vessel, is common in both western and eastern cultures. However, there are differences that are found in different cultural contexts. As Mark Johnston, states:

‘most human concepts are defined and understood only within conceptual frameworks that depend on the nature of human experience in given cultures’.

This has been elaborated on by Toril Swan

‘Cultural models, then, and cultural conceptualizations enable us to share understanding within a culture, founded in common frameworks and categories.


In recent years a great deal of evidence has been amassed to suggest that the human body is indeed a very important source for language or linguistic expressions. Firstly, as has been shown by numerous authors, terms for body parts frequently become grammatical words (e.g. back as preposition in English). Secondly, the body is of course an important source of metaphors, a basis for dealing with cognitive concepts, among these spatial concepts, concepts having to do with personality traits, and so forth.


Culture is not static and neither is time, so differences in metaphors take form and are utilised across time and space.


Changing Semiotic Frames of Cultural Reference


We use cultural artefacts and knowledge of the day-to-day to explain our bodies – we adopt what is familiar to explain our worlds. While some metaphors appear to be almost universal and unchanging, such as ‘emotions in a vessel’, my ‘heart is bursting’ or ‘I’m so angry I’m boiling’. Others appear to change reference to keep up with the times.

There are many ways to explore how advances in technology are reflected in how we use the human body as metaphors. The dominant metaphor to explore is the body-as-a-machine metaphor.

If we look at it historically, the most famous introduction of this metaphor was by Descartes (1648) who compared the human body to a machine. Descartes was influenced in this thinking about Greek philosophers such as Aristotle.   Louis de La Forge, a commentator of Descartes work, explains the comparisons of natural objects to machines:

[A] body composed of several organic parts, which being united, work together to produce several movements, of which they would not be capable if they were separated. I call organic parts all sorts of simple or complex bodies, which being united together are able to help through their structure, shape, movement, rest and location, in the production of the motions and functions of the machine of which they are parts

Descartes metaphor has been highly influential, e.g. Julien de Offray (1709-1751) published ‘Homme machine’


Julien de Offray (1709-1751) published ‘Homme machine’


What is interesting is that this metaphor remained influential in guiding the thinking about physiology through the 18th and 19th Centuries. Although, the body-as-machine metaphor has been challenged as misleading about how our bodies function. To challenge Descartes is seems uncertain as to whether the metaphor was lost from his work, we seem to talk less  that the body is like a machine and more that that the body is a machine.


Body as machine in Popular Culture


It’s a very common metaphor that we find literally reflected in our fascination with automaton, robots and androids. If we perceive our own bodies as machines, then machines must be close to humanity?


Star Trek Data and Borg


Data on Star Trek, the Next Generation, spends his entire life seeking to become more human like in an endless Pinocchio-esque quest for humanity. The narrative counterpoint to this is the presence of the Borg, where humanity is transformed to being more machine-like. As we see Data developing meaningful relationships and emotions, the Borg represent the shadow of the machine – individuals that are taken into the collective who lose their individuality. Seven-of-Nine, in the Voyager series, struggles to regain a sense of their humanity from the collective machine.

Hollywood presents us with never-ending variations of ‘tin men’ looking for their hearts


Tin men looking for hearts



We can gauge the relevance of this metaphor in the modern world through the engagement with the basic plot of Marvel’s ‘Iron Man’ franchise. Here, Tony Stark struggles with the effects of becoming more machine-like in combination with his own flawed humanity. The machine elements of his body are literally poisoning his heart – his humanity. His genius makes him more machine-like in his awkward social relationships; his journey through the trilogy is to discover a more grounded humanity.


Tony Stark as Iron Man


It’s very easy to see the mechanised perception of our bodies in sporting ads and magazines. Here the usual messaging is to break the machine down and rebuild it with individual exercises:


Exercise specific muscles


As can be seen more literally in this advertisement


Build the body you want


The desire to be an Iron man or machine is common in body building culture


Machine man tattoes

The body-as-machine metaphor in Advertising


Of course, advertising finds some challenging ways of illustrating this


Running Shoe tatoo


In terms of training regimes




If we are machines, this also re-frames how we think of food and drinks as fuel


Food as Fuel


This is an ad for Lion Club energy drink that takes it full circle.


Drink as fuel

Mechanical machine to Computers


The big consumer technology trends are the wearable-technology that allows for the ‘quantification of self’.   These allow us to refine exercise and activity in visual displays that remind one more? of car dashboards.


Fitbit dashboard


Scientists are already creating ‘Human Exoskeleton, The ‘Body Extender,’ Is ‘Most Complex Wearable Robot Ever Built’. This appears to be a technology trend that will only increase over the coming years.


Human exoskeleton


Computer metaphors are changing and can be seen how we reference our brains over time.


Brain as clock or computer


We used to think of a mechanical brain as ‘the cogs are moving’, ‘you can hear his thoughts ticking over’, which are now replaced by the idea that we need to ‘reboot’ in the mornings, and that we get mind-viruses like computers through memes, etc.


While these mechanistic understandings of our bodies are dominant, there are natural metaphors as well.


culture decanted


While I’ve focused on a dominant metaphor for the human body as a machine, this is not the only way we perceive our bodies and their roles. We often think of our bodies in terms of botanical figures of speech:

  • We talk of our progeny coming from our seed
  • We sow our wild oats in youth
  • Children sprout up from nowhere
  • Our relationships are deep rooted
  • We nurture budding relationships
  • Love blooms
  • Beauty is something that is in full flower
  • Conditions are ripe, and opportunities are there to be harvested
  • We give people withering stares
  • There are different branches of the family tree

However, these natural botanical metaphors appear to have taken a back step in a faster paced and busier modern lifestyle. A hypothesis is that the more we live in our increasingly urban environments that are denatured by exclusion; these metaphors for our bodies are decreasing in immediate relevance. As technology is increasingly becoming a dominant cultural environmental factor, our metaphors appear to have been upgraded.


Are there New Emerging Metaphors for the Human Body?


The discussion so far has focused on the metaphors that we currently use. What is interesting is that a new and emerging metaphor for the human body is both natural and speaks to a collective sense of body.

Over the last couple of years there is an increasing range of literature and studies that focuses on the human gut as a colony of many different organisms. It is believed that up to 70% of the entire immune system is located in the gut. Martin Blaser has recently published a book that links many of the modern health ailments to the ‘missing microbes’ that our diet and antibiotics cause.

Welcome to the wilds of the human microbiome, where for hundreds of thousands of years bacterial and human cells have existed in a peaceful symbiosis that is responsible for the equilibrium and health of our bodies. Now this invisible Eden is under assault from our overreliance on medical advances including antibiotics and Cesarian sections, threatening the extinction of our irreplaceable microbes and leading to severe health consequences …contributing to the rise of what Blaser calls our modern plagues: obesity, asthma, allergies, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.

This rise in prominence is talking about our ‘gut flora’ through probiotics and prebiotics that create a beneficial environment for good bacteria. The metaphors we use have to change to help us understand that we are not one organism. The gut is swarming with about 100 trillion bacteria, or flora, which outnumber human cells in our body 10 to 1. This is more than you might think:

‘The 1.5 kg of bacteria that live inside our bodies, mainly in the gut, are crucially important to our health. Apart from playing a role in digestion, they are also involved in the development of the immune system and the neuronal system and in the onset of certain diseases’.

This is not some benign relationship. A new study carried out has indicated that the bacteria in your gut could govern your dietary choices and eating behaviour. Dr Carlo Maley in the study stated that ‘Bacteria in the gut are manipulative’. This means that types of bacteria that live in your gut have a preference for certain types of foods. They send signals to your brain directly. The implications of this are that if you have the wrong microbes, they might be signalling for unhealthy foods.


As this knowledge of the ‘gut’ disseminates, there will be increased advertising and messages about ‘inflammation of the gut’, ‘constipation’ and ‘bloating’ which are key signs of gastrointestinal unbalance. Semiotically there will also be experimentation in how to talk about this – people react in different ways in talking about living creatures in food. Clotaire Rapaille in looking at the differences between American and French attitudes towards cheese, points out that the French see cheese as a living organism with bacteria you can see and smell and is allowed to breath in cloche; whereas American cheese is dead and kept in refrigerated like corpses in a morgue. Although this might be changing, there is an abundance of articles on the net promoting live-cultured and fermented foods as beneficial for your gut. New trends in brewed teas such as Kombucha or drinks like Kefir are growing as a result.

In fact, recent studies have shown that the more microbes you are exposed to, internally and externally, the healthier you are:

“… if you’ve got a rich rainforest full of bacteria living inside and on you, [and] don’t have any spare real estate, it [the pathogen] can’t settle on you and it can’t propagate and you won’t get sick.”


Human Body as Colony?


Words like colonies sound like infections but microbiomes sound greener and more consumer- friendly.

There are some comparisons that can be found: fish tanks, soil in gardens and our intestines are all vessels that hold communities of bacteria that are necessary for the health of their environments. Are our bodies like ecosystems?


Beneficial Colonies of Microbes


If we look to nature, there are some very interesting ‘communities’ that appear to be single organisms.

One of the more famous examples is the Portuguese Man-of-War or Physalia physalis


Portuguese man of war


The Portuguese Man-of-War is not a jellyfish – it’s not a single organism but a colony of many different organisms. This type of animal is called a Siphonophore:

Siphonophores belong to the Cnidaria, a group of animals that includes the corals, hydroids, and true jellyfish. There are about 175 described species. Some siphonophores are the longest animals in the world, and specimens as long as 40 meters have been found. The majority of siphonophores are long and thin, consisting mostly of a clear gelatinous material. Some deep water species have dark orange or red digestive systems that can be seen inside their transparent tissues. Siphonophores are exceedingly fragile and break into many pieces under even the slightest forces. Many siphonophores are bioluminescent, glowing green or blue when disturbed. All siphonophores are predators, and use their many tentacles to capture crustaceans and small fish.

They come in many different and alien designs




A final Digestif


What will prove interesting is to what extent this growing knowledge has on how we refer to our bodies. I started this discussion with the observation that we tend to use the whole body to speak to a collective of people. Single bodies are usually used as personifications for a group of people – to project a shared persona or identity.

Considering our modern technological trajectory and the pervasiveness of the ‘mechanical man’ metaphor in culture, how will this new narrative of our bodies as host for a symbiotic culture change, with these health issues and benefits become better known? Can a somewhat narcissistic ape refer to themselves as a collective identity?

The semiotic shift from running your body as a machine that needs tuning and fueling is dramatically juxtaposed to a metaphor of a garden that needs nurturing and maintaining.  It will be interesting to see  over the next few years if this metaphor flourishes or withers in barren cultural relevance.