Analogies, Metaphors, Concepts, and the Self.

19 min readDec 10, 2022


Douglas Hofstadter, Marvin Minsky, Julian Jaynes.

In this article, I am merging ideas from Julian Jaynes, Douglas Hofstadter, and Marvin Minskey.

These three people have conducted research in areas that have some shared intersection. They spoke at length about what self-awareness is and how it arises from a supposedly dead system, and how many individual components create a self-knowing system.

Douglas Hofstader (DH): Douglas Hofstadter is an American professor, cognitive scientist, and writer whose research focuses on the sense of self and consciousness. He is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”, which explores the relationship between mathematics, art, and music. Hofstadter is currently a professor of cognitive science and comparative literature at Indiana University.

Marvin Minskey (MM): Marvin Minsky was a pioneering computer scientist and cognitive scientist. He was one of the founders of the field of artificial intelligence and made many important contributions to the field, including his work on the Minsky Machine and the Society of Mind theory.

Julian Jaynes (JJ): Julian Jaynes was an American psychologist and cognitive scientist who proposed a novel theory about the evolution of human consciousness. His most famous book, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” argued that human beings used to have a “bicameral” mind and did not experience consciousness in the same way as we do today

These three persons have conducted research in similar overlapping areas. They talked at length about what self-awareness is and how it arises from our minds. Julian Jaynes states that metaphorical language is key to consciousness. DH states that analogy formation and a strange loop are core to cognition and self-awareness. MM states that the mind is composed of a society of individual agents and that analogy-making is the relational glue.

1. Concepts [1] [2]

A concept, category, abstraction, and chunk cannot be avoided when thinking about analogies and metaphors. You probably have some comprehension of those terms, but I would now like you to think more deeply about their meanings. I will use them interchangeably throughout this article. A concept can be a group of categories, a self-contained abstraction, or a hierarchical tree of related things. Concepts can be singular in form, but plural in meaning and visa versa. They can change, grow, and be updated over time. They are usually relative and purely mental. One concept can be expressed in different ways and have somewhat different interpretations or meanings.

“Pluralization is a way in which a single entity becomes a brought category.”. “There is no difference between a single memory trace and a category/concept.”- DH.

Take, for example, the statement, “The moons of Jupiter,” “There may be 2 or 3 young Einsteins among us.”. Here the moon and einstein, singular nouns, are made into a concept and used in the plural. We know a little about what those statements mean, but the underlying definition of “Einstein” or “moon” is not easily defined.

Other fun ones: “The Paris of the Middle East,” “A Mecca for tourists,” and “The city of love.” Are we comparing plumbing and pavers? No! We have some abstractions in our heads as to what these statements mean. Pavers are part of a city and may only contribute a very small part to the idea we are trying to convey. And it may be that Mecca has a very different meaning to a Muslim from what a Frenchman has to someone from Ethiopia about Paris.

Our mind is capable of being ignorant of all the tiny details that these very broad concepts may entail. The mind has no trouble using ‘particle collider’ in a sentence while leaving out all the related little details or not even knowing what it means! This can especially cause friction when systems thinkers talk to detail thinkers. Or when biases arise in a discussion.

2. Concepts by Categories.

In order to obtain a more adequate idea of variations in concepts, we draw some categories for reference. This will provide insight into the hard-to-define reality of the things we label. Interesting to observe is that concepts seem to be more fundamental than the language used to express them. Concepts can be expressed in a variety of ways. Sign language, braille, music, math, words, symbolism, and more. This is an important nuance. This I will now define as the communication of concepts.

2.1 Concepts expressed by language

Various categories of concepts are expressed by words.

Nouns: Chair, Light, House, Self, door, globe, space, nothingness.

Abstract nouns we use every other day, but the definition is hard to come by! We easily construct sentences full of very high-level nouns that are difficult to reduce to a single definition on closer examination. Chairs come in many shapes or forms.

Homographs: Con-TENT/CON-tent, DE-sert, DEE-sert, Min-ut, My-nute, PRE-sent, Pre-SENT, etc…

The same or nearly the same lexical representation with different meanings. Language chunks can thus refer to different contexts.

Compounding Nouns (especially relevant to some languages): backlog, armchair, weekend, commuter railway, fallback, sunshine

A compound use of words can be used to express a more complex scenario. This becomes especially interesting in German, Dutch or Swedish.

Phrases: it's about time, to speak of the devil, take a turn for the worse, be my guest, fancy that, put your money where your mouth is.

An entire sentence can serve as an explanation for one category. This shows that categories can be quite vague!

Circumstancual categories: please, properly, maybe, sorry, come on!, well, anyway

The meaning of those words depends greatly on the circumstances in which they are used, but for sure they all have meaning!

Glue words: whereas, nonetheless, nevertheless, by contrast, but, however, that being said.

Their meaning is usually learned through experience, not taught. They are complex glue words that can sometimes be used interchangeably and sometimes not.

Verbs: Seen the, watched the, looked at the, movie. Heard, listened, sensed that sound.

When do we use what on what occasions? Some languages have very finely nuanced differences when it comes to verbs, and natives can easily tell when to use one verb over another.

Vaque categories: A mess, delicious, beautiful weather

Can you give me the characteristics of a mess or what is tasty? They don’t explain anything directly, but something more subtle.

Word blends: breakfast + lunch = brunch, emotion + icon = emoticon, situation + comedy = sitcome, clap + crash = clash.

As a child, I remember often making unconscious word combinations that others laughed at while I used them very seriously (bacilli + bacteria = baccilia) to describe small infectious organisms. It is fascinating that children do not have the right catalog of terms to always make the right distinctions.

2.2 Non-Linguistic Complex Concepts

Various categories of concepts are not expressed by words.

Religious Symbols: The cross, hell, satan, heaven, moon, Quran, Muhammed, Jesus, etc…

Religious symbols are especially interesting because they are a very brought-together set of ideas that can vary greatly from person to person or from group to group. Jung covers this beautifully in his book “Man and His Symbols.” [7].

Mathematical Symbols: PI, E, INFINITY, p -> x, d/dx, sin, 1+1=2, etc…

Symbols, letters, concepts, and formulas, describe non-linguistic platonic realities, but we learn them through language, but eventually, the symbols take over and have their own hard to express reality.

Music: A note, a beat, verse, chorus, tune, piece, etc…

Music is a non-linguistic expression of a form of categorical emotion. Have you ever tried to explain why you like a particular song? It’s difficult. Music, in relation to mathematical and religious symbols, is a method of communication that escapes the realm of expressible words.

Sets of Belives: Stoicism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Neoplatonism, nihilism, republican, democrat etc…

I won’t even try to explain those very brought categories and all their nuances. It usually takes many books to establish what those terms could potentially mean. But we certainly use them in casual discussions all the time, which is a common source of misunderstanding!

Emoticons: ;0, :), :(, ;), and all the ones one can use in text messages.

Some people abuse emoticons. But it can be hard to explain why that is. No one really teaches when to use which kind of emoji. But in general, there is an idea of what it means in what contexts. But even the same emoji can have different meanings in different cultures or times.

Memes, movies, sayings, proverbs, koans, etc…

3. Analogies [2]

We now have a foundation to reason more about analogies.

Analogie. The perception of common essence (in one’s current frame of mind) between two things (mental). — DH

Or the perception of common relatable relative concepts.

Let’s break this down. An analogy needs two components. Something that is known and something else that is similar and might be unknown. There is a connection that is not directly an isomorphic, equivalent relationship, but can be similar enough so that the mind relates the two concepts. DH calls it a mental connection or relationship. That makes it very relative. The mind can have perfectly wrong analogies, and that is the essence of biased thinking.

Analogies just happen all the time in the mind, they do not serve direct purposes, they come and go.

DH says analogies occur constantly in the mind without you realizing it; they come and go. Try to pay attention to your thoughts as you try to reason about them. When you relate new information of any kind, you can see how your mind glues information together. You can observe this relating in real-time. (See Source 1 for examples).

If I mention sun shadow, snow shadow, rain shadow, growing up in the shadow of your brother, shadow figure, etc… we can use all those examples as an analogy to explain what ‘shadow’ itself entails. We all have an idea of what shadow means, but in all of those examples, they refer to quite different manifestations. The shared meaning is the base abstraction if you will. Similarly, we have seen this when providing examples of various ways lexical forms give explanations to concepts.

4. Metaphor

Methaphor: exists out of four components. The metaphier, metaphrand, and paraphiers and paraphrands. A methaphor represents something else.

JJ says: “The fascinating property of language is its capacity to make metaphors.” (p. 48)

The metaphier creates a metaphrand, a new entity that is used to be the inexpressible. The metaphier has paraphiers, associations or attributes of the metaphier. The paraphiers create paraphrands, new associations or attributes the metaphrand obtains.

The snow blankets the ground. The “metaphrand is something about the completeness and even thickness with which the ground is covered by snow. The metaphier is a blanket on a bed. But the pleasing nuances of this metaphor are in the paraphiers of the metaphier, blanket. These are something about warmth, protection, and slumber until some period of awakening. These associations of the blanket then automatically become the associations or paraphrands of the original metaphrand, the way the snow covers the ground. And we thus have created by this metaphor the idea of the earth sleeping and protected by the snow cover until its awakening in spring” (Jaynes, 1976, p. 57).

So it is more or less a system that describes the components to relate an idea to another idea. JJ goes further and describes how we construct a mental (analogical) space by making metaphors to physical reality.

“We ‘see’ solutions to problems, the best of which may be ‘brilliant’, and the person ‘brighter’ and ’clearheaded’ as opposed to ‘dull’, ‘fuzzy-minded’, or ‘obscure’ solutions. These words are all metaphors and the mind-space to which they apply is a metaphor of actual space. In it we can ‘approach’ a problem, perhaps from some ‘viewpoint’, and ‘grapple’ with its difficulties, or seize together or ‘com-prehend’ parts of a problem, and so on, using metaphors of behavior to invent things to do in this metaphored mind-space. And the adjectives to describe physical behavior in real space are analogically taken over to describe mental behavior in mindspace when we speak of our minds as being ‘quick,’ ‘slow’, ‘agitated’ (as when we cogitate or co-agitate), ‘nimble-witted’, ‘strong-’ or ‘weak-minded.’ The mind-space in which these metaphorical activities go on has its own group of adjectives; we can be ‘broad-minded’, ‘deep’, ‘open’, or ‘narrow-minded’; we can be ‘occupied’; we can ‘get something off our minds’, ‘put something out of mind’, or we can ‘get it’, let something ‘penetrate’, or ‘bear’, ‘have’, ‘keep’, or ‘hold’ it in mind. As with a real space, something can be at the ‘back’ of our mind, in its ‘inner recesses’, or ‘beyond’ our mind, or ‘out’ of our mind. In argument we try to ‘get things through’ to someone, to ‘reach’ their ‘understanding’ or find a ‘common ground’, or ‘point out’, etc., all actions in real space taken over analogically into the space of the mind.” — Bicameral Mind, JJ

Take note that we make use of physical references when talking about mental concepts such as an ‘approach problem’. “These words are all metaphors and the mind-space to which they apply is a metaphor of actual space”

5. Analogy and Metaphor

An analogy is the perception of the common essence between two things. A metaphor consists of two things that have a common essence that can be related. Usually, a metaphor is used as a statement with comparison words like ‘like, similarly, likewise’. The metaphor “you smell like a pig”, while an analogy is more of an explanation (a pig rolls in the mud and often stinks quite a bit, similarly, you also smell quite a bit and relate very much to a pig). Analogy differs from metaphor in that the similarity is between relationships rather than between things or actions. Again, analogies, and metaphors can be made by any means of communication. They are NOT restricted to words as we will soon discover.

The funny business of defining a metaphor or analogy is that you have to use metaphors and analogies to explain the concepts them selfs. Therefore it can be nice to use concrete examples of things that we know to describe the concepts were talking about. For example:

Metaphor: The snow blankets the ground.
Analogy: The earth is sleeping and protected by the snow cover until its awakening in spring. It is like a blanket that covers the ground.

A child of 2 who just learned a few words has not had the complexity in knowledge about concepts to understand the analogy above. For it depends on a large body of related things.

This is where this story comes together. Analogy-making uses concepts that change over time, it is a kind of lexical gluing where concepts are used to describe other concepts. As children, it all starts with pointing at things and parents responding with simple words. Over the course of our lives, we accumulate concepts and can end up in positions that are difficult to reconcile with other people. People are branching into categories of conceptual trees. It is like a hierarchical tree of concepts that you can traverse in many directions. The previous sentence itself is an analogy. Look at the tree, traversing, and directions. Upon typing this sentence my mind generally thought this:

While I was not thinking of the computer science data structure of the binary tree, stripping the sentence above I come to know that the explanation of analogy shares properties of binary trees. Both CS Trees and natural trees have in common they're recursive in nature, they are hierarchical. You can easily explore one concept ‘car’ and draw out a mind map of related things. In fact, in the previous sentence, I came up with the metaphor of a mind map to describe the analogy of a tree! And in fact, ever thought of why we call it a ‘mind’ map? It clearly has the meaning of mapping spatial things in our mental space as JJ suggests.

6. Communication by Sensory Stimulation

Hellen Keller [5] was blind and deaf from 19 months on. When she was 7 she got in touch with Anne Mansfield who was 20 years old at that point. Anna writes [8] later: “Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. . . .I had neither will nor intellect. . . .I can remember all this, not because I knew that it was so, but because I have tactual memory. It enables me to remember that I never contracted my forehead in the act of thinking.”. For understanding how communication and senses affect the formation of analogies, she is the best case we can analyze to understand the connection between self-awareness and concept formation since most sensory information is removed. This can render useful when trying to induce animal self-awareness.

Keller had learned to connect sensory input to recognizable patterns. Anne associated water with consistent signals on Kellers’ palm. Anne introduced her to the sense of water and communicated this by taps on the palm. “Water! That word startled my soul, and it awoke, full of the spirit of the morning. . . .Until that day my mind had been like a darkened chamber, waiting for words to enter and light the lamp, which is thought”. The association here is what I want to stress. By starting to associate senses with a form of concept repeatedly, her “light turned on”. She became aware of the concept of water. Up to that point she had been in a state of being without a sense of self. “That day I learned a lot of new words”. Six months later she started to use the first-person “I.”. Notice that new words are not lexical words but metaphorical finger tapping to represent sensory stimulations.

From her story, I would like to take the following points. Self-awareness arose after 6 months of building concepts and making analogies. Life does not equal self-awareness of life. Concepts need not be expressed in words to generate self-awareness. Analogies can be made without words.

7. Language in Relation to Concepts

“Every ‘effortless’ category assignment is actually a seething subterranean battle of analogies. When the battle is a landslide there is no evidence. When the battle is close there is evidence galore.” — DH

We have seen that language != words. As mentioned, language is better formulated as communication. Communication can include sign language, Braille, music, math, words, symbolism, emojis, tabs on palms, and more. Communication necessarily depends on sensory stimuli. And communication requires at least two parties. And good communication occurs when two parties engage in a constructive matter. A constructive matter is when the communication relates and aligns concepts. When concepts are related, we have proper analogies and metaphors. When we have proper analogies and metaphors, we can reason between concepts. This relationship between concepts is an important component in generating a sense of self.

DH shows [2] how the words we speak/type have probabilities, words with the highest probability occur and are expressed. It is not always the case that those are the best matches. Sometimes the odds are so close that the words blend together. When this happens a lot, we formalize a world mixing as “official.” Scientists try to define concepts. Programmers wage the battle of naming every day! Language learners know that with every word they learn, they must match the pattern to existing structures in the mind, whether they are native words or words in a newly learned language. If they can’t, it takes more effort to learn it. It is generally easier to learn languages from the same language branch than from a completely different system. Interestingly, eventually, words from different languages can represent the same thought category! And it's funny when you use the same linguistic words (sayings) but in another language, they do not have any contextual existence.

Ever spoken a foreign language and had to change contexts very quickly? And noticed how difficult it can be to find the right expressions. Or even accidentally speaking another language! It is especially fascinating when thoughts pass into a foreign language or dreams contain a foreign language. At that moment, it can feel as if a foreign language is very closely related to the mother tongue. And the interesting thing is that previous words also determine subsequent words. If you start a sentence in a particular language, you are more likely to finish it in that language. It seems to be a trend among teenagers to use English phrases like “whatever,” and “I was like….,” throughout their non-English language. It shows that language variations point to the same underlying concepts that people are trying to articulate

Clearly, we found a way to express abstract mental, and analog, concepts in our minds and relate them to physical reality.

Anyhow, the main clue here is that with a language we build up concepts. And we use language to make sense of the world around us. We discussed lexical language here, but I imagine other forms of communication have similar funny properties.

8. Self Awareness

Self. One word. No simple definition as it is a highly abstract concept but we know what we mean when we use it.

DH argues [2] that humans build concepts from the point they are born until the point they die. We are concept builders who continuously adapt to the context around us. This makes us different from animals, or Keller her first 7 years on earth. Keller was not aware but was living in an animal-like state. The most noticeable stage was 6 months after learning new concepts from Anne, she got a sense of self at age 7–8. Normally this happens around the age of two for children [3]. This can be demonstrated by the mirror test which interestingly can be used to show signs of self-awareness in animals. While there are some questions about the robustness of its methodology and execution, it shows that self-awareness, or the sense of self, has some scale to it. Humans do exceed in the test while most animals do not and the ones that do fail regularly and or need long exposure and training to understand the functioning of the mirror.

Marvin Minskey argued that the self is not a single entity or structure, but rather a collection of processes and mechanisms that work together to produce our experiences of selfhood. Those processes are called the agents which in a way can be described metaphorically as a society of mind. How do we ever understand anything?

In chapter 6.2 he tells: “Almost always, I think, by using one or another kind of analogy-that is, by representing each new thing as though it resembles something we already know. Whenever, a new things internal workings are too strange or complicated to deal with directly, we represent whatever parts of it we can in terms of more familiar signs’. This way we make each novely seem similar to some more ordinary thing. It really is a great discovery, the use of signals, symbols, words, anmd names. They let our minds transform the strange into the common place”

Douglas Hofstadter argues that the mind is not a distinct entity, but rather a product of the interactions between neurons in the brain. The concept of a “strange loop” refers to a feedback loop in which a system appears to be able to change itself or to be able to influence itself. Hofstadter suggests that consciousness arises when a system becomes self-aware through this kind of feedback loop. And as seen before he argues analogy formation is core to cognition.

Julian Jaynes argued that the “analog self” was able to perceive and understand the world around it, but was not capable of the kind of self-reflection and self-awareness that we possess today. That it operates by way of analogy, by way of constructing an analog space with an analog ‘I’ that can observe that space, and move metaphorically in it. It operates on any reactivity, excerpts relevant aspects, and narratives, and consolidates them together in a metaphorical space where such meanings can be manipulated like the things in space. (Book 1, Chapter 2, p65–66)

“The subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics. It allows us to shortcut behavioral processes and arrive at more adequate decisions. Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or repository. And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.” — JJ.

The concepts we use are composed of a complex automatic everchanging context tree that has loops, relations, analogies, and metaphors within mental space, and to external physical entities. As soon as the society of agents links into a strange loop self-awareness is created. Analogy is core to cognition — DH, metaphorical language is core to consciousness — JJ, the self exists out of a society of agents — MV. Those agents are linked by analogy — MV


By relating the ideas of these three individuals, I hope to inspire the reader to become curious about who the reader actually is. What makes us self-aware is a difficult question and in this article, I have made a small summary of the idea that making analogies and metaphorical concepts are at the core of our cognition. Especially since they play an important role in our daily lives and thoughts. We want to understand where self-awareness was first seen in human evolution. Clearly, we differ from most animals in this, as we can see with the mirror test. DH states, “There must be a transition between that simple mirror use and recognizing oneself,” and that “The constant creation of new categories is something that sets us apart from animals.” We are living pattern-matching machines. Where the “machine” is the metaphor and “this sentence” is an analogy. Although DH does not specify when self-awareness arose, JJ argues that this ability of humans is actually evolutionarily very close. That man used to live like a robot, controlled by voices in the bicameral brain. We can argue that no human is born self-aware. It is true DH argues that self-awareness is a learned changing behavior.

If self-awareness is evolutionary, and learned behavior, then it is a very special evolutionary product. The idea of a dead universe manifesting reflective qualities is wonderful, to say the least. It makes me wonder what the limits are when it comes to self-awareness, and what it may become in the future! After all, self-awareness is a fairly recent development (from an evolutionary perspective).

While I would love to elaborate on nonduality and metaphysical notions of self-awareness, I will refrain from doing so in this blog because it brings some more interesting ideas to the metaphorical table😂.

Regardless, self-awareness is there, lets us understand our own thoughts, feelings, and actions, make better decisions, improve relationships, and spread love to others! The more we know our selfs the more we can know others.

“What about language usage is so important to being human”, “It what makes us different from other animals” — LaMDA, google AI 2022

[1]: The Nature of Categories and Concepts, Standford,

[2]: Analogies as the Core of Cognition, Stanford,

[3]: Self-recognition in early development,

[4]: Mirror Test,

[5]: Hellen Keller,

[6]: Marvin Minsky, Society of Mind,

[7]: Jung, Man and His Symbols

[8]: Hellen Keller , The story of my live,

[9]: Conversation between LaMDA and developer,




Programmer, problem solver, learning everyday. I write about anything mainly to straighten my own thoughts.