Habits and Metaphor: Constructing the Person

Rule One: Patterns of Action are Built on Habits

It starts in the womb, as young minds construct habitual patterns of behavior — and create a new self-identity, with growing memories of “me.”

Jud Brewer 2014 The Craving Mind

The process continues throughout life, as ongoing mental and emotional judgments of what is pleasant and what is unpleasant struggle to birth new self-identities, against a lengthening lifetime of pre-existing habits.

Another way of describing the process:

In philosophy, the criteria for personhood (PH) at a specific point in time (synchronic), and the necessary and sufficient conditions of personal identity (PI) over time (diachronic) are traditionally separated. Hence, the transition between both timescales of a person’s life remains largely unclear. Personal habits reflect a decision-making (DM) process that binds together synchronic and diachronic timescales. Despite the fact that the actualization of habits takes place synchronically, they presuppose, for the possibility of their generation, time in a diachronic sense. The acquisition of habits therefore rests upon PI over time; that is, the temporal extension of personal decisions is the necessary condition for the possible development of habits. Conceptually, habits can thus be seen as a bridge between synchronic and diachronic timescales of a person’s life.

Habits, Personhood, and Personal Identity

As time goes by, our mental habits grow and wrap around themselves like the layers of an onion. It is almost impossible to access the deepest levels of habit, which after all were formed automatically long before our verbal powers emerged. But many meaningful and rewarding levels of habit remain accessible to change.

Image Source

More details on seizing the reins of our own habits from James Clear in “Atomic Habits”

Look again at the topmost image in this article. Our habits “birth” our self-identity. Our friends, families, co-workers, and others often identify us by our outward habitual behaviors. The process never stops unless we want it to. But almost everyone has things about themselves they would like to change.

Rule Two: Patterns of Thought are Built on Metaphor

Unless you know better, you may believe that metaphor is a thing for writers and poets, but of little use in ordinary day to day living. Unless you know better . . .

“The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.” It might not be an exaggeration to say that metaphorical thinking is the basis of our ability to extend the boundaries of human knowledge.  For those of you who only remember the word from middle school English class, I imagine this dramatic inflation of the importance of metaphor comes as a surprise. Isn’t metaphor just a linguistic flourish? “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”? “Now is the winter of our discontent”? Surely this kind of frippery is only for poets and artists? For the cafe and the studio, rather than the workshop and the laboratory? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Is it possible to speak plainly and just name things and processes without recourse to metaphor? The answer is not as straightforward as many of us would like it to be. Concrete concepts often evaporate into metaphorical abstraction upon careful examination. Conversely, even the most abstract concepts usually begin their lives as metaphors constructed from day-to-day human experience.

Metaphor as Alchemy of Thought

Mark Johnson and George Lakoff are the authors of “Metaphors We Live By,” which is a good introduction to the concepts of everyday metaphorical thinking.

The key point about metaphor is that it is not restricted to language. A little bit of thought should reveal that the concept of metaphor penetrates into much deeper levels of mental and neurological chains of meaning than does human language. This means that the human being uses metaphorical structures of thought long before it learns to speak and think in human language. But it is more difficult to understand just how all that is done.

Habit and Metaphor are Two Powerful Keys to Understanding

In order for habit formation to work, metaphor must already be installed into the neurological machinery. That is a much deeper topic, and for another time. But in the meantime, do we have a use for metaphor now?

Is metaphor a useful concept for anyone besides writers and poets? Certainly psychotherapists and hypnotists can make good use of metaphors, both in helping clients to change behaviors but also in helping them to understand what makes them tick. Cognitive scientists and artificial intelligence researchers can also find much buried treasure in the innate metaphorical structures of human consciousness and subconsciousness. Anyone who works with consciousness and with conscious beings, can make good use of metaphor.

When we think of habits, we tend to think of bad habits that we would like to change. Habits like smoking, drinking, gambling, lying, and running away from challenge. But good habits can be far more powerful than bad habits, if they are reinforced properly. Productive and rewarding habits can come to fill our lives, and displace most bad habits just in the ordinary course of living a rewarding life that is constructed with care out of good habits. In many ways, we are our habits. They construct our identities at every level.

Habits and Identity
Habit Building Cycle

1. What matters most is what you do in the SLUMP.

Habit maintenance depends almost entirely on what happens after you enter the SLUMP.

After any period of action, persistent effort, motivation, you’re bound to hit a wall. These failures are inevitable.

Therefore, our success depends, not on our ability to prevent failures from happening, but on our ability to anticipate, plan, and learn from failures. __ Source


A quick and reductionist way to view the construction of a human mind is by the building of habits and metaphors from the simplest and most basic levels to more and more complex, intricate, and interwoven levels.

Habits use metaphor as essential components, and the automatic building of metaphor uses habitual mechanisms. Simple but profound.

Note: You will see some of the deeper approaches to habit formation and destruction in the addiction books and scientific literature. The brain reward system combined with the fear learning system play strong central roles in subconscious habit formation. In the US, about $1 trillion is spent annually on addiction, rehab, and other direct costs of bad habits. Secondary costs of bad habits of thinking, learning, and emotion, could run much higher, just in the one country alone.

Remember that productive habits will crowd out destructive habits, if they are well reinforced personally, socially, and professionally.

This entry was posted in Metaphor, Philosophy, psychology. Bookmark the permalink.

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