The thing to be described

A vehicle for consciousness called ‘the metaphrand’


“It is impossible to be conscious of time in any other way than as a space.“
— Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976

Through seeing what we do, we see who we are.

Terms and ideas change with time. The path remains our own lives tracked backwards for better understanding, and the synaptic epiphanies that hopefully take us toward a brighter future.

The creation of the definition of the metaphrand wholly derives from the brilliant historical analysis penned by Princeton professor Julian Jaynes in his 1976 bestseller, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.”

Jaynes microscopically examines all existing aspects of the history of human consciousness, but for the purposes of our story, what follows is mostly chapter 2 of his book excerpted to illustrate the contours of the metaphrand, which is literally “the thing to be described.”

(Page numbers precede direct quotes from Jaynes.)

[My clumsy comments are in brackets.]

17: ... one of the most important neurological discoveries of our time. This is that tangle of tiny internuncial neurons called the reticular formation, which has long lain hidden and unsuspected in the brainstem. It extends from the top of the spinal cord through the brainstem up into the thalamus and hypothalamus, attracting collaterals from sensory and motor nerves, almost like a system of wire tabs on the communication lines that pass near it. But this is not all. It also has direct lines of command to half a dozen major areas of the cortex and probably all the nuclei of the brainstem, as well as sending fibers down the spinal cord where it influences the peripheral sensory and motor systems. Its function is to sensitize or “awaken” selected nervous circuits and desensitize others, such that those who pioneered in this work christened it “the waking brain.”

The reticular formation is also often called by its functional name, the reticular activating system. It is the place where general anesthesia produces its effect by deactivating its neurons. Cutting it produces permanent sleep and coma. Stimulating it through an implanted electrode in most of its regions wakes up a sleeping animal.

... this disordered network of short neurons that connect up with the entire brain, this central transactional core between strictly sensory and motor systems of classical neurology, is the long sought answer to the whole problem [of where consciousness resides].

[What we see here is a control system for operating the human body, and what could be a better model for the Starship Metaphrand?]

48: I am using metaphor here in its most general sense: the use of a term for one thing to describe another because of some kind of similarity between them or between their relations to other things. There are thus always two terms in a metaphor, the thing to be described, which I shall call the metaphrand, and the thing or relation used to elucidate it, which I shall call the metaphier. A metaphor is always a known metaphier operating on a less known metaphrand. I have coined these hybrid terms simply to echo multiplication where a multiplier operates on a multiplicand.

55: 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.

56: We have seen that the usual function of metaphor is a wish to designate a particular aspect of a thing, or to describe something for which words are not available. The thing to be designated, described, expressed or lexically widened is what we have called the metaphrand. We operate upon this by some similar, more familiar thing, called a metaphier. Originally, of course, the purpose was intensely practical, to designate an arm of the sea as a better place for shellfish, or to put a head on a nail that it might better hold a board to a stanchion. The metaphiers here were arm and head, and the metaphrands a particular part of the sea and particular end of the nail that already existed. Now, when we say mind-space is a metaphor of real space, it is the “real’ external world that is the metaphier. But if metaphor generates consciousness rather than simply describes it, what is the metaphrand?

Paraphiers and paraphrands

If we look more carefully at the nature of metaphor (noticing all the while the metaphorical nature of what we are saying), we find (even the verb “find”) that it is composed of more than a metaphier and a metaphrand. There are also at the bottom of most complex metaphors various associations or attributes of the metaphier that I am going to call the paraphiers. And those paraphiers project back into the metaphrand as what I shall call the paraphrands of the metaphrand.

57: Consider the metaphor that the snow blankets the ground. The metaphrand is something about the completeness and even thickness with which the ground is covered with 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 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. All this is packed into the simple use of the word ‘blanket’ to pertain to the way snow covers the ground.

59: A cardinal property of an analog is that the way it is generated is not the way it is used — obviously. The map-maker and map-user are doing two different things. For a map-maker, the metaphrand is the blank piece of paper on which he operates with the metaphier of the land he knows and has surveyed. But for the map-user, it is just the other way around. The land is unknown; it is the land that is the metaphier, while the metaphier is the map which he is using.

And so with consciousness. Consciousness is the metaphrand when it is being generated by the paraphrands of our verbal expressions. But the functioning of consciousness is, as it were, the return journey. Consciousness becomes the metaphier full of our past experience, constantly and selectively on such unknowns as future actions, decisions, and partly remembered pasts, on what we are and yet may be. And it is by this generated structure of consciousness that we understand the world.

65: Let me summarize as a way of ‘seeing’ where we are and the direction in which our discussion is going. We have said that consciousness is an operation rather than a thing, a repository or a function. 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, narratizes and conciliates them together in a metaphorical space. Conscious mind is a spatial analog of the world and mental acts are analogs of bodily acts. Consciousness operates only on objectively observable things. Or, to say it another way with echoes of John Locke, there is nothing in consciousness that is not an analog of something that was in behavior first.

• • •

Although Jaynes died before he could complete the sequel to this prodigious work, he did attach an Afterword to his original bestseller that summarized his life’s efforts, in which he articulated three very important points to materializing the metaphrand.

1. Consciousness is based on language.

2. Preceding consciousness, there was a different mentality based on verbal hallucinations. Why does all ancient literature seem to be about gods? There is a genetic basis for such hallucinations in us all, and that it was probably evolved into the human genome in the late Pleistocene, and then became the basis for the bicameral mind.

3. . . . the breakdown of the bicameral mind, beginning about 1200 BC, is quite clear. It was due to chaotic social disorganizations, to overpopulation, and probably to the success of writing in replacing the auditory mode of command. This breakdown resulted in many practices we would now call religious which were efforts to return to the lost voices of the gods.

[The metaphrand is a metaphor for your own mindspace. Put only the best stuff in it, and you will fulfill your dreams.]

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