In recent years George Lakoff has been pursued by politicians, CEOs, pundits and all manner of movers and shakers in our society. He is being sought out for his understanding of how people think and how their minds are changed. Lakoff is a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, a founding member of the Rockridge Institute, and one of the world’s experts on the nature of thought and its expression in language. His national bestseller, Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate became an essential manual for progressives during the 2004 election, and while it didn’t win them control of the U.S. government, Lakoff’s ideas have begun to change how they strategize and make their case to the public. Politics aside, Lakoff’s insights into the nature of mind have relevance for all of us. In the following interview with coeditors Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker, joined by vipassana teacher James Baraz, Lakoff discusses these insights.
George Lakoff: I’m a cognitive linguist, which means that I put together cognitive science and linguistics in order to understand the nature of thought and how it gets expressed in language. There are a number of things to understand about this process.
First, in order to have any thoughts at all, you need a brain. That’s not so strange, but we now know a lot about how the brain works, as well as the relationship between the brain and thought and how they work together. We have learned that there are certain mechanisms of thought that structure our reality. What this means is that you don’t just see reality as it is. That’s impossible from the point of view of cognitive science. You are always imposing a structure on reality; there’s no way you could do otherwise given the nature of your brain and body.
For instance, we now know that we understand things based on conceptual “frames.” Take the concept of a table. A table has a top, which is horizontal and flat and supported from the bottom. When you put things on the top, they presumably stay there. A very simple concept. There are no battleships in the concept of the table; there are no clouds in the concept of the table. It’s a localized, fragmentary thing. And when you know what a table is, that knowledge is physically in your brain. Technically, it’s part of the way synapses work. Every time you hear the word table, a neural network—which is also connected to your body—is activated that contains this concept of the table, where you understand the table in terms of what you can physically do with a table. This framing is one of the most natural things that you do.
The second thing that’s crucial to understand is metaphor. We understand many things via metaphors, many of which are universal, coming out of universal experiences. For example, we have a metaphor that more is up and less is down. The reason has to do with your experience. Every time you pour water into a glass, the level goes up. More water means up. Every time you pile books on the desk, the level goes up. Every day in your experience, there’s a correspondence between verticality and quantity, and although verticality and quantity are computed in different parts of the brain, when they’re regularly activated together, you make connections between them. Those connections are the metaphor, so that you begin to constantly connect more with up. We call this a primary metaphor because everybody learns it all over the world.
There’s a huge system of these primary metaphors, and we are generally not aware of them. They live below the level of consciousness, even though we use them all the time. For example, we think about our purposes in life as destinations that we’re trying to reach. Why? Because whenever you’re trying to achieve a purpose, you usually go to a destination. If you want a drink of water, you go to the water fountain. If you want to take a rest, you go to the bed. Over and over again, achieving purposes correlates with going to a destination.
After discovering how the mind works through frames and metaphors, many new insights follow. For example, we now know that if you learn a fact that doesn’t fit some conceptual frame that you have, the frame will stay and the fact will be ignored. That’s because your frames, which are really the structure of your brain, are defining what makes sense for you.
This cognitive process has tremendous relevance to our political life. For instance, if you have come to understand taxation by hearing the notion of “tax relief” repeated over and over, you will come to view taxation as an affliction to be relieved. That’s how you will think about taxes, and it will be very hard for you to think about taxes in any other way. You may hear someone say, “Oh, but taxes are necessary for public services like police and fire,” but it will probably go right in one ear and out the other.
While we all create frames, one thing that conservatives have done extremely well and with determination over the last thirty-five years is to create frames for their worldview—as well as the language that goes with those frames. When their language is repeated often enough, the frames become embedded in your brain and come to define common sense for you—for instance, laws called “Clear Skies Initiative,” “Healthy Forests” or “No Child Left Behind”—whether or not this legislation is really a sincere effort to achieve the stated effects.
Inquiring Mind: Do you think these politicians consciously understood what they were doing in terms of framing and cognitive science, or was it just the outcome of their political instincts?
GL: I think it was largely the outcome of their instincts. In these last thirty-five years conservatives have set up over eighty institutions, primarily think tanks that are collectively known as “the message machine,” and they get funded to the tune of over $400 million a year. There’s an enormous number of people, scholars and researchers, and a huge amount of money and effort involved in creating their message. But in spite of their success, I doubt if they knew exactly how cognitive mechanisms work.
IM: The Buddha understood those mechanisms. In the first line of the Dhammapada, he says, “We are what we think. With our thoughts we make the world.”
GL: However many Buddhists seem to believe that we can wipe the slate clean and get rid of the frames and universal concepts that are structuring our brain. That’s a false notion. You don’t get rid of the metaphor of “purposes as destinations.” You don’t get rid of mental programming like that. There are some things you can change, but it’s never easy. The brain changes very slowly, and it takes a lot of meditation practice to alter it even a little.
IM: Does it ever change through the power of reason or reflection? Or, to put it another way, do you think the brain is susceptible to persuasion?
GL: More likely it will change only through experience, or hearing new language over and over. It changes through repetition and experience.
IM: How would you introduce a new mental frame in a culture that is constantly putting out messages that support the already existing frames? For instance, American culture is based in the assumption that happiness comes from external circumstances and has to do with status and ownership, whereas Buddhism teaches that happiness comes from within and is based in a generous and equanimous heart. These are somewhat opposing frames, and the media are constantly promoting the former. How might Buddhist values and beliefs be framed to appeal to people in a culture that has a somewhat different idea about how to create happiness and satisfaction?
GL: You first need to understand what’s in your favor. One of the things I’ve discovered in my study of liberals and conservatives is that the apparent differences between the two can be understood by looking at two different models of the family: the strict-father family and the nurturing-parent family. The “strict father” is a moral authority who knows right from wrong. His role is to protect the family in a dangerous world. The “nurturing parent” worldview is gender neutral. Nurturance is basically two things: empathy and responsibility—connecting with someone else, feeling what they feel, and then assuming responsibility by acting on that feeling. Buddhism, it seems to me, has a very nurturing morality. Its job is to create nurturing human beings who empathize with others and act responsibly. Even so, it has arisen in some very-strict-father cultures.
IM: The Buddha was born into the strict-father tradition, a warrior caste.
GL: But he used that inherited strict-father discipline to become a nurturing person. The same thing happened in Japan. In Japanese Zen you are taught discipline, which is the heart of the strict-father culture. Sit up straight. Do something wrong and you’ll get hit. We’re going to confuse you with koans, make you to do labor of a certain kind, make you get up with the bell early in the morning. But the purpose of all the discipline is to create people who are nurturing.
IM: We’re going to be hard on you in order to soften you up.
GL: Exactly. What I’ve found in studying politics is that while with extreme conservatives, the strict-father model is applied to every domain of life; for people who are known as “moderate conservatives” that model is applied only in some domains and nurturance is applied in others. Similarly, if you live under a nurturance model you will still have some sympathy with the strict-father model. Most of us can walk into a John Wayne movie and understand it immediately, and many nurturing people will even resonate with it. We all have both models within us, either actively or passively, and that’s what allows for change to happen.
IM: So, if there is a nurturance model in all of us, then how do you elicit or activate that model? Do you try to create a new metaphor or frame?
GL: Well, it probably won’t work to just tell people to be nurturing. They have to experience what you are talking about, and chances are they have already experienced it. In my book Don’t Think of an Elephant! I have a section called “How to Respond to Conservatives.” The last thing you should do is try to challenge someone; the first thing is to try to evoke their nurturance model. You do that by asking very simple questions: Who do you care about? What responsibilities do you have to the people you care about? How do you carry them out? What do you do? How does it make you feel? You’re basically evoking what Buddhism is all about.
IM: A lot of people would probably respond by saying, “I care about my family, my friends, my people.” How can individuals expand their sphere of compassion to include others outside of their family, friends, religion or nation-state?
GL: In my experience in the political realm, I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t expressed some care for somebody who’s outside of their group or family. We can find that nurturing impulse in other people, awaken it, activate it, have them examine it, see what it’s about. Ask people to meditate on their own nurturing experience rather than try to tell them what they should be doing.
IM: At the same time, the individual is under the powerful influence of a cultural worldview. In Buddhism we try to understand our interconnectedness and that it’s in our self-interest for everyone to reach their potential and for there to be harmony in the world. But America is the land of rugged individualism, with Independence Day our national holiday and a belief that everyone should learn to “go it alone.” We’re cowboys, and nobody’s going to tell us what to do.
GL: That’s the strict-father impulse. But there’s another part of the story of America, and that’s the barn raisings and community spirit. Even cowboys respect the barn raisings, and today a lot of conservatives are involved in Habitat for Humanity, taking time out to build houses for others. Yes, we believe in rugged individualism, but another part of us believes in doing charity work or raising money for the community fund. The fact is that the nurturing impulse is present in everybody who’s not a sociopath. You just have to find it, and you do that by talking to people in a respectful, caring way.
IM: If we wanted to put out a message to the world, an advertising campaign for compassion, how would we frame it?
GL: You don’t want to just put out a single message or idea. What you have is a whole system of ideas with the nurturing-parent frame at the center of the system. You want to make that frame a part of people’s brains, and that’s the real challenge. It requires an appropriate language and stories that are repeated over and over by lots of people. And the stories have to be ones that awaken people’s ordinary experiences. The fact that people already have the nurturing impulses is the foundation that you build upon.
A lot of our reality, especially our social reality, is understood through universal metaphors, and when the metaphors become institutionalized in our government they become our reality. For example, we have a metaphor that time is a moneylike resource. You waste time, spend time, etc. So people run their lives by budgeting their time, and that becomes real. One of the things that you can do in Buddhism is notice that this idea of time is not a fact about the external world independent of culture; it’s a fact about culture. And then some people say, okay, I’m going to retreat from that culture, go off and live in the woods where I don’t have to budget my time. So there are ways to get away from metaphors that have become institutionalized in culture, but sometimes you can’t get away from them, or you don’t even realize that they are defining your reality.
IM: How might we find a new language to use for the so-called war on terrorism? It seems to be a misnomer, or a mistaken metaphor, that is at the center of a lot of suffering.
GL: There are several ways in which you might try to shift the language. For instance, think of terrorism as a disease that you want to cure, a disease of the mind. If you see terrorism as a disease of the mind, then the question is, how did it get that way? What are the causes? Well, there are people in the world who feel threatened by Western culture and behavior, and certain schools and preachers teach militancy against the West and put forward ideas that are then repeated over and over. That’s how people are taught to be terrorists. Can you stop that? Can you intervene? Are there other ideas, alternative teachings, alternative schools that can work as cures, that can change the brains of people who might blow themselves up to kill other people? If we begin to regard terrorism as a disease, that suggests a different way of dealing with it. You don’t send out the army to fight disease.
IM: Some people at Spirit Rock Meditation Center are working on a conscientious objector movement to help young people clarify their own values and also to prepare pacifist portfolios in case of a draft. In our culture, patriotism is framed as being willing to kill and die for your country, whereas nonviolence is often seen as cowardice. The Buddha said nonharming, and specifically not killing, is the basis of spiritual happiness. Every major religion has a similar prescription. How can we reframe our discussion so that contributing constructively to the community as a CO or questioning the government about its use of violence could be seen as patriotic?
GL: It’s crucial to understand that reframing is global, not local. You don’t just reframe one thing, like conscientious objection. The notion of a conscientious objector has to come out of the notion of conscience; it has to come out of a value system as a whole; it has to fit into many other reframings, such as what violence is about, what its causes are, and how to respond to it.
IM: These are big jobs. Peace activists will need to start a lot of think tanks.
GL: They might also do well to focus on child-rearing. Between birth and the age of five, half of all the neural connections in our brains die. The half that die are the half that are not used. The question is, which half will die? That will determine how your brain is shaped. If you learn that the only way in which you can be proud of yourself and have a sense of worth is through fighting and winning battles and competitions, that attitude will be very hard to change. If you learn that you can have a sense of worth through caring for other people and connecting to other people, you will have another way of approaching the world.
IM: There is some evidence that meditation can alter the deeply programmed patterns in our brains. Maybe one role of Buddhadharma in our culture today is as a remedial program.
GL: That is certainly a role that Buddhism can play in our society. If you miss out in kindergarten or grade school, then you can learn to sit on a cushion and retrain your mind in compassion and nurturance.