Using Analogies: A Thinking Skill

A good analogy does not just invoke some chance resemblance between the thing being explained and the thing introduced to explain it. It capitalizes on a deep similarity between the principles that govern the two things…A good analogy helps you think: the more you ponder it, the better you understand the phenomenon. But all too often in Angier’s writing, the similarity is sound-deep: the more you ponder the allusion, the worse you understand the phenomenon.

This is Steven Pinker, reviewing a book on scientific illiteracy.

The most impressive thinkers I know are quick on their feet with analogies. Good use of analogies doesn’t just represent a communication skill. It’s a thinking skill. It’s making sense of a thing based on its relationship to other things. It’s viewing an idea in context and explaining it to others as such.

Anyone have tips for how we can improve on this thinking skill, besides being self-aware of its importance?

11 comments on “Using Analogies: A Thinking Skill
  • I think that developing analogies requires a lot of abstraction and holistic thinking. It seems like in order to make an analogy from A to B, you have to:
    1) Understand A
    2) Find the abstract relationships that define the unique function/importance of A, and
    3) Search for a more tangible (or “graspable” by your audience) expression of that relationship, and then link the two.

    I’d say the way to improve this skill is probably to develop a deep, contextual understanding of a wide array of things. It’s like translating: you need to extract meaning from one language, and then express the same meaning in another language. The more you know the first language, the more exact your comprehension of the meaning will be. The more you know the second language, the more effectively and accurately you will be able to present this meaning in its new form.

    It seems like one of those “practice makes perfect” activities. The two things it requires are the ability to link the micro (object/idea) to the macro (relationship, context), and then having a lot of these “macro/micro links” available to facilitate the “matching” aspect of finding things with similar contextual relationships. As far as tips go, anything that helps with either of those two aspects would probably work. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was also some way to organize/categorize these core relationships, but I don’t know of any method for that.

  • Actually, now that I think of it, one tip would be to try to visualize these abstract concepts and then find something physical that shares that description. “Train of thought”, “river of emotions”, “circle of life”, “just a hop, skip, and a jump”. Visuals can help find the simple things to make an analogy to.

  • Be aware of the connotations of objects you use in your analogies. Even if the actions, purpose, or process associated with an object make sense in the context of your analogy, a bad connotation associated with that object can still taint it.

    For instance, if your cell phone is set to vibrate rather than ring, you would want to say that it buzzes “like an alarm clock”, not “like a vibrator”.

  • I think if we are to develop excellent analogies, we sometimes have to forget ourselves. Often we get so strung up on thinking and writing clever or witty wisdom that we end up muddying the waters instead of clarifying them. The most effective analogies occur when the writer (or speaker) distills their message until only the barest of essential meaning is left. Then they search for the simplest parallel that encompasses the same message (but in a more intelligible format). He or she searches for the best fit of image without additional complications. Easy to write about but not easy to do!

  • [Caution : Long comment]

    I could think of a few pointers –

    a)Start with similes – Ask your family / friends to throw up random similes (that compare two unlike things using words `like’ or `as’ – say, Eyes like emerald, Writing is like water;you have to let it flow, Fractions are like pieces of pie as they represent the part of a whole) that resonate well with a broader audience. Select the one that gives the sharpest perspective – leading to an increased level of comprehension and cognitive retention.

    b)Graduate to extended metaphors – At the next level derive metaphors (that draw comparisons without using the words `like’ or `as’ – say, Pet is a brother you never had, Seed is an unborn baby, Ignorance is a closed door) after similes you’ve rustled up. In fact, analogies are extended metaphors and are easier on the audience. Start by conditioning the mind to draw simple life metaphors before you try conceiving analogies in a wider context (say, Middle East is a snot faced child that demands attention by throwing tantrums whenever it senses the danger of peace breaking out).

    c)Forced analogies – Think you’re a rocket scientist talking to an Insurance salesman. Talk as if you are an Insurance salesman talking about the Rocket Science to your insurance peer group. Fit into each perspective, analyze and relate. Check whether the analogy is easier to memorize than the complex subject to which it relates by an unrelated audience –that is, mnemonically descriptive by all. If yes, you got it.

    d)Humor Flavoring – For maximum effect, choose the analogy that is most humorous. Especially when the analogy mocks and debunks something that is a perceived Royalty, the audience should relate to it as a symptom and not diagnose it as a disease. When the analogy is softened with humor, the truth sinks in but does not rankle.

  • I think this is going to sound very simple but I think the best way to get better at analogies is to experience life.

    The more you read, the more you do, the more people you meat and interact with, the more you know about different things and the world around you.

    I think you have to a be a lot like Thomas Jefferson, who was alleged to be very good at producing analogies. You have to be willing to learn and review every aspect of the human existence.

  • The whole purpose of an analogy should be to increase understanding. To this end, the thing to be explained should be compared to something that the audience already understands better.

    For instance, to explain the Internet to a farmer, one would not compare it to something like a neural network in the brain; it would be better to compare it to a plant’s root system, or the criss-crossing wires of his farmyard’s fence.

    Effectively using analogies requires not just a broad understanding of many subjects, but also an understanding of one’s audience.

  • This post is very thoughtful.
    I really like how you articulated that.

    I totally agree with you. I find as I explain something complex to someone I always speak in analogies because it is a way that someone can put a picture to a concept.

    It is one of the best ways, in my opinion, to explain something to someone if they don’t understand what you are telling them initially.

    Great post!

  • I improve my analogy-using skill by voracious reading in all subjects, the better to encourage the growth of dendritic spines in my brain.

    To protect my brain cells from developing the plaque seen in Alzheimer’s disease, I eat plenty of oily cold-water fish for the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, and I drink red wine daily for the protective anti-oxidant polyphenols it contains, as well.

    I experiment with different plant-born neurotransmitters (interestingly, mushrooms and some fruits and vegetables contain serotonin).

    Through the meditative practice of ecstatic dance and energy-channeling movements I get high on my own body’s chemicals.

    I also smoke ganja to stimulate the ‘creative’ juices (most of the body’s serotonin is secreted in the gut).

    Intellectuals who ignore their bodies risk the very health of their brains.

  • Although memetics is questioned as a quantitative science, the concept is quite powerful. As I began to study memetics and understand the evolution of information/cultural artifacts I was able to build a more intuitive understanding of the connections between ideas and concepts experienced in every day life. Understanding these connections is what makes the formation of analogies a thought process rather than a forced excercise.

  • I haven’t written any analogies myself – but I know when I hear them that the simpler they are the more timeless they become. Language changes quickly, as does technology & the things this generation holds in common. If you can combine simple & profound, you’ve done something great.

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