It’s Like This

As I was reading the other night, I came across a description of waves as being as “regular as breathing.” Immediately, I had a mental picture of gentle, rhythmic waves lapping the side of a boat. That picture came to me far clearer than if the author had carefully described the size and intensity of the waves.

That’s what analogies do. They help us understand things by way of mental pictures.

Most people, when faced with a new situation, ask the question: “What is it?” They want facts. They study it, measure it, take it apart and put it back together in an effort to understand it. That’s logical thinking. The creative person, however, often asks a different question: “What is it like?” In order to understand a problem, the creative mind wants an analogy. It seeks to understand the new situation in a reflection of a previous experience. That’s analogical thinking.

Studies have shown that though small children can understand some simple, obvious analogies, it isn’t until around the age of eight that they can begin to connect ideas that don’t seem similar on the surface. You know this to be true if you’ve ever witnessed a children’s sermon. The speaker might say: “This box is like your heart. What will you keep in it?” But the kids sit there, thinking, “How did I get a box in my chest?”

You can help your child begin to make analogies. I was driving recently with my daughter through a foggy morning. We began to think aloud in pictures. “It looks like…” I began. She added, “A white, fluffy blanket.” As you find links between a new experience and an old one, you’re making analogies. It’s tough to do, at times. But it’s really fun to get one just right.

One final word. As we start filling our talk with what things are like, let’s all agree to suppress the overuse of the word in other contexts – as in: “Like, I saw my friend, and I was, like, ‘Hi!’” It saddens me to see such an important word worn out.

Or, to use an analogy, it’s like using a watercolor brush to paint the porch.

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2005 Bruce Van Patter