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Glossary of Perceptual Contrasts (Image Schemas)
Along with their common figurative meanings in English

What follows is a list of many of the perceptual contrasts summarized in the box-frame model. Some examples of standard English metaphors are given, along with general remarks about how these contrasts structure our thinking and communication.

This list is open-ended. Click here if you would like to email me other important contrasts or further examples of the contrasts here.

Of course, a full investigation of any one perceptual contrast and the way it is used in English would be a major project, as George Lakoff's work on the preposition "over" shows (see Women, Fire and Dangerous Things).

1) Light and transparency vs. darkness and opacity: Light and sight are surely the most important sensory metaphors for the idea of awareness. They suggest things like understanding, "lucid" thinking, and a clear mind. If someone has a vision or is visionary, they "shed light on," "bring to light," "see the light," or attain "enlightenment." When we are "transparent" in the positive connotation used by the psychologist Carl Rogers, we reveal our motives and feelings to others; by making our inner selves visible, we make growth and intimacy possible. Ken Wilber says, "Beauty is the transparency of any phenomenon to the One; Art is anything with a frame around it." The fact that sight does not perceive all sides of an object at one moment is a good metaphor for the limits of our knowledge, for experience gained over time, and for differences of opinion and "perspective." And, since there can be differences between how something looks and how it really is, the idea of an illusion is a metaphor for a delusion. Some stock phrases represent failures of understanding as failures of vision: a person can be "blind," "have a blind spot," or "turn a blind eye" to something. Images that bounce off surfaces like water or mirrors become metaphors for profound thought as in "being reflective about things" and "reflecting upon an idea." Reflection can also denote a more general relatedness, as in "A reflects B."

2) Supported from below vs. suspended from above: This is a contrast between those things in a gravity field which are touched by and supported by a surface beneath them, and those which are attached to and hang from something above (like a ceiling) or to the side (like a wall). Newborn infants must rely on other people to pick them up and move them around. They must depend on, be supported by, or lean on someone. These phrases describe relative position in a gravity environment but are also metaphors for trusting or needing someone responsible, committed, loyal and "supportive." On the other hand, when we are psychologically "hung up on" something, we are helpless and dependent, we are in its grip. In mathematics we have dependent and independent variables, while in the realm of discourse the truth of one statement is said to depend upon or to be supported by the truth of another as in "It depends." We have "grounds for" making assertions and "holding" beliefs. The religious philosopher Paul Tillich used the phrase "ground of being" as a way to speak and think about God. This image uses our bodily need to be grounded, founded and supported rather than their opposites. But there is also a contrast with floating at an optimum level or being in a zero-gravity state: think of fantasy, disembodied spirits, our "higher selves," the supernatural, and the need for relief from worldly burdens.

3) On vs. off: Touching and supported by something, or the absence of support. Usually the thing in question is located above its support (a book on the table), but sometimes it hangs down from it (a coat on a hook) or is attached like a fly on the wall or ceiling. On target, off target (metaphorically, correct or incorrect). Also, on can mean facing or contiguous (on 20th Street), off can mean nearby to (just off 20th). And a non-spatial contrast: "on" or "off" means functioning or not.

4) Up vs. down: The dimension and direction of height; the axis of gravity. Distance can mean degree or quantity (more = up; less = down), or intensity ("highly"), or quality ("the highest virtue"). Height can mean good or desirable: good = up, bad = down; "the up or down side" of something. Up = yes; down = no. Approval: "thumbs up." But, we also say "the height of ignorance," where we mean the degree of something, as distinct from approval. Higher categories are superordinate, more encompassing. Function can either be regarded as "above" physical parts (more important or essential), or below (more basic). Emotional mood or morale is spoken of as in feeling "up" or "down." Likewise, Power - "the upper hand" or "the underdog." and Social status - "upper class." Depth is a related idea, being the dimension through a material or enclosed space from its border or plane closest to the point of observation. Most often it is measured vertically (downwards) but also horizontally (as with a frame on a wall) and even upwards, as "a deeply recessed ceiling light." Depth and height, as measures of amount or thoroughness, are also applied to abstract qualities as in: a depth of knowledge or feeling, the height of wisdom, a shallow analysis. Weight and gravity become metaphors for seriousness and importance. One can be emotionally depressed or "pressed down" by worries or weighed down by responsibilities. We also find this perceptual contrast used to describe our failing to maintain a standard position ("The fall of the Roman Empire." "He fell from grace". "She was a fallen angel."). Simone Weil calls the human tendency to let down standards, "gravity."

5) Top vs. bottom: The highest part, point, side or surface, contrasted with the lowest. The upper part of something along the gravity axis associated with the most powerful, or the best as in "top" dog, "top" quality and "top" flight. (?) "You're the top, you're the Coliseum." The sexual roles of "top" and "bottom." "Top" priority. This contrast, like many others, organizes a lot of our thinking. Top has 47 listings in the Random House Dictionary, and bottom has 30. (Cf. above/below, superordinate/subordinate)

6) Near vs. far: Being in a location can mean being of a type, so that nearness and separation become excellent metaphors for degrees of similarity. For example, similarities of shape or gestalt, which are difficult to verbalize: "This one is very close to that other one." In other words, it closely resembles it or is nearly the same. The same goes for the idea of parity -- "We are close in age," and for intimacy -- "He acts very distant or remote." Alternatively, a change of location is a way of speaking of a change of state. We speak of "arriving at," "approaching" and "coming to" a solution or resolution; and of death as a departure or a going away. About death, we say: "Someone is leaving us and is near death." In addition, thinking about an idea can be described as nearness: we say an idea is "present to the mind," but, on the other hand, someone can be "absent-minded."

7) Front vs. back. Facing toward vs. facing away: A facing side can be simply the nearest side (the side of a ball that faces me). Or an object can have distinguishable sides, with the front usually interacting more with the surroundings. In humans the front/back axis is typically the axis of locomotion across the ground, the straight line for going directly to something. Thus "forward" typically implies progress while "backward" implies retreat, loss, mistake or inadequacy. Facing is a basic sign of visual attending, of willingness to receive and give information, or of readiness to approach or to operate something. Among our expressions for two people lined up along such an axis are "face to face," "eye to eye," "nose to nose," "right (or directly) opposite each other," "at loggerheads with" or "at daggers drawn." We face away or look away in order to limit the facial cues we give, to limit stimulation, to protect the vulnerable face and eyes, and to put unpleasant things "out of sight" (= "out of mind"). There is an association with shame -- "to lose face." Depth from front to back is often a metaphor for the complex "layers" of someone's personality that one can "uncover," or for the extent of one's knowledge and how far one has gotten into a topic. Depth, shallowness, breadth and narrowness describe whole fields or regions of knowledge in spatial terms.

8) Moving toward vs. moving away: Motion to a closer or farther position relative to your position, mostly along a front-to-back horizontal axis. (Contrast with "edging toward" or "sidling up to.") Horizontal motion is a primary component of human locomotion. Except in outer space, we normally take for granted the direction of up and down and the support of a surface below us, as when we lie down to sleep. For this reason, a horizontal line is the conventional representation for a "steady state" or a "baseline," with variations in steadiness graphed above and across it (e.g., a bell curve) or above and below it (a sine curve). "I'm moving in the direction of the Democrats," means toward or nearer to their "positions" on the political "map." This is yet another geographical or location metaphor.

9) Left and right sides vs. front or back, top or bottom: The left/right axis is contrasted with (and at right angles to) both the axis of height and the front-to-back axis. Because our locomotion (unlike that of a fidler crab) is primarily along the front/back axis, it expresses desire and purpose. Things to the side are less important and receive less attention. Standard phrases: "a side issue," "a side order," "a side benefit," a side show," and "I set it aside." This contrast, when put in terms of a circle or other area, is the contrast between center and periphery, an image of relative power or importance (people are sidelined or politically marginalized) but also of moderation between extremes (the middle ground). The contrast of center and side is also involved in images of balance and comparison, as "on the one hand, . . . on the other hand." Because the right hand is usually more adept than the left, left and right have become metaphors for suspicion and preference, as in "sinister" and "seated at the right hand." Because of the seating arrangement of political parties in the French Assembly during the 19th Century, the left/right axis is used to describe political contrasts and points of view. (When the full model of the self is viewed as a sequence of box-frames around the walls of a room, this left/right contrast turns up in the viewpoint of the box-frames looking out into the room: selfish, retrogressive concerns about the security of the "I" are to the box-frame's "right," while "larger" concerns are to its left in the series.)

10) Sequence or order vs. randomness or chaos: Order here means a sequence along a row, line, or path in space. It can be used as a normative idea, as in a preferred, correct or proper order or sequence. This spatial description of concrete objects can be expanded to include the abstract realms of numbers, logical "following" or sequence, and "law and order." Consider "orderly," "out of order," and "everything is in order." Also, a narrative sequence or order of events.

11) Patterned vs. unpatterned: Having a consistent or characteristic arrangement of forms. Pattern is sometimes explained as what "holds things together," using the idea of a hand, perhaps, as a container that holds or releases more than one separate thing. Because it is a noun, the word pattern can suggest a physical object, but patterns cannot be touched in the same way as an object can. Rather, they are arrangements or relations of objects. Compare out of place, turn, sequence, phase, and step.

12) Larger vs. smaller/ Growth vs. shrinking: Our bodies measure up to a fuzzy, arbitrary standard of height; we grow upwards into the light like seeds planted in the dark ground. At the same time, however, we also "fill out" from the center as we mature, like a container expanding with air. In the box-frame model of the self, which is mounted on the wall, growth is in this second manner rather than from the floor up. Growth proceeds in the size of the image over the entire course of the series. Expansion is an important idea in describing consciousness, as is the general idea of capacity (metaphoric volume). Thus "small-minded" and "mind-expanding".

13) Inside vs. outside a container: Position relative to an enclosed space, which can be an area or a volume. Abstractly, this is used to picture "being included within" or "excluded from" a category, condition or state. An "insider" or "outsider." "He's in the category of thieves, she's in shock, and they are outside the law." In-between states are described as "on the threshold" (a house and room metaphor) or "borderline" (a land and map metaphor). A related idea: "inner vs. outer" as indicating the real vs. the apparent, superficial nature of something as viewed from the outside, in other words, by an outside observer or by the self. "My inner self," "inner child" or "inner feelings." Also, intrinsic (belonging to a thing by its very nature) vs. extrinsic.

14) In(to) vs. out (of): Direction of motion that changes an object's position relative to either a literal container or a metaphorical space, i.e., a category, membership, state, or stage such as "moving into adolescence." Also seen in giving someone an "in" or an "out."

15) Surrounded by vs. surrounding: Solid objects not only contain things but they can also be contained or surrounded by other things. A common way of describing a mental state or other condition of a person or thing is to say that we are immersed, bathed, drenched or sunk in it. (Also, saturated, flooded or permeated by it.) This is appropriate since a state characterizes a whole object and immersion typically involves an entire object. Baptism by immersion is just such a symbol of a complete change of state. On the other hand, the surroundings in which something exists or moves with other things can represent the conditions or system(s) within which they all operate. In the model this idea is represented by the wall.

16) Full vs. empty: A box can be empty, full, or partly full, and, similarly, people can be "empty-headed," "full of it," "filled with the Holy Spirit" or "filled with rage." Or "My life is full or empty" (satisfying/unsatisfying). "Fully" is also an intensifier like "highly" and "wholly." People can function at "full capacity," live up to their "full potential," be "fully actualized." (see #12 Larger vs smaller, above) The breath that fills our body and departs at death is also a bodily image for energy, invisible spirit, the life force.

17) Open vs. closed: As a container, a box can be open or closed. Openness means that a larger total space is involved. Translucent materials are at the same time both closed to the passage of solids, liquids and gases, yet open to light and view. A person can be metaphorically "open" -- hospitable, ready for intimacy, and willing to listen to argument, but also "open to attack" and "open to question." Organizations or societies can be open: they let visitors or new members in and conduct their business participatory or in public, but also an organization of spies can be "open to penetration" by a mole. (Consider osmosis and filtering.)

18) Touching or contacting vs. not touching or contacting: We can picture literal areas and volumes as distant from each other, or close, or touching, or even overlapping or merging. But areas and volumes can also figuratively represent topics or categories that are close (similar) or overlap (share qualities or members). Contact is often a metaphor for communication ("making contact with") and mentioning a subject ("Don't touch the subject of his illness"). Further, in the last two centuries touch and motion have acquired important metaphorical meanings in describing emotions: "Her performance touched (or moved) me deeply and made me (caused me) to rethink my own life." The transfer of force between touching objects - say, billiard balls - plays a part in some of our notions of cause. In many cases, transferring physical motion from one object to another requires that they at least touch.

19) Connected together vs. unconnected: Different from merely touching, connecting implies that force or rearrangement would be required to disconnect or separate the parts. Lakoff calls this schematic contrast "links." (1987) Generally a link is no larger than the objects it connects; otherwise it would verge on the idea of a container. Connecting is related to fitting (see #25 below), which suggests that the shapes of the objects make them complementary (the nipple and mouth are an example). The arm and hand are our usual voluntary bodily connectors. We use "hold" and "let go" both for links and connections alike (see #21). Figuratively, "connected" can suggest a vague causal, logical or statistical relationship. All things being equal, we seem to prefer connection (remember E.M. Forster's maxim, "Only connect"), but "family ties" and "connections" can confine us as well as open up opportunities. Some of us prefer to be completely unfettered and unattached.

20) Parts vs. wholes; Joining vs. dividing; Making vs. breaking: We sometimes make things by uniting, connecting or fitting together parts into new wholes. (Sometimes, too, by carving away parts.) Conversely, we divide wholes into parts so they can be shared as in the example of making and breaking bread. This is the idea of a "gestalt," a perceptual unit or whole that transcends or is greater than its parts. How do we know just when parts become a new whole, or a picture contains all it should, or a building is finished, and a story is over? Sometimes by whether they serve a certain purpose. Additional metaphorical uses having to do with creating and destroying are: "She made a life for herself." Someone's spirit is "broken." "Clothes make the man." "She broke off with him before the wedding." Making and breaking a promise. Making and breaking a law.

21) Hold vs. let go: Restrained motion. For example, restraint against gravity, against a tendency to disperse, or against a force initiated by an agent. "Holding on" to stay in place. The hand can contain and release. This contrast applies not only to concrete objects but also to impulses and emotions, and it is symbolized in the model by the front plane of the box-frame. Holding is also related to having and possessing things, including things like property or abstractions like opinions.

22) Find vs. lose: This is not only related to holding or touching, but also to locomotion and location in space: we move our hand or our body from place to place to find something. Infants learn about "object constancy" in games of peek-a-boo, "find the ball," and hide- and-seek. Intangible things like abilities, thoughts, solutions, the self, the soul, and one's way, can all be "lost" or "found." Architectural metaphors: maze, labyrinth. Narrative form: epic quest or search. Locomotion and travel metaphors: wandering around, a voyage, a winding road, stumbling upon, a barrier, a dead end.

23) Visible vs. invisible: Similar to find/lose but more specifically visual, this contrast describes the object of the act of seeing instead of the one who sees. Concrete entities can be nearby but hidden from view by an opaque object in the line of sight. In the MetaSelf box-frame model, the unconscious part of the self is hidden behind the backboard, which is made opaque to insight by dulled feelings in the body.

24) Structured or arranged vs. unstructured: Having persistent form or shape. Solids have a structure we readily perceive by the unassisted senses, while gases and liquids often do not. Buildings, rooms and frames have a structure, but so do minds, organizations and systems. (This is similar to the perceptual contrasts of patterned/unpatterned and form/formlessness.)

25) Fitting vs. not fitting: Separate entities "fit" when they can move or function together as a whole by virtue of their shape, especially if they can touch at many points, like clothing and the body. More abstractly, we speak of the "fit" between a theory and the world, a correspondence documented by facts and correlations. In the self-awareness technique called Focusing, we ask whether certain words seem to "fit" or best describe the feelings in the body. Behavior can be socially "fitting"; a person can be a "mis-fit. "

26) Hard vs. soft: Hard describes something that retains its shape despite outside forces, including touch and also gravity. Metaphorically, "hard-hearted," and "soft-hearted," "hardening one's position," "soft on communism," "hard-core," "soft-core," "hard data," "soft data." Malleable is another term used to describe both materials and personalities. Of course the hard/soft contrast is a matter of degree.

27) Strong vs. weak: Of a structure, the ability to withstand forces that would alter its shape or disrupt its standard function. Of a force, the ability to alter structure or the direction of another force. Logic and arguments can be strong or weak, as can personalities.

28) Center vs. periphery: The center of a structure tends to be of greatest importance, and "central" can metaphorically mean "important." E.g., egocentric, geocentric, heliocentric, anthropocentric, decentered, acentric, eccentric. As Lakoff points out (1987), a central case (robin) of the category "birds" is seen as prototypical, while penguins are peripheral or less typical. Social, economic and political organization is often described using this contrast. "Centered" is related to "balanced"; both words describe a healthy mental or spiritual condition. (Consider the contrast of sides and middle; "the middle ground.") An exception is when a shape is moving, in which case its edge is often more significant than its center: "cutting edge." See also Left vs. right, #9 above.

29) Balance vs. imbalance: A body can be balanced, not merely while standing upright but even while moving. One can waver, tilt, be knocked down, be knocked over, be upset, lose one's balance and regain it. This contrast is of course extended to a great many metaphorical domains: the endocrine system, diets, the "arms" or branches of government, the balanced or unbalanced mind, etc.. Balance is typically valued above imbalance, unless a system is stagnant. "Poise" suggests a readiness to move in the necessary direction, as well as an ability to stay balanced despite being jostled by some outside force. "Stability" can sometimes suggest something rather different - an object whose base is comparatively large so that its balance does not need to be maintained.

30) Moving vs. stationary: Our bodies face toward and away from things and can move toward and away from a goal in the course of an action. Our physical structure makes us more aware of things in front and thus more able to move confidently in that direction. But there is often more than one way, path, or road to a goal, so that the particular "way" something is done is a locomotion metaphor for the means "to" an end. ("Way" has its Indo-European root in the verb "go.") A person's "ways" refer to their habits, preferences or mores. At the same time, not all paths lead to the same place: to say "there are many paths to the truth" fudges the question of whether there is more than one (location for the) truth. Do all roads lead to Rome? Similarly, to say generally "there are many ways to view things" ignores whether, in a particular instance, people are looking at the same thing or not.

Locomotion and space seem to be our chief way of conceptualizing time. (Perhaps it is impossible to conceive of any one of these three terms without the others?) Often we can extend motion and "flow" to describe the action of a story, myth, narrative, quest, or journey as in: "How does that story go?" Flow seems to describe actions that unite past, present and future. A sequence of points in visible or tactile space is compared to a sequence of "points" in time. A vehicle is something that moves one over ground towards a destination; "vehicle" thereby becomes a metaphor for any means to an end. Metaphors have been described in terms of topic, vehicle and ground. A psychological "drive" is likened to pressure or impetus coming from "behind" one or pushing in a certain direction. Sometimes we experience our needs as a "reaching out" toward a goal or a "pulling toward" it.

31) Cycles vs. linearity: The word "cycle" is from Greek and Latin for circle, a shape or a pattern of motion in space, which can be used to describe a pattern in time. Many things we call cycles are like simple two-position alternations: back-and-forth motions (the front/back or to and fro contrast) along a horizontal axis, or like side-to-side or up-down alternations along the vertical axis. Or contrasts like light-dark, on-off. Cycles are noticeable in the newborn's physiological phases of breathing, eating/excreting, activity and sleep. The compound image Confronting the Shadow described in the article "What We Need" displays the idea of an integrating cycle. A different, three-dimensional spiral of progress is the one in which an airplane circles over the same ground while rising up in the sky to get a broader view.

32) Above vs. below: The positions of two objects relative to each other but also relative to a gravitational center. This is often tied to the comparative size of the observer and the observed, with implications of force, power, control, importance, and greatness. Upper and lower, the positions in social classes and hierarchies in general; superordinate and subordinate. (Relative to an optimum level, over = excessive, under = insufficient; e.g., over-active, under-active.)

33) Through vs. around: In spatial terms, through means in at one end, side or surface and out at the other. This may be contrasted either with "around," where the resulting position may be the same but by a different route, or with "into," where the direction of motion may be similar but does not go as far. (On the other hand, "around" may simply mean "moving in the area nearby," without completing the arc to the other side.) These spatial ideas are used figuratively to describe time as well as process, change and development. Thus, "1985 through 1995" means continuously from one date to the other, through all those "points" in time; time is pictured as a line along which events occur. When something or someone goes through a process, the locomotion and change of place normally suggests a change of state, the achievement of a goal. One goes through the steps of a recipe, logical argument. Put someone "through their paces." This is contrasted with locomotion that "goes nowhere," like "I feel like I'm on a treadmill." "Going through" suggests being subjected to pressures from all sides. Going around and bypassing suggest avoidance.