Working with Metaphor

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 56 (December 2001/January 2002

Sensory Images

Ninety-five percent of your brain works in sensory images, only one to two percent in words. Hence, most of your intelligence is based where there is an issue in translation. We can figure out some things, working from specific point to specific point in our word-based consciousness, but not most; and too often we fail to take enough into account, trying to do it all from our word-thinker.

But because our word-thinker is loud and focused, running with nice strong signals, we usually do try to do it all from there when what we most need is the reverse path: taking information from non-verbal observations into that verbal portion to bring it into focus. So it is rare when any of us brings much of our own actual intelligence to bear on anything, whether learning or teaching or solving problems and figuring out things.

So we have a great deal of keen understanding, each of us, but are seldom aware of even any part of it. When some tiny portion of understanding does work its way through our various internal noise and barriers and into our loud focused word-conscious, it’s such a rare thing that we call it inspired creative genius.

A way for some tiny portion of our own understanding to slip through into our word consciousness is when that consciousness is asleep and inner noise levels are down: some of our dreams carry understanding from our main intelligence. But the main processing language of that intelligence is images, not words, so we are left with a translation issue — that of understanding what the dream meant.

Moreover, we sleep through so much of the performance that we usually have forgotten the parade of messages given us in our dreams by the time we awaken.

Dream Messages

Dreaming as a route to understanding and inspiration is as old as history itself and likely older: our Judeo-Christian and western heritage (as well as that of the Muslims) traces back in large part to a time when an obscure lad, sold into slavery by his own brothers, won his way to the top administrative position in ancient Egypt and from there eventually saved his family and tribe, as well as Egypt itself, because he had a knack for accurately making sense of dreams.

The keys to some of the major discoveries and inventions shaping our own times were “received” in dreams. As we noted in the book, Discovering The Obvious, in our more recent history Elias Howe received the crucial piece of insight in a dream which enabled him to invent the sewing machine. Even more recent are the accounts of how some of the computer whizzes at M.I.T., very near here, have learned to “dream computer dreams” which teach them the answers they are seeking.

Another, more easily controlled way to bring our intelligence and our consciousness into closer contact is to deliberately work with imagery and metaphor. Sometimes insights will “leap across” into consciousness when we treat a problem or issue metaphorically: “What if this problem were a crab-apple? Who or what in the problem would be the stem? Who or what the fruit-flesh? Who or what in the issue would be the seed or pit? What would the coloration be which signifies ripening? — Hey, what would ‘ripening’ consist of in this matter? — ” and so on, structuring out the problem in sensory ways, in various ways consciously puzzling through the thing making such comparisons in hopes that your conscious mind will come close enough to your intelligence that a spark will jump across the gap.

“If Your Problem Were a Crabapple”

The procedure (with a partner)
  1. Each of you choose a problem to work on, one that you care about, one to which you don’t yet see a good answer. Describe (to your partner[s]) why you choose that problem to work on.
  2. Table or chair or piano or flipchart, or whatever physical object: when it’s your turn, you pick some common object there where you are. Let that object stand for, in some way resembling, your problem (how does that stack of books represent this problem?). Identify 10 to 20 physical aspects or features of that object. Then, with each such feature: If this object is the problem, then __ represents such-and-such part or aspect of the problem. If playing with the features of the problem doesn’t bring good answer to mind for you, when it’s your turn again, run that problem with some other object and try again.
  3. While describing to your listener the features of the problem and of the object: you, the person working on the problem, as far as you can go with it, describe in detail the physical features of the object and how, somehow, that feature represents such-and-such aspect of the problem. Listening partner: your role is to listen, indeed ONLY to listen and not interrupt or get in the way while your problem-solving partner is flowing. But once the problem-solver starts to falter, draw him or her out further: ask questions about the object that’s being compared, questions which will encourage further comparison. Mentally manipulate features of the object — “What if that brace on the chairleg were broken” — as additional ways to play with the features of the problem itself.

Chances of getting good answers to a given problem this way, within 2 to 3 object-metaphorizings, are pretty fair. Trick is:

  • to have an audience to describe to; and
  • to carry the process through, even when things get silly or seem pointless, until the ideas spark.

As with “brainstorming,” often it’s that last comparison, stretching for one more after the usual ones are gotten out of the way, that will spark the gap.

“Walk in the Woods”

This historically “tried-and-true” procedure for creative problem-solving is very similar in its basic principles to our preceding exercise on metaphor, “What if the Problem Were A Crab Apple,” but its application and form differ. It’s another way of bringing your word-consciousness and your (non-verbal, sensory-imaging) main intelligence close enough together for a spark to jump across and become an a-HA! This “Walk in the Woods” procedure has the further advantage of having a built-in “ranging” device:

With a real electric spark, as you got close to what would let it jump, you could feel your hairs rising from the buildup of electric potential. The “ranging” device in this present procedure is simply that whatever catches your attention as you walk around this place with a problem in mind, is likeliest to in some way “resonate” with the issue and bring your conscious mind to where the spark of inspiration/ideas/solutions can jump across into consciousness. So that what catches your attention in your surroundings, as you walk around in reference to a given problem issue, is even likelier to produce your a-ha! than were the arbitrarily chosen objects in the “Crabapple” experience.

This procedure can be done either with a live partner, note pad, or tape recorder, or with some combination of these. The version below is written for notepad but is readily interpolated into the other recording device(s).

The Procedure
  1. Have ready something you can write extensively on, such as a notepad, and a pen or pencil.
  2. Write on the top of that notepad what problem you are working on this time and why you care about solving it.
  3. “Tuck-and-Take” — tuck the notepad into pocket or under your arm and take it with you. You will have ten minutes to stroll around outside of this building and let something….SOMEthing simply catch your eye and attention.
  4. On your notepad, write what features of this object also come to your attention. List 10-20 physical aspects or descriptive features of this object. Then describe how this object in some way represents the problem situation and/or its solution. And how the various features of this object in some way represent the various features of that situation.
  5. An imagination stretch: Put your hand gently on the object, then silently, mentally, ASK that rock or tree or bush or whatever object several questions ABOUT the problem situation! Listen intently, then write down whatever impression, in whatever form, comes to mind as a response, whether it’s a particular memory seeming at first to have nothing to do with the matter, or some particular aspect of the object you’re looking at that catches your further attention, or whether some sort of insight or answer-in-words comes to mind AS IF it were somehow that tree or bush literally answering you.
  6. Write up enough of your experience that you can report it to listener(s) in some detail.

Advanced problem-solvers also like these concrete metaphors

Originally, I developed these very simple, concrete metaphor ways of solving problems because a lot of the schoolteachers I have to teach each summer are very concrete-minded (these work even for the most concrete-minded of these, hooray!) and because, in both my own creativity-training programs and in sitting in on those of others, I had often seen people for various reasons experience some difficulty in getting into effective use of metaphor or otherwise getting loose enough from a virtual death-grip on whatever problem to be able to look up and see alternatives.

Happily, these two very concrete ways of using metaphor have turned the trick —that is why we now reference these among our battery of arguably the world’s best problem-solving methods, in the CPS Techniques section of this website.

Unexpectedly, and even more happily, even the more sophisticated, experienced and advanced professional creative problem solvers also appear to delight in these two very concrete methods.

Originally I had envisaged these two techniques as an entry point to introduce people to creative solution-finding, using these two methods mainly as intermediary steps leading toward the “real” methods I’m nowadays used to using. Yet these two methods work so well all by themselves that we can offer them here in their own right as major ways you can effectively and creatively solve your problems.

The apparent success of these two concrete methods has led us to seek out other very simple and concrete ways also for solving problems (and for bringing about other desired effects). One of the latest examples of these is the very simple, direct Windtunnel method which we published last month as Winsights No. 55, which is also part of the CPS Techniques exhibit of the world’s best creative problem-solving methods. We are building this exhibit to become a world resource freely available to anyone on the planet who would like to solve a problem or discover an answer. As in the present instance with “Crabapple” and “Woods-Walk,” each method is laid out step by specific step in self-taught form.

“Crabapple,” “Woods-Walk,” and all these dozens of other methods can sit gathering dust on the (metaphoric) shelf, or you can actually use them and get some benefit from them. Once you’ve done so and found them to be what they are, we’d appreciate your steering to them others who can use them. Thank you for your attention.


For this writer, the original source of “Problem-Solving Woods-Walk” was Sidney J. Parnes, Visionizing: State-of-the-Art Techniques for Encouraging Innovative Excellence (Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation, 1988). However, Dr. Parnes claims his source was conversations with this writer. Also, we have amended the procedure, and Dr. Parnes may in no way be held responsible for any shortcomings in the present version. This is, by the way, the same Parnes who helped develop the original Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem-Solving (CPS) procedure and program which launched the world-wide creativity movement nearly half a century ago.