Charles Charles Cameron charles 4

Conceptual blending

Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner‘s The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities gives us a fascinating look at the way the human mind weaves a world out of seemingly disparate elements — in a very similar manner to that in which the creative mind weaves an aha! out of seemingly disparate ideas. The book deals with the formation of perceptions as well as ideas, but it was a specifically conceptual blend that intrigued me the other day.

First, they note that when we use expressions like “I had reached the boiling point. I was fuming. He exploded.” we are making a metaphorical mapping in which “a heated container maps to an angry individual, heat maps to anger, smoke and steam (signs of heat) map to signs of anger, explosion maps to uncontrolled rage.” Then they add in the “folk theory of physiological effects of anger” including ” increased body heat, blood pressure, agitation, redness of face” – and thus we have a threefold scheme, in which physiology, emotions and the physics of heat are intricately cross-correlated, so that we can say without much thought “He was so mad I could see smoke coming out of his ears”.

Here Fauconnier and Turner describe the mechanics of this remarkable conceptual blending process – which can yield such a seemingly unremarkable phrase:

In addition to the metaphoric mapping between Heat and Emotions and the vital-relation connection between Emotions and Body, there is a third partial mapping between Heat and Body. In this mapping, steam as vapor that comes from a container connects to perspiration as liquid that comes from a container, the heat of a physical object connects to body heat, and the shaking of the container connects to the body’s trembling.

The three partial mappings set the stage for a conventional multiple blend in which the counterparts in the inputs are fused, yielding, for example, a single element that is heat, anger, and body heat and a different single element that is exploding, reaching extreme anger, and beginning to shake. Once we have this blend, we can run it to develop further emergent structure and we can recruit other information to the inputs to facilitate its development.


What interests me here is the phrase:

the inputs are fused, yielding, for example, a single element that is heat, anger, and body heat

and what it reminds me of is CS Lewis writing in The Allegory of Love:

It must always be remembered … that the various senses we take out of an ancient word by analysis existed in it as a unity.

Thus the King James Version of the Bible, John 3.8, reads:

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

In the Greek, the word here translated wind is pneuma, and the sentence accordingly means “the pneuma blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of pneuma“…

Recalling Lewis’ remark about the “various senses we take out of an ancient word”, this in turn means simultaneously and without separation:

the wind blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of wind…

the breath blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of breath…


spirit blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of spirit…

Take this a step further, realize that spirit can be defined as what inspires us, and we have:

inspiration blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of inspiration…

Four meanings, all making good sense, and all present simultaneously and inseparably in the one gospel phrase…


Now consider that Fauconnier and Turner are speaking of how “three partial mappings set the stage for a conventional multiple blend in which the counterparts in the inputs are fused, yielding, for example, a single element that is heat, anger, and body heat” and compare it with Lewis’ “unity” from which we take out “the various senses” by “analysis”, as applied to the “ancient word” pneuma, with its meaning encompassing wind, breath, spirit… inspiration.

Are wind, breath and spirit or inspiration in fact three “primitives” that conceptual mapping in ancient Greek thought has brought together? What do we gain, and what do we lose if we view them this way?

And what do we lose, what do we gain if we view them as a single rich concept, now reduced to three or four separate — and separately less complexly interesting — ideas?

A glimpse of Sembl thinking: Virginia Woolf

What is the thing that lies behind the semblance of the thing?

Virginia Woolf poses that question in her 1931 novel The Waves. Here’s the passage surrounding the question:

‘An axe has split a tree to the core; the core is warm; sound quivers within the bark. “Ah!” cried a woman to her lover, leaning from her window in Venice. “Ah, ah!” she cried, and again she cries “Ah!” She has provided us with a cry. But only a cry. And what is a cry? Then the beetle-shaped men come with their violins; wait; count; nod; down come their bows. And there is ripple and laughter like the dance of olive trees and their myriad- tongued grey leaves when a seafarer, biting a twig between his lips where the many-backed steep hills come down, leaps on shore.

‘ “Like” and “like” and “like” — but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing? Now that lightning has gashed the tree and the flowering branch has fallen and Percival, by his death, has made me this gift, let me see the thing. There is a square; there is an oblong. The players take the square and place it upon the oblong. They place it very accurately; they make a perfect dwelling-place. Very little is left outside. The structure is now visible; what is inchoate is here stated; we are not so various or so mean; we have made oblongs and stood them upon squares. This is our triumph; this is our consolation.

The sweetness of this content overflowing runs down the walls of my mind, and liberates understanding.

— a glimpse of Sembl thinking, with thanks to Derek Robinson.


Sembl thinking, ancient boards

One thing connects with another — one thing resembles another, or is distinctly different from it, or overlaps with it, leads to it, contains it.

There are many ways one thing and another can be connected, and people have been playing Sembl-like games, making connections on “boards” much like the Sembl boards that Cath illustrated in her post earlier today, for centuries.  In fact, graphical diagrams of linked concepts have long played a significant role at the intersection of art, thought and science.

The glorious board above is taken from a manuscript of the De Mundi Sphaera of Oronce Finé (French, 1494 – 1555) at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. It shows how the four “elements” of early science interact, fire being the opposite of water, cold and its opposite, heat, both being able to coexist with either dryness or humidity but not both at once, and so forth.

You can see more of Finé’s diagrams here.


I’m particularly fond of this particular diagram by Robert Fludd (British, 1574 – 1637), because it shows that the connections can be between (a) objects outside us, brought to our attention by the senses, (b) ideas linking inside the mind to one another, and (c) insights gained by inspiration or vision.

The diagram comes from Fludd’s 1619 work Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris, and you can find other diagrams of his in a slideshow at this University of Oklahoma site.

An even earlier image, reminiscent of today’s Venn diagrams and the earlier Borromean Rings, comes from the Abbot Joachim of Fiore (Italian, ca 1135 – 1202):

The good abbot’s diagram shows world history unfolding in three epochs, that of the Father (in Old Testament Times) with its multitude of commandments, that of the Son (from the New Testament to his own day) when only two commandments, to love God and one’s neighbor, were needed — and the gloriously anticipated age of the Spirit, to begin in 1260, in which no commandments would be required since the Spirit would speak in the hearts of humankind. Again, you can see more of his diagrams in this auto-downloading powerpoint presentation from the University of Virginia.

Joachim’s views were highly influential in the middle ages, and traces of them can be found more recently in the Third Reich of the Nazi’s and in Lenin’s concept of the Withering Away of the State — but that’s another story

Two other diagrams of this sort worth considering are the Sephirotic Tree of Jewish Kabbalah (left) and the medieval diagram of the Christian Trinity (right):

Finally, here’s a “fractal” board, with circles within circles within circles, from an illustration by Nicolas LeFevre in his translation (1579) of the Heptaplus (1489) of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (Italian, 1463 – 1494):

A glimpse of Sembl thinking: womb to tomb

Consider the rhyme of




It has the delicious property that these two words describe, if you will, the two chambers from which we enter this life and through which we leave it. Not only do the two words rhyme on the ear, in other words, they can also be said to rhyme in meaning.

Meditation: if you were wearing headphones, and these two words were spoken, what would the stereophony of their meanings be?

SPEC Karman Gogh

Exploring and explaining Sembl: the basic move

The essence of Sembl thinking is that you see resemblances — similarities, analogies, symmetries, echoes, metaphors, connections, kinships, links — between things, between ideas, between people.

And you play them as moves in the game — you notate them, you score them.

That’s the basis of the iPad or web-based Sembl game, it’s the basis of the HipBone family of games that preceded Sembl and were its jumping-off point – and it’s the basis for the whole style of thinking we call Sembl thinking.


So the simplest move you can play in a Sembl game with yourself would be one in which you juxtapose two objects or ideas that resemble one another in interesting ways. For my own pleasure, I’ve been playing mini-games of this sort for years now, and recently I’ve been using what I call the HipBone SPECS format to do it:

The idea here is to drop two quotes, or images, or whatever, into the two spaces, to see what their kinships and differences are. And the more interesting the initial two items you use are, and the greater the conceptual or imaginative distance between them, the more interesting the result will be.

Here are some examples, which will give you an idea (a) of what Sembl thinking is like, and (b) of how to use the SPECS format for games of your own. You’ll see that in each case I have a sort of mini-graphic joining the two images or texts. This will usually be the picture of a pair of eyes or something of the sort – as a little decorative device to show that the two items are to be seen with, so to speak, “binocular vision”.

This first example finds an interesting similarity between the mechanics of flow in liquids, as studied by the great physicist Von Karman…

and Vincent Van Gogh’s visionary sense of the night sky…

There’s really no limit on the resemblances you can explore and find:

This one explores the difference between linear thinking and a dilemma – and if you’ve ever had a train of thought, you’ve probably come across both situations…

Are you a science buff?

The upper image here represents the winds over much of the United States, while the lower one records ocean currents in the Atlantic…

Is current affairs your interest?

I was already playing two-quote games when the Iraq war started, and there’s a pair of quotes from back then is still a favorite of mine:

In March 1917, the incoming British General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude told the inhabitants of Baghdad:

Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.

And almost a hundred years later, in April 2003, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld addressed US troops, also in Baghdad, telling them:

And unlike many armies in the world, you came not to coquer, not to occupy, but to liberate, and the Iraqi people know this.

I think that “doublequote” pretty neatly illustrates George Santayana’s frequently repeated remark, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it”


To go back in time and see some of the earliest Sembl-style thought diagrams, including one that illustrates where ideas come from and where they mix and match, go to the next post in this series, Medieval and Renaissance Sembl games…

Sembl thinking applied: Of mountains and rivers

An essay woven of Sembl thinking: Gary Snyder, Han Shan, Dogen, Thoreau, Smokey & MIT…

Gary Snyder is the fellow in the upper panel with the mountains behind him. Han Shan — whose name means Cold Mountain, which was also the name of the place he lived — is the fellow showing a poem to his friend in the lower panel. Dogen Zenji is the fellow who gave us the Mountains and Rivers Sutra. Thoreau is the fellow who retired for a while to Walden Pond. Smokey the Bear you know. And MIT is where Gary Snyder received the Henry David Thoreau Prize last Tuesday.

All are worthy of your attention, but in combo they’re unbeatable.

MIT’s an interesting place to crop up in an account of Snyder — a poet, a Californian living high and away in the Sierras, and one of the first westerners to sit Zen and study in a monastery in Japan… And yet it’s curiously appropriate. Snyder is not here to banish science with poetry, but to enhance poetry with science, science with poetry, and both with his keen eye for context and honest detail.

He’s interested in weather. Understanding weather is in all our interests, but Snyder is actively interested. He’s interested in mountains and rivers, which comes to much the same thing — and he would surely have been interested in this exhibit that opened at MIT on Friday, just three days after his award ceremony there:

I dropped this image in here because it shows mountains and glaciers — but not without end. The loss of glaciation would concern Snyder — we know he’s interested in such things both immediately and in the long term, not only from his ecological writings in prose, but also because there’s a section of his epic Mountains and Rivers Without End that opens with these words:

“The 15 billion cubic kilometers of water on the earth are split by photosynthesis and reconstituted by respiration once every two million years or so.”

Even on that time-scale, Snyder’s interest in such things is personal: that section is titled We Wash Our Bowls in This Water.

So that’s the MIT part of the package.
Han Shan:

The terrific tale [link includes poems, too] of how a Chinese official learned that Han Shan and Shih-te, his laughing companion pictured above, were in fact great bodhisattvas though they looked like vagabonds could have come straight out of Jack Kerouac‘s Dharma Bums days. The official describes Han Shan:

He looked like a tramp. His body and face were old and beat. Yet in every word he breathed was a meaning in line with the subtle principles of things, if only you thought of it deeply. Everything he said had a feeling of Tao in it, profound and arcane secrets. His hat was made of birch bark, his clothes were ragged and worn out, and his shoes were wood. Thus men who have made it hide their tracks: unifying categories and interpenetrating things.

And here he describes how he arranged for the publication of Han Shan’s poetry:

I ordered Tao-ch’iao and the other monks to find out how they had lived, to hunt up the poems written on bamboo, wood, stones, and cliffs – and also to collect those written on the walls of people’s houses. There were more than three hundred. On the wall of the Earth-shrine Shih-te had written some gatha (Buddhist verse or song). It was all brought together and made into a book.

Gary Snyder it was, by the way, who turned Kerouac and the Beats onto Buddhism, and who features as Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.
Gary Snyder:

Here’s Snyder again:

The first question that arises for me when I see photos of Gary Snyder like the ones above, I’ll admit, is whether it’s somehow axiomatic that his face should be as creased and rugged as the mountains he loves.

That’s a question for the intuition, really — but it may be worth noting that Emily Bronte saw a similar yet somewhat different correspondence between face and land and mentioned it in Wuthering Heights:

Catherine’s face was just like the landscape – shadows and sunshine flitting over it in rapid succession; but the shadows rested longer, and the sunshine was more transient; and her poor little heart reproached itself for even that passing forgetfulness of its cares.

People, and their eventual likeness to the places they live?

Let’s take this a little deeper. With respect to mountains, rivers and sages specifically, the great zen master Dogen teaches us in his Mountains and Rivers Sutra:

From time immemorial the mountains have been the dwelling place of the great sages; wise ones and sages have made the mountains their own chambers, their own body and mind. And through these wise ones and sages the mountains have been actualized. However many great sages and wise ones we suppose have assembled in the mountains, ever since they entered the mountains no one has met a single one of them. There is only the actualization of the life of the mountains; not a single trace of their having entered remains.

Dogen Zenji:

Dogen composed the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, which as far as I can tell is not available in book form except as a section of his longer work, the Shobogenzo. Snyder worked from 1956 to 1996 on his long poem series, Mountains and Rivers without End. The Cleveland Art Museum houses a scroll painting from the Northern Sung dynasty, Streams and Mountains Without End:

Translation — hey, second cousin to reincarnation?

An ancient Han Shan poem that’s also an early Snyder poem, Snyder here translating Han Shan:

I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,
Already it seems like years and years.
Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
And linger watching things themselves.
Men don’t get this far into the mountains,
White clouds gather and billow.
Thin grass does for a mattress,
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone under head
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.

Of both men you might say: the dwelling place is where the mind dwells.
Smokey the Bear:

Snyder has his own sutra. It is called the Smokey the Bear Sutra, and it’s both fierce and hilarious: I have a beautiful copy in storage somewhere, in the beautiful Fudo Trilogy edition, that Snyder kindly inscribed for me, “Well met”.

It contains the following gloss on mountains and rivers:

My obstinate compassion is schist and basalt and granite, to be mountains, to bring down the rain.

Science, mountains, weather patterns, rivers…

The poetry in Synder’s Mountains and Rivers has its rapids and still waters, its simple poetry and dazzling prose:

A day on the ragged North Pacific coast get soaked by whipping mist, rainsqualls tumbling, mountain mirror ponds, snowfield slush, rock-wash creeks, earfuls of falls, sworls of ridge-edge snowflakes, swift gravelly rivers, tidewater crumbly glaciers, high hanging glaciers, shore-side mud pools, icebergs, streams looping through the tideflats, spume of brine, distant soft rain drooping from a cloud,

sea lions lazing under the surface of the sea…

HD Thoreau:

Walden Pond is one of the great power centers of America Snyder mentions in the Smokey the Bear Sutra — and Snyder borrowed one of Thoreau’s lines for a poem of his own:

The sun is but a morning-star: each day represents a new opportunity to recover the nobility of life, another chance to turn aside from use to wonder.

Like Han Shan, Thoreau is among the ancestors. And as Thoreau’s own friend Emerson wrote, “The world is young: the former great men call to us affectionately.”

And what’s this about the former great men? Snyder goes way back before Emerson and Thoreau, and even Han Shan — he once said:

As a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the late Paleolithic; the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying intuition and rebirth; the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.


Perhaps that’s what keeps him relevant, fresh. Once again in Mountains and Rivers Without End he writes:

Alive       in the Sea of Information.

As are we all. How’s that for archaic meets MIT?

Sembl thinking

We don’t really know how to think, yet. Or to put that in a more positive light: our characteristic ways of thinking are not yet as subtle and sophisticated as the problems that face us – as a global population, in our communities, in our business lives, our family situations, our own individual tangled and constantly shifting minds and emotions.

We have plenty of people who know how to do black and white, either-or thinking – which turns into highly emotional and often inappropriately judgmental knee-jerk thinking when the going gets tough. There’s a lot of heart in that, but not always a whole lot of clarity.

And we have a fair number of people who can do deliberative thinking, who understand critical thinking, apply some measure of doubt to their own assumptions and certainties, make careful, slow, analyses and do close readings, and in general try to avoid a headlong rush to judgment… There’s a lot of clarity there, as well as heart – but words and logic tend to dominate, and feelings are often relegated to second place.

And we have assorted artists, creative types and eccentric thinkers who see sideways, think laterally, connect dots, listen with care, appreciate silences, hear multiple voices and hold them together in their minds like a symphony… These are the folks who have the best grasp of complex problems, the bridge-builders between parties and factions – and the peace-makers. They live, balancing, at the intersection of love and clarity, with mind clarifying heart and heart giving courage to thought.

Sembl thinking is a whole spectrum of ways of thinking drawn from the best of that third group, brought together under one roof. And Sembl itself is a game and family of games, designed to explore and enjoy these ways of thinking.

The game’s motto is simple, profound, and insanely ambitious:

Tapping human knowledge and imagination, link by link