Two Mental Process Metaphors

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Abraham Maslow

I am employing two metaphors to help me look at the way I see things and understand what is going on in my mind: the cognitive toolbox and the sensory desktop.

The Cognitive Toolbox is a concept used by scientists to discuss our mental processes. A cognitive toolbox metaphor helps me to realize that my thinking is directed by and limited by the skills I posses that make up my mental processes. And, as Maslow pointed out, what is in my cognitive toolbox influences the way I see things. This metaphor encourages me to take stock of the mental processes and mental tools I have and the tools I need to have. I consider the assumptions (beliefs) of my wisdom theory to be significant mental tools: open-Mindedness, embracing uncertainty; reflection, paying attention intentionally; and Interconnectedness, seeing the wholeness and being inclusive. (See previous blogs.)

Missing from my cognitive toolbox is my complete understanding of the complexities of interconnectedness. I don’t know how to be totally inclusive. Of course, my descriptions of my mental tools and missing tools are my interpretations and subject to my self-serving biases. I can’t claim to be free of those biases. They are probably part of my cognitive toolbox.

The Sensory Desktop is another useful metaphor, which comes from Donald Hoffman, (author of Visual Intelligence, 1998). It is how we create what we see. He says the sensory desktop functions much like the computer desktop. Our sensory experiences can be thought of as sensory desktops that have evolved to guide adaptive behavior, not report objective truths (just like the computer desktop).

On my sensory desktop is my sensory experiences that have evolved in my mind. This reminds me of the icons on computer desktops, trashcans, scissors, paste, etc., that are part of our computer sensory experience but don’t actually exist. Hoffman says: We should take our sensory experiences seriously but not literally. The sensory desktop metaphor can enhance our cognitive toolkit by refining our attitude toward our perceptions.

I believe my perceptions are the result of what is in my cognitive toolkit and on my sensory desktop. When I think of it this way, I find it helpful. I can take my perceptions seriously but not assume they are always real, and refine my attitude.

These metaphors show me that my mental tools — beliefs, assumptions, wisdom and my sensory desktop — sensory experiences and perceptions all reside in my mind/brain. That is where mental processes occur. Sometime when you are thinking about what you might do, or did do, think of the metaphors of cognitive toolbox and sensory desktop. That might be helpful to you.

Metaphors are among our principle vehicles for understanding.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson






This entry was posted in Beliefs. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Eugene Unger says:

    Hi H. Just got home.



  2. Robert Leon says:

    Partner, These are too much for my simple toolbox and my ancient desktop. Maybe you can go over these with me face to face.

    Sent from my iPad


  3. Robert Leon says:

    Sent from my iPad


  4. I tend to be more action oriented. What would be fun (valuable) to DO now??

  5. says:

    I really like this one.  You are adding some interesting material. Can you meet for breakfast next Friday the 14th? Marianne

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