An edited extract from ‘Waking Dreams: Imagination in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life’

Part 1: What is Metaphor?

Part 2: Freud and the Machine Metaphor

Part 3: Living and Dead Metaphors

Part 4: Re-imagining Psychodynamic Theory

What is Metaphor?

The Latin word metaphora means to “transfer” or “carry over” experience from one domain to another. As one celebrated definition puts it, metaphor is a way of “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another”.1 An everyday metaphor, such as “Life is a journey”, is a way of carrying over the familiar and known experience of travel to communicate something of the nature of life. The known experience of a journey as a passage through time, with a beginning, middle, and end, during which we might learn a thing or two, is used to convey an understanding of the far more complex nature of life.

In this way metaphor helps us negotiate that which evades simple description and understanding by “as if” comparison with familiar and known phenomena. For example, life is “as if” it were a journey; time is “as if” it were money; and the male psychotherapist who reminds us of an early caregiver is “as if” he were a critical father.

Since Aristotle, metaphorical usage has been taken to be a merely poetical way of speaking; here, though, we shall be following the contemporary understanding of metaphor as primarily a form of perception that shapes all thinking, feeling, and sensation.2,3,4 As James Hillman puts it, this is a broadly conceived understanding of metaphor as “a mode of being . . . a style of consciousness . . . a way of perceiving, feeling, and existing”.5

To speak of life as a journey is not just a matter of speech. It communicates, for example, something of how we might feel about being halfway through the journey of life. Similarly, “Time is money” is not an objective statement of fact; it shapes the experience of time into a limited commodity, to be invested wisely and not squandered in idle dreaming. And even before anything is said about a psychotherapist being a critical father figure, the client’s feeling, thinking, sensation, and action will be influenced by this metaphorical background.

In all these ways and more metaphor is more than just a way of speaking. In respect to our topic, we can say that metaphor is at the heart of how we imagine the world: “Every connection between things that the imagination “sees” or “draws” is a metaphor.”6

Metaphor is imagining one thing “as if” it were another. To suggest that “Life is a journey” or “Time is money” is an act of imagination. Imagination is a process that draws upon known and familiar possibilities in memory and metaphorically transfers them into new and unfamiliar domains of experience—a transference, or carrying over, that is the same projective interplay of imagination described in preceding chapters as “the perception of images arising in between self and world”.

In other words, the nature of imaginal perception is metaphorical. Whether reflecting on life as a journey, responding to a therapist as a critical father, or as we shall soon see, theorizing about imagination “as if” it were a machine, all imagining is imbued with metaphor. The enhancement of imaginative life can therefore be seen to go hand in hand with a parallel cultivation of metaphorical usage.

Freud and the Machine Metaphor

The metaphorical father of modern psychotherapy was Sigmund Freud. Major theoretical constructs in his thinking can be seen as a skilful combination of clinical observations with a rich tapestry of metaphors. Indeed, his writing is so laced with metaphor that an increasingly popular approach to the study of Freud is to consider him as a creative writer. This trend goes back to 1930, when he won the prestigious Goethe Award for writing in recognition of his contribution to literature. Freud himself did not present his work in psychology as fiction but as a bona fide scientific discipline; however, the Nobel Prize for Science, for which he was repeatedly nominated throughout his career, always eluded him.

In his novel psychological formulations Freud, influenced by the zeitgeist of his time, drew heavily upon technological metaphors. The transformational success of steam-engine thermodynamic technology during the Industrial Revolution had, as the historian Shamadasini writes, “far-reaching effects on social, psychological, and metaphysical thought in the latter half of the 19th century.”7

The psychodynamic theory developed by Freud was a metaphorical carrying over of steam-engine thermodynamics into human psychology. In other words, the psyche hypothesized by Freud was imagined “as if” it were a steam-driven machine. Psychic energy was “as-if” it was compressed steam; only instead of water molecules this steam consisted of images, thoughts, and feelings. Psychic “objects” that interacted to create resistance, pressure, and force were imagined “as if” they were mechanical pistons and pumps, clashing away in the unconscious “as if” they were the hidden internal workings of a steam train; a mechanical metaphor that led to a psychoanalytical method that pictured a return of re-pressed unconscious material into consciousness “as-if” it were valves relieving excess pressure in a steam engine. As psychologist and educator Zachary Stein writes:

“Freud used several metaphors to describe the mind, but the one with the most exploratory power was the metaphor of the steam engine. “Psychic energy” was understood as if it were steam compressed within a chamber; bottle up too much energy and tension, and it will explode elsewhere as a neurotic symptom that you cannot understand.”8

As a medical doctor, Freud was trained in the empirical method, designed to isolate the subjective bias of the scientist in order to better observe, predict, and control the objective world. As such, it was perhaps inevitable that his metaphorical framing paralleled that of empirical science; thus, just as scientists observed objects of the physical world, so too did Freud observe feelings, thoughts, and images as psychological objects within human subjectivity. The experimental procedures and explanatory methods of empiricism were metaphorically transferred into his psychoanalytic method. Often sitting out of sight from the patient and saying little, Freud originally conceived his role “as if” he was a neutral and uninvolved empirical observer. In this way, the mind-as-machine metaphor encompassed both therapist and client: the suffering client “as if” they were a mechanical breakdown; and the therapist “as if” they were a technician-mechanic.

More than a century after the introduction of Freud’s concept of psychodynamics, the machine metaphor has become entirely woven into everyday language. In a technology-infused modern lifestyle, it intuitively makes sense to speak of ourselves “as if” we were machines like those all around us.

Freud’s imagination reached out to steam engines and considered experiences “as-if” they were mechanical “stresses”, “tensions”, and “pressures”; today, it is digital machines that pervade everyday metaphors, when we speak of feeling “shut down”, “stalled”, “crashed”, “fragmented”, “switched off”, and needing “a reset”.

In all these ways and more, human self-experience is not just expressed but also experienced “as-if” it were mechanical, the result being a way of life focused upon an elusive emulation of mechanical predictability, order, and control. As psychotherapist Joseph Gold wryly puts it:

“Our great fear that computers and machines will come to run the world and displace us is less well founded than the more appropriate fear that we ourselves are unwittingly becoming more like those very machines.”9

It is a therapeutic cliché that clients begin therapy imagining themselves as “broken” or “stuck” and wanting to recover a lost “efficiency” and sense of being “in control”, a suffering that is assumed to be “as-if” a faulty component in need of repair or exchange for a better design. While this puts pressure on the psychotherapist to turn a switch and effect a sudden repair, most therapists would no more assist a client in these mechanistic fantasies than would a surgeon agree to amputate a healthy limb. Therapy works on a deeper level by addressing the fantasy of a mechanistic self, working to foster an acceptance and integration of the inevitable vulnerability and limitation that comes with human being, yet the mind-as-machine metaphor runs deep.

Living and Dead Metaphors

Freud’s psychodynamic theory is still very much in use today. While a more relational and empathic stance towards the client has evolved, the basic premise of psychological objects and the forces between them remains a largely unaltered theoretical understanding across many orientations. In part, the longevity of this metaphorical ground is due to the fact that it does indeed reveal something of the nature of imagination:

  1. Images in memories and dreams do seem to be personal and subjective, “as if” they were contained within the workings of a mind as machine.
  2. In any imaginal narrative certain images do stand-out “as if” they were discrete mechanical component parts.
  3. Imaginal narratives often have a dramatic tension or conflict between these stand-out images “as if” they were oppositional mechanical forces.
  4. Images can be altered by applying therapeutic techniques and tools “as if” by mechanical manipulation.

We can imagine the aha! moment when Freud first pictured imagination “as if” it were a complicated machine by recollecting when we came across psychodynamic ideas for the first time. An introduction to subpersonalities, inner objects, and the unconscious can seem revelatory, even magical. What before was a dim mystery takes on a newfound structure and meaning.

The immediacy of this fresh metaphorical usage is what psychotherapist Terry Marks-Tarlow calls “living metaphor”: a fluid and malleable perception that exists at the boundary of self-experience as it comes into being.10 It is seen most clearly during any interruption to business-as-usual expectations. There is a living and creative edge to metaphor as it reaches out into uncertainty, exploring the gap between the familiar and strange, seeking out the best-fit pictures and stories to help establish meaning. However, these benefits can obscure a down side to the explanatory power of metaphor.

Metaphorical “as-if” comparisons are not exact. While metaphor reveals connective similarities, it also obscures and conceals differences. For example, a popular metaphor among trainee therapists is “driving a car”. The awkward opening stages of trying out image-based approaches are understood “as if” they were the self-consciously incompetent frustrations of learning to drive. The metaphor anticipates that therapy will, with practice, become a familiar, skilled, even somewhat automatic and mechanical process, “as if” we are driving a car, which does reveal something of what can happen. Skills and a semblance of competent familiarity will hopefully emerge over time. However, the metaphorical comparison is only partial.

The metaphor also conceals that imagining is not a mechanical process under the direct control of a therapist-as-driver, one in which we simply turn the ignition to start, press the accelerator to move forward, brake to slow down, and turn the steering wheel in whatever direction we want to move next.

Imaginative process, as we have seen, is often slow to begin, does not always speed up whenever we wish, and can take many unexpected twists and turns, all of which is concealed by the driving metaphor. Imagination is only “as if” but not the same as a machine. The metaphorical comparison is only partial, revealing something of imagination, as listed above, but also concealing other important aspects of imaginative experience:

  1. Imaginal perception occurs between self and world, not just within a personal and subjective inner imagination.
  2. Images are embedded in a network of relationships, not easily isolated into discrete, stand-out component parts.
  3. Images interact, but not always according to Newton’s mechanical law of equal and opposite forces.
  4. Images are not always amenable to predictable change by therapeutic techniques.

Psychodynamic theory is metaphor, a way of imagining imagination “as if” it were the internal workings of a machine. However, with repeated usage and familiarity the imaginal background to the metaphor can become forgotten, the partial clarity offered being mistaken for a complete truth. The metaphorical reveal is over-emphasized, and the metaphor becomes the only way of seeing, rather than just one of many ways of seeing. What was a living metaphor becoming reified as a literal reality, what Marks-Tarlow calls a “dead metaphor”: a habitual and fixed metaphorical usage that is unable to adapt to the immediacy of lived experience.10 Here the overlap between metaphor and imagination becomes apparent once again, a dead metaphor being analogous to the fantasy imagining or identifications described in earlier chapters.

Re-Imagining Psychodynamic Theory

A mechanical imagination is “as if” it were the Wizard of Oz, a powerful idea that promises much but when we pull back the curtain appears as a little old man blowing into a microphone, at best an only partial understanding and approach to imagining.

The imagery presented in psychotherapeutic work, as we have seen, arises in spontaneous and unpredictable ways, proceeding indirectly by roundabout routes, taking unexpected and decidedly nonmechanical twists and turns; yet, experienced therapists, while perhaps cognizant of having little direct control over imagination—certainly not the capacity to fine-design it like an engineer— remain ill served by conventional psychodynamic theories rooted in the mind-as-machine metaphor. The result is an uneasy tension, with a nonmechanical imagining treated “as if” it were a machine, placing unrealistic pressure on therapists and clients alike to achieve steady deterministic progress.

What is needed are alternative metaphors that better reveal the unpredictability of imaginative change. Recent work integrating psychotherapy with complexity theory – a contemporary scientific understanding of change which emerged from modelling weather patterns, lightning pathways and the beatings of the human heart – offers such a metaphorical ground. One more closely aligned to the systemic wildness and spontaneity of human imagining, providing a theoretical framework for working with those recognisable but perhaps overlooked aspects of both psychotherapeutic and everyday imaginal experience: the irregular, unexpected and seemingly chaotic imaginings that often point the way to creative process, healing and transformation.

Discuss further in Sept 2022 on-line event ‘Wild Metaphors: Re-Imagining Change & Creativity


1. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 2003), 5.

2. Arnold H. Modell, Imagination and the Meaningful Brain (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 27.

3. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 2003), 5.

4. Robert Romanyshyn, Psychological Life: From Science to Metaphor (Milton Keynes: The Open University Press, 1982).

5. James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), 56.

6. Peter Murphy, Michael A. Peters, et al, Imagination: Three Models of Imagination in the Age of the Knowledge Economy (Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang Publishing, 2010), 2.

7. S. Shamadasani, Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology: The Dream of a Science (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 202.


9. Joseph Gold, The Story Species: Our Life-Literature Connection (Markham, Ontario, Canada: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2002), 167.

10. Terry Marks-Tarlow, Psyche’s Veil: Psychotherapy, Fractals and Complexity (Abbingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, 2008), 109.

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