The Brain of the World

Metaphors frame our understanding of numbers.  The idea of per capita is one such. To use per capita in your arguments is to suggest that each of us is metaphorically associated with a “fair share” of something.  For instance, I once read somewhere that  the money spent on a typical American child was 30 times that spent on an Indian child, which in turn, was 30 times that spent on a Somalian child. Whether you are inclined to agree or argue (“yeah, that seems roughly right” or “the real disparity is much worse” or “it isn’t so bad if you look at purchasing power parity”), you’ve been trapped by the metaphor. It has stopped you from questioning whether per capita is a useful frame of reference.

I encountered another example in the ABC show Over a Barrel: The Truth about Oil. One of the talking heads, T. Boone Pickens, offered this thought: the US has only 4% of the world’s population, but uses 25% of its oil production.

Let me juxtapose a different metaphor: the human brain constitutes roughly 2% of the body weight of an average adult, but uses 20% of the body’s oxygen supply. I am suggesting, of course, that the metaphor of the world as a giant organism is the appropriate one here, and that America’s disproportionate energy consumption might be justifiable on the basis of its role as the “brain” within the body politic of the world.

I am not actually making this argument right now. I am merely wondering: to what extent are our ideological commitments hidden within our choice of metaphors?

[#2 in my short-posts experiment. 274 words]

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I LOVE the shorter posts. Ideas are like energy bars: take a few bites, chew for a while, digest, come back for more.

    However, linking America’s consumption of oil to the brain’s disproportionate consumption of oxygen feels like playing with volatile chemicals. While our production of the world’s goods, no doubt, requires its fair share of energy inputs, our entitlement mentality towards energy and our lackadaisical approach to conservation drive the per capita numbers disproportionately high.


  2. Energy bars. I like that :)

    You are demonstrating how powerful per-capita thinking is in your comment. You’ve reverted to it! “While our production of the world’s goods, no doubt, requires its fair share of energy inputs,…”

    The nature of those goods matters in the definition of ‘fair’! The creative information work output of the US economy cannot be compared at the per-capita level to a factory worker helping churn out lots of identical widgets in China. It is not a question of whether a writer pushing the boundaries of global culture in New York’s Greenwich village deserves more energy than widget-cranker in China. He/she needs it to function (assuming we agree that art is as necessary to the global economy as cheap identical widgets).

    “Waste” can be defined with respect to an unequal benchmark, which changes the conversation. Perhaps a “fair” energy allocation for the artist is 4x that of the Chinese widget maker, but he/she is getting 6x. So the extra 2x is inefficiency, and demanding it as an entitlement is not ok. But the base 4x is defensible.

  3. George Lackoff has written a lot on how even simple liguistic metaphor frame our perception in “Metaphors we live by”.

  4. John, yes… I didn’t reference it in this article, but I have a post about that: Sapir-Whorf, Lakoff, Metaphor and Thought

    Nice to see that the post sparks the associations I intended :)

  5. 1. I am OK with “frame of reference” and “benchmark” but not sure about “metaphor”. You are essentially wondering whether assessing a thing by taking its ratio with respect to this denominator or something else (or no denominator) is better.

    2. “Energy bar” post is a metaphor. Comparing no. of comments per word-in-post is not. Maybe I am missing something.

    3. The key point is that the denominator limits or misguides our perspective. This somehow seems related to the choice of axis parameters you talked about in your quadrant diagram post. BTW we called that 2700-word post a small one by ribbonfarm standards!

  6. @RG yes, but where did those denominators/ratios come from? 1:1 comes from the rough visual equality of 2 prototypical humans, while 20:80 and 2:98 in this case come from brain:rest of body.

    “Frame of reference” is exactly right in a broader sense: that is pretty close to Lakoff’s definition of a conceptual metaphor (as opposed to a figurative (“energy bar”) metaphor). “Per capita” is part of an overall conceptual metaphor of “flatness” (i.e. ideology of fairness/equality). If you push yourself, the image your mind will naturally conjure up when faced with a fact like “per capita consumption of icecream is X gallons per year” is to imagine a vast football field of people standing shoulder to shoulder, each with so many tubs stacked in front of them :). To break this metaphor, it is only required to conjure up an inappropriate variable, like consumption of AIDS meds or diapers… per capita is meaningless because “fairness” is clearly silly. People are manifestly NOT equal in their needs/desires for such variables. “x per 1000” (a liquid/concentration metaphor) is what we use in such cases.

    And yeah, those were the good old days, when 2700 was short. I think my longest article to date has been well over 6000 (probably the “disposable American” piece on layoffs).

  7. Thanks for the clarifying remarks.

    Another problem, especially seen in financial reporting, is the use of trends of percentage changes of percentages! A simpler sample is, “…posted a lackluster increase in their margin growth rates”. Not to forget margin is a percentage, it is growing and its growth rate trend is being analyzed.

  8. We need the mechanics metaphor here. I’d rewrite that sentence as “margin growth [velocity] is decelerating [increasing less quickly]”

  9. I think the key to a short post is not to take a complex idea and do it disservice by presenting it sloppily.

    A successful short post is one that presents a simple concept comprehensively and is only short because that’s the right length for it.