Why You Shouldn’t Use Analogies to Learn
Learning through analogies is easy, fun, and effortless. They offer the quickest way to understand concepts, theories, and models for the first time through examples and metaphors we are familiar with.
But on the other hand, there are downsides in using them too—analogies and metaphors are not a shortcut to learn. It only helps understand concepts on a surface level, and not beyond.
Learnability is one of the key skills everyone should master—both in the present and in the future—so it is important to understand when to use them and when not to.
Why and where analogies should not be used
1. Analogies oversimplify concepts
Take any 5th or 6th grader’s physics book, you’ll see an atom represented by tiny balls in the middle—the protons & neutrons in the nucleus—and a few other balls—electrons—orbiting around them. While this is a simple way to explain to kids what an atom looks like, but in reality, an atom is no way similar to this. The textbook diagram is an oversimplified version.
Still, as adults, most of us assume atoms are made up of tiny balls of protons, neutrons, and electrons. But in actuality, atoms are complex—electrons behave both as a particle & as waves, there are no sharp electrons orbits around the nucleus, and other complex stuff which the textbook model fails to explain. In fact, only sophisticated mathematics can explain the true nature of an atom.
How a textbook atom looks like vs How a real atom looks like:
Analogies simplify concepts, so simple that the true nature of the concept is lost—they help understand concepts, quickly, on a surface level, but doesn’t offer even the slightest explanation of the fundamentals.
The real world is complex, nothing is simple, except for analogies. Deep understanding of a concept, theory, domain, or a field is attained only through learning the fundamentals. Analogies give us a feeling that we’ve understood something, but it merely is a mirage of reality.
Metaphors are wonderful for explaining complex topics in simple familiar terms. A metaphor’s simplicity, however, can become it’s greatest failing, if people treat the metaphor as an explanation.
— Lisa Feldman
2. Analogies cannot be used for generalisation
When I first came to know about the General Theory of Relativity, I was introduced to the concept that gravity is not a force, rather is the bending of space by massive objects like planets, stars, galaxies, etc. The classic analogy to demonstrate this is to place a heavy ball—representing the sun—in the middle of a trampoline or a rubber sheet, making a dent in the middle. And smaller balls—representing the earth and other planets—is made to revolve around the heavy ball. The smaller balls move along a curved path in the trampoline—showing how gravity is warps and curves in space.
Gravity demonstrated through the rubber sheet analogy:
While this is a simple demonstration, but it’s a misconception that the sun bends space in the same way the heavy ball bends the trampoline. Also, it does not explain how stars collapse, how tides are formed, why time slows down near massive stars, and many such phenomena related to gravity.
There is a limit to analogies—they cannot be used to generalise concepts. They only offer a narrow understanding.
The bottom line is, analogies should not be used to generalise. Just because analogies helped explain one part of a concept or a theory, it doesn’t mean it will explain other parts too. Generalisations can only be done through theories and models—which are complex, like the real world.
Analogies are beneficial; they make complex problems easier to communicate and increase understanding. Using them, however, is not without a cost. They limit our beliefs about what’s possible and allow people to argue without ever exposing our (faulty) thinking. Analogies move us to see the problem in the same way that someone else sees the problem.
— Farman Street
When to use analogies
While analogies hinder learning the fundamentals, there are certain places where they can be extremely useful.
1. Analogies help create and innovate
Henry Ford created the assembly line in Ford’s factory inspired by meat-packing houses of Chicago. Steve Jobs came up with the idea of a full-screen design for iPhone inspired by floor-to-ceiling glass facade from the Eichler Style House. Nike drew inspiration from Formula 1 race cars’ suspension system to design their shoes. And there are countless other examples where analogies were used to create and innovate.
But looking at these examples a little close, there are two conditions with which analogies were used.
Firstly, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and Nike were not amateurs—they were experts. And experts, by definition, have sound knowledge of the fundamentals in their field. So they know when to use analogies, where to draw the line, and when not to use them. Analogies can be useful in your field of expertise but can mislead you in fields outside your niche.
Secondly, they used analogies to draw inspirations, and not to learn. Ford didn’t learn how to design an assembly line from the meat-packing houses, neither did Jobs learn how to design a phone by looking at floor-to-ceiling windows. They only drew inspiration and applied it to their domain.
So analogies, if used carefully, can be a great source of inspiration to create and innovate.
2. Explaining complex topics
Take any book in the science section from your local bookstore—it’ll be rich in analogies. The reason for this is scientific topics are complex to understand and they lie outside of most people’s area of expertise. It is difficult to understand a majority of topics in science without some mathematics involved—which most of us shy away from. So authors rely on analogies to explain complex scientific topics.
Analogies are a powerful way to explain complex topics to the general public in a quick and easy way, and not bore them with complex fundamentals—which anyway they might not be interested in.
It is difficult for most of us to know the fundamentals or attain deep expertise in more than 2 or 3 domains or fields. But it’s important to understand other domains, at least on the surface level—to make conversations, to build general knowledge, and to understand the world around us.
While you keep building knowledge on your areas of expertise, leverage the simplicity of analogies to understand areas beyond your niche.
Whenever we learn something new, our brains don’t reserve a sperate space—technically a bunch of neurons—to store new information. Rather, it is built above on what we already know. This is why learning through analogies seem effortless—we relate to new subjects with subjects we are already familiar with.
While this is good news if you wanna learn new concepts, but you may tend to oversimplify concepts and not appreciate their true complexity. So it’s crucial to know when to use them and when not to.
As Lisa Feldman in her book Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain puts it “Metaphors provide the illusion of knowledge, so they must be used with care.”