A way in which someone uses a concrete or physical idea to better understand abstract ideas is referred to as a cognitive metaphor. It is a particular type of metaphor that goes beyond literary or poetic use, and extends into practical, every day considerations. A common example of a cognitive metaphor is the idea of "up" and "down" being used to indicate the quantity of something. When the cost of a product, which is a quantitative value, increases, it is said to" go up" or to "rise." These types of concepts are quite common and are found among a number of different cultures.
Cognitive metaphor theory refers to the overall concept of this idea, and the way in which people as a whole use figurative language and comparisons. A metaphor is a direct comparison between two different things, such as "Her eyes were pools of dark water reflecting the night sky" or "He is an angry bear, first thing in the morning." Rather than stating that one thing is like another, the two objects are directly related to each other.
Though a cognitive metaphor functions in much the same way, rather than acting merely as an expression, it is a tool for better understanding the world. One concept, which is abstract or theoretical, is compared directly to another concept that is real or physical in nature. This allows someone to more easily create a frame of reference by which the abstract idea can be fully understood.
For example, the idea that when a product becomes more expensive, it is said that the "prices are rising," is a cognitive metaphor. The cost of the product is not physically increasing in height. It is a quantitative value that is increasing in magnitude and cost. This is an abstract concept, however, in which there is no physical component to this increase that can be seen, other than the greater amount of money needed to pay for it.
The "rise" likely represents the idea of an increase in water volume within a given body. A glass of water, for example, with additional water added physically raises in height toward the top. In this way, there is a concrete example of additional quantity resulting in a physical rise. Through cognitive metaphor, this real concept is compared to the abstract idea of increased cost for a product, and so the second idea becomes easier to understand.
Use of cognitive metaphor likely stemmed from shared human experiences as people began to deal with numerous abstract concepts. Language may have initially only been needed to indicate and describe physical elements and the environment around people. As non-physical components became more important, such as "love" and "value," then physical concepts were often used to more easily explain and describe them. This is why cognitive metaphor can be seen in numerous cultures and languages, and there is a fundamental understanding of what these expressions mean.