Some do’s and don’ts for using a medical metaphor, hints from Frightened Rabbit

“Nature deficit disorder ‘damaging Britain’s children'” warns a dire sounding headline from BBC.com. The article describes a report from the National Trust that argues that “UK children are losing contact with nature at a ‘dramatic’ rate, and their health and education are suffering.” That sounds serious indeed. I may have to run over and rescue the neighbour’s kids. I can see they are dangerously inside.

The term Nature Deficit Disorder isn’t a completely new one but this report has rightfully drawn some criticism for the way it’s used. Aleks Krotoski responded frankly on BBC Radio 4 that there’s no evidence that this is an illness. She said the report “dresses up the idea that nature deficit disorder is a psychological ill.”  In response the report’s author, Stephen Moss, clarified that it isn’t really an illness but just a useful term.

Oh ok. So it’s not really a disorder, it’s a metaphor.

If it’s a metaphor,  it’s not working very well.  It sure sounds like they’re saying that this is a real physical disorder with serious health consequences. The BBC even found a physician to comment on the dangers, not something one normally does for a metaphor.

Luckily the song of the week provides some guidance on how to use a medical metaphor well. Scottish band Frightened Rabbit‘s Modern Leper, from their 2008 album Midnight Organ Fight, is the careening and passionate lament of a broken man reflecting on a broken relationship. A cripple walks amongst you all you tired human beings. The metaphoric leprosy evokes a sense of social isolation, hopelessness in an (at one time) incurable disease, and an illness manifest through a visible deterioration of the body. We feel the pain of the song in a much richer way because of it. There is, however, no danger of mistaking it for actual leprosy.

So what can we learn from Frightened Rabbit? Perhaps, how to use a medical metaphor well. Here are a few tips:

1. Don’t choose a condition that is common and troubling in the group of people you’re talking about. Many children struggle with attention deficit disorder, few Scottish musicians have leprosy.

2. When you talk about the symptoms be sure they sound metaphorical. When Scott Hitchison sings that Vital parts fall from him and dissolve in Scottish rain, we’ really clear on the fact that his actual limbs are not falling off and they’re not going to dissolve in the rain. When it’s reported that Richard Louv, who coined  the term, wrote that distance from nature leads to “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses”, that sounds real and medical.

3. Try to include other typical metaphorical elements. Hutchinson laments crippling “your heart a hundred times and still can work out why.” I’m pretty sure he means the literary heart, home of emotions and prone to injury in relationships, not a the literal heart crippled by, say, stabbing. Nature deficit disorder doesn’t refer to students’ passions or metaphorical hearts but instead to their literal senses and metabolism. The BBC helpfully even includes a fancy picture of a brain with the caption “Is nature part of the puzzle of a healthy mind?”  It’s easy to think this is a real disorder when it seems to hurt not kids’ metaphorical minds, perhaps home to their interests and joy in the natural world, but their literal physical brains.

Lesson? A metaphor of illness can be a rich way of thinking and talking about a problem but not when it isn’t clearly a metaphor. If you need advice on using one, there’s no need to look any further than this song.

Author: mcshanahan

Science education researcher and writer

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