Cognitive Approaches

Image schemas

Image schemas are not claimed to be innate knowledge structures. Instead, they arise in conjunction with our physical and psychological development during early childhood. We know from work in developmental psychology that in the early stages of development infants learn to orient themselves in the physical world: they follow the motion of moving objects with their eyes and later reach out their hands intentionally to grasp those moving objects and so on. However, even though the term “image” might imply this, “image” in psychology and cognitive linguistics does not refer to visual perception alone but includes all types of sensory-perceptual experience. The distinct smell of something, or how the something feels, when we touch it, also give rise to image schemas. The term “schema” in “image schema” refers to the fact that image schemas are not detailed concepts, but rather basic and very deeply rooted concepts consisting of patterns emerging from repeated instances of embodied experience.


We have been talking about the image schema or concept of CONTAINMENT a couple of times already and have stated that we arrive at this very basic concept or schema very early because of the way our bodies interact with the external world. But did you ever think about how frequent really we come across the notion of containment in everyday life? The following passage from Johnson’s book: “the body in mind” illustrates (by the recurrent use of the expressions in, into and out) that a great number of not only obvious objects like toothpaste tubes but also states like sleep or stupor evoke and express the notion of containment in everyday life, which is, in this line of argumentation, the reason for this concept being so deeply rooted within us:

You wake out of a deep sleep and peer out from beneath the covers into your room. You gradually emerge out of your stupor, pull yourself out from under the covers, climb into your robe, stretch out your limbs, and walk in a daze out of the bedroom and into the bathroom. You look into the mirror and see your face string out at you. You reach into the medicine cabinet, take out the toothpaste, squeeze out some toothpaste, put the toothbrush into your mouth, brush your teeth in a hurry, and rinse out your mouth.

Properties of image schemas

Image schemas are pre-conceptual in origin

Image schemas like CONTAINER OR UP-DOWN relate to and derive from sensory experience, which means that they are pre-conceptual in origin. The psychologist Mandler (2004) argues that they arise from sensory experiences in the early stages of human development that precede the formation of concepts. However, once the recurrent patterns of sensory information have been extracted and stored as an image schema, sensory experience gives rise to a conceptual representation. This means, that image schemas are concepts, but of a special kind: they are the foundations of the conceptual system, because they are the first concepts to emerge in the human mind. They are, of course, so fundamental to our way of thinking that we are not consciously aware of them: we take our awareness of what it means to be a physical being in a physical world very much for granted because we acquire this knowledge so early in life, and certainly before the emergence of language.

An image schema can give rise to more specific concepts

As you have seen already in the passage of Johnson’s book, the concepts lexicalised by prepositions such as in, out, into and so on, are all related to the container schema: an abstract image-schematic concept that underlies all these much more specific lexical concepts.

Now think about the image schema UP-DOWN. What do you think, where does it derive from and with how many abstract conceptual domains can you come in terms of conceptual metaphor?

Other image schemas that have been suggested are the following: - Blockage - Enablement - Cycle - Part-whole - Full-empty - Iteration - Surface - Balance - Counterforce - Attraction - Near-far - Merging - Matching - Contact - Object - Compulsion - Restraint-count - Center-periphery - Splitting - Superimposition - Collection - Process - ...

So we have stated, that image schemas can be described as fundamental and deeply rooted concepts, acquired in early childhood, some maybe even earlier. Whereas image schemas are of course meaningful themselves and can be expressed language, they also give rise to more abstract concepts via use of conceptual metaphors such as the application of the schema CONTAINER to other areas such as emotional states. Image schemas are said to be derived directly from embodiment, i.e. the ways our human bodies perceive and interact with the external world. It is important however, to notice, that even though this might be true, embodiment does not always have to result in concepts that remain constant over the years.

We are now for example so used to the idea that the earth spins rather than the sun moves across the sky, that it is hard for us to realize, what a startling mental revolution that must have been. Let’s see what Wittgenstein had to say about this matter: “Tell me”, he asked a friend, “why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the sun went around the earth, rather than that the earth was rotating?” His friend replied: “well obviously because it just looks as though the sun is going round the earth”. Wittgenstein replied: “well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the earth was rotating?”