The Spider's Thread

The Spider's Thread

Metaphor in Mind, Brain, and Poetry

By Keith J. Holyoak

An examination of metaphor in poetry as a microcosm of the human imagination—a way to understand the mechanisms of creativity.





An examination of metaphor in poetry as a microcosm of the human imagination—a way to understand the mechanisms of creativity.

In The Spider's Thread, Keith Holyoak looks at metaphor as a microcosm of the creative imagination. Holyoak, a psychologist and poet, draws on the perspectives of thinkers from the humanities—poets, philosophers, and critics—and from the sciences—psychologists, neuroscientists, linguists, and computer scientists. He begins each chapter with a poem—by poets including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke, Du Fu, William Butler Yeats, and Pablo Neruda—and then widens the discussion to broader notions of metaphor and mind.

Holyoak uses Whitman's poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider” to illustrate the process of interpreting a poem, and explains the relevance of two psychological mechanisms, analogy and conceptual combination, to metaphor. He outlines ideas first sketched by Coleridge—who called poetry “the best words in their best order”—and links them to modern research on the interplay between cognition and emotion, controlled and associative thinking, memory and creativity. Building on Emily Dickinson's declaration “the brain is wider than the sky,” Holyoak suggests that the control and default networks in the brain may combine to support creativity. He also considers, among other things, the interplay of sound and meaning in poetry; symbolism in the work of Yeats, Jung, and others; indirect communication in poems; the mixture of active and passive processes in creativity; and whether artificial intelligence could ever achieve poetic authenticity. Guided by Holyoak, we can begin to trace the outlines of creativity through the mechanisms of metaphor.


$35.00 X ISBN: 9780262039222 288 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 13 b&w illus.


  • Students in poetry and creative writing courses will find that Holyoak's questions, illuminations, and provisional explanations offer fruitful metaphors for the construction of reflective practices. Students in cognitive psychology courses will find, particularly in the notes and bibliography, ideas aplenty for directions in which to continue research in creative processes or language processing. Throughout one finds spots to stop and linger over a word, an insight, a diagram.


  • Can scientists apply and contribute their expertise to the arts, and vice versa? The Spider's Thread: Metaphor in Mind, Brain, and Poetry by Dr. Keith Holyoak addresses this disconnect between science and art, beginning with discussions of neuroscience, philosophy, and linguistics, and moving on to a discussion of creative writing in poetry. Dr. Holyoak identifies and proposes potential methods of interconnection and cross-disciplinary proficiency. [... ] It is a wonderful resource for academics, students,  artists, and scientists alike.

    Philosophical Psychology

  • If you are ready for a twisty climb, hand-in-hand with a curious, enthusiastic, and steadfast companion, you'll be rewarded with some wonderful views. This book is a love song to poetry and you'll surely be singing along.

    The Psychologist


  • “Keith J. Holyoak has accomplished many things in this bracing and absorbing study, but—for me—the most important thing is that he shows us how the work of poetry matters in ways that are relevant to the sciences as well as the arts. A cognitive psychologist by training, and himself a deep lover of poems, Holyoak weaves his own spider's web here, drawing together strands from a variety of disciplines, ranging widely and speculatively, with clarity and eloquence. In doing so, he makes the complex operations of metaphor available to us in fresh ways. A shimmering book, full of surprises, and one that I will read again and again.”

    Jay Parini

    author of New and Collected Poems, 1975–2015 and Why Poetry Matters

  • “This is a fascinating, highly civilized, book—an unusually successful exercise in crossing the arts-science divide. Besides being a leading cognitive scientist, whose research over many years has focused on the psychological processes involved in metaphor and analogy, Holyoak is an accomplished poet. In addition, he has read widely in various styles of literary criticism, including work (such as that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge) that raises deep questions about the nature of poetic creativity—and, in particular, about how metaphor works. Holyoak keeps close to the poetry itself: here Xanadu meets The Waste Land, and many other examples, too. His discussion unites insights from modern cognitive science and neuroscience with literary themes discussed in the humanities for hundreds of years. And that's as it should be: as he says, these approaches aren't mutual opposites—but the opposite of both is barbarism.”

    Margaret A. Boden

    Research Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Sussex

  • “Keith Holyoak proves a subtle reader of poetry, and a gifted critic. More than this, The Spider's Thread is a remarkable account of the ductility of metaphor, and of the ways that poetry may offer clues to the ways human consciousness works. In Holyoak's compelling view, poetry is life. Or so the metaphor might be."

    G. Gabrielle Starr

    President and Professor of English and Neuroscience, Pomona College

  • The Spider's Thread is a unique, engaging, and frequently inspiring integration of two pursuits that have much to offer one another but have rarely connected: cognitive science and poetry. Keith Holyoak is expert in both and uses his extensive knowledge to provide novel insights into the nature of creativity and imagination. This is an important book that deserves a wide audience.”

    Daniel L. Schacter

    William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Seven Sins of Memory

  • “In this beautiful volume, Keith Holyoak is the spider who sends out a filament in a noble effort to link the separate worlds of poetry and science—two worlds in which he has contemplated the nature and meaning of metaphor. These worlds are largely disjointed, yet both seek to enlighten us about human nature. Our spider has done a masterful job bridging the divide, connecting the greatest poetry and our very best science in an effort to illuminate the nature of thought and experience.”

    James L. (Jay) McClelland

    Lucie Stern Professor, Department of Psychology and Director, Center for Mind, Brain, and Computation, Stanford University


  • A CHOICE 2019 Outstanding Academic Title.