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Stop and smell the cat

By Timothy Cocks Metaphor and language 11 Apr 2014


I don’t particularly like the smell of roses.  I can tolerate the smell of fresh cut blooms, but anything “rose scented” is to me decidedly unpleasant.

But, I love the smell of cats. I grew up with cats. There has been only one year of my life when I didn’t share a house with a cat. Growing up as a kid, our cats were members of the family with personalities as big and bold and unique as anyone else. Our current moggie, Spartacus (above), has been with us for 14 years; he’s seen the invasion of three kids and a dog all with that aloof, superior disinterest that only cats can muster. He also smells good.

Maybe the smell of a cat reminds me of simpler times when I was younger, maybe it’s associated with with the oxytocin you get from patting a cat (see Beetz et al for a nice, open access, review on this), or the pleasant calm of just sitting quietly with a friend that wants nothing more than a scratch under the chin.

My point? When I hear the phrase “stop and smell the roses”, it doesn’t evoke in me ideas of slowing down, appreciating life or taking time out for me, it just evokes memories of mildly unpleasant olfactory experiences.

However, if someone said to me “why don’t you stop and smell a cat” I would immediately ‘get it’ (but also wonder at this very strange person telling me to smell a cat…)

Stopping and smelling the roses is a metaphor, and for some a useful one, but like all metaphors it can have some problems. One of the very inherent characteristics of metaphors is that each person will interpret them differently, according to their own history and narrative – this is what makes them so powerful – for better and for worse.

Ever explained pain to a patient, telling stories about the majesty of the brain and nervous system only to have them throw it back at you with “what, are you trying to tell me its all in my head??” It might be tempting to say that “they don’t get it”, but maybe its how they’ve interpreted the metaphor of pain and the brain.

David Bolton, noister and regular contributor here at noijam has often commented on the importance of having a flexible repertoir of stories that can be performed as part of the explain pain act and David Butler is fond of talking about “meeting the patient at their story”.

How do you know when your metaphor has hit the mark? I think there are all kinds of clues. It might be, literally, written all over their face – we’ve all seen those “lightbulb” moment in others. A change of posture, a change of breathing or that feeling that suddenly you’ve connected.

There are similar kinds of clues that you’re missing the mark – if you sense these, maybe its time for a new story.

Lorimer Moseley’s book of Painful Yarns is a brilliant place to start as is The Graded Motor Imagery Handbook and Explain Pain – I’m yet to meet anyone that didn’t immediately get the Twin Peaks metaphor.

We always love to hear your teaching tales, your soothing sagas and your medicinal metaphors – spin us a story in the comments.


-Tim Cocks


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  1. my boyfriend stops to smell my cats all the time. He also remembers the smell from childhood,,,

  2. Let’s meet on your ground, using your terms, your language and respecting your truth …….

    1. timcocks0noi

      Hi Steve, I reckon if Jack Bauer owned a cat, that would be it…
      Watching this video over and over, it struck me that the dog’s behaviour is as terrifying as the cat’s is courageous and amazing. But it made me ponder thoughts of free-will vs “genetically programmed” behaviour and whether either the cat or the dog, with their somewhat limited cognitive resources had any choice? Does this make the dog’s behaviour less “malicious” and the cat’s less “heroic”? Is applying these terms already a case of anthropomorphism? Whether there is choice there or not, this is certainly a very nice example of the “fight” aspect of the “fight or flight” response!
      Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the link

  3. davidbutler0noi

    As a cat lover amid many dog owener friends, I love this- and from your home town too Steve!


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