Have you ever been all at sea? When you are ‘all at sea’, you are really confused, lost, and in need of help. If you are studying many new subjects all of a sudden, and don’t know what’s really going on, then you are ‘all at sea’. I had known this expression for a long time, but never really thought about it till recently, when I happened to travel a little by sea -- just between islands, and just a few hours at a time. But that’s when it struck me. With only water all round, there are no clear markers. You can’t tell which direction you are going, how fast you are moving, or even if you are moving at all, at times.
In a sentence like ‘the survivors were in a fog after the catastrophe,’ something similar is happening. When surrounded by a fog, there are again no clear visual markers, and we tend to be confused about where we are and where we are going. So two popular expressions that both mean confused and lost, refer to not being able to see clearly. In a way, the mental process of thinking also has its own reference points--when you study a subject, you know what you have studied before, and there is also a sequence in which you study the lessons. With such reference points, we create a ‘map’ in the head, and this gives us a clear sense of location. Being mentally confused, then, is similar to being physically lost at sea or in a fog. When you really think about it, a vast number of concepts that we express are related in some way to seeing. Someone who is angry, out of control, and perhaps careless about what he says or does, is described as being ‘blinded by rage.’ Or consider a more direct example. In the current economic turmoil, there are many people declaring that they ‘saw the crisis coming.’ Well, they didn’t, literally, since the crisis isn’t a physical object that you can see. In fact, for the same reason, it does not move physically either, so there is no sense in suggesting that the crisis was ‘coming’ from anywhere. But we know that both the words make perfect sense here. The language we use relies heavily on such transferred meanings, or metaphors. In this case, the metaphor of seeing, or visibility, is used to convey understanding and clarity in thinking. Almost all the basic concepts that we use in some way refer to our physical experience. Our perception of time, light, space, quantity, sound. etc. dominates the way in which we understand the world and talk about it.