Think of a bird and allow a bird image to form in your mind. Now
envision a robin, and now a cardinal, and now a blue jay. Your mind
begins with an image of a typical bird, then adjusts that image to
add the specific characteristics of each particular species as
they are named. You are relying on mental symbols to organize and
extend your memory.
- Mental prototypes for organizing and extending memories.
- An arbitrary sign that has acquired a significance.
- A group identifier.
The Greek root words mean “to throw together”; so a symbol is a
mechanism for creating categories and identifying a group.
Approximate synonyms for graphic representation of a symbol include: badge,
design, emblem, figure, icon, image, label, logo, representation, sign, and token. But
the particular meaning we are describing here is an extensible mental
representation, not a graphic image. Label is a close synonym. Categories are
the partitioning represented by the symbol.
are simple enduring visual representations capturing the essential
characteristics of a class of objects. They are simple and very general symbols,
as these examples illustrate.
Icons are often at the root of mental schema created for organizing
and classifying symbols.
For example a bird icon may be at the center of a network of
symbols each representing a particular bird species. The bird icon
may link to an animal icon and icons for airplanes, feathers, eggs,
Select and Extend
All language is made up of symbols. The word “bird”, whether spoken,
illustrated, signed, thought, or written, is not a bird, but is a symbol for a bird.
If you are asked to envision a bird, you will probably either call to mind the
image of an average, typical, or generic bird or a simple image of a specific but
common bird species. This is your mental “bird symbol” — the basic mental
representation you hold of a bird. The symbol for a generic bird may be
represented by an icon. If you are then asked to think of a robin,
sparrow, or some other specific and typical bird, your mental image will shift and the bird
symbol will be enhanced to include the
details of the specific bird species. For example, to imagine a robin your mind
extends the generic bird icon to become a more specific robin symbol by adding
the red breast that is so characteristic of a robin. Now to envision a cardinal,
take the robin symbol and modify it by making the bird entirely red.
But if someone is describing a penguin to you for the first time, you may be
told to “think of a tuxedo, add feathers, very small wings, and have this
strange bird stand tall and upright”. This new penguin symbol is created in your mind by
starting from a tuxedo icon and then relying only slightly on bird symbols.
Similarly a duck is a bird with sail boat features and an ostrich looks more
like a construction crane than a typical bird.
Our minds are organized with many thousands of these mental
symbols each representing one of many objects and abstract concepts we think
about, including: cars, chairs, the future, your
hopes, good, evil, your dog, pain, your friends, and even yourself. This is how your
mind organizes information, stores and retrieves memories, and creates, links,
and extends categories.
A label is not a symbol; it is the name we give to a symbol. Also, a symbol is
not an object; it is our mental representation of an object, concept, or class of
objects or concepts. The artist René Magritte surprises us with this often overlooked distinction
in his realistic painting of a pipe by giving it the subtitle “Ceci n'est pas
une pipe” which translated to English reminds us: “This is not a pipe”. The
common fallacy of reification mistakes
an abstract concept or symbol for an actual object.
Your mental symbol that represents yourself is your “self symbol”.
Words we use as symbols for ourselves and others are often chosen from our list
of trait nouns, and trait
adjectives. These may or may not be accurate representations of the
Symbols are Flexible and Extensible
These mental symbols are flexible and extensible. As we learn and experience
more, the original simple symbol for
“bird” is extended to accommodate penguins, ducks, and ostriches. The bird
symbol can extend into sub-categories including water birds, and
flightless birds, in addition to accommodating each particular bird species. The
concept of a bird can be generalized in several directions such as “a bird is
one type of animal” or “a bird is one example of things that fly”. Humans have
the capacity to add, extend, group, and organize mental symbols indefinitely.
Our natural language abilities are based in part on powerful symbol processing
Analogies derive their power by extending existing mental symbols to describe
and create new
ideas. Saying “a penguin is like a big bird wearing a tuxedo” leverages our
existing knowledge of “bird” and “tuxedo” to quickly create a new mental image labeled
Although symbols are essential for organizing memory and thoughts, they are
directly responsible for creating stereotypes. For example, if you are
unfamiliar with penguins and you extend your bird symbol to give yourself a
starting point for imagining a penguin, you will be making many false
assumptions. A stereotype becomes inaccurate and often harmful when you fail to
extend a general symbol to account for individual differences. This is an
example of the fallacy of accident.
Caricatures are created by exaggerating the differences that distinguish the
individual from an average person. This can be though of as magnifying the
adjustments required to make a generic face symbol represent the individual. In these
examples President Bush is distinguished by his crooked chin and mouth, Hitler
by his mustache and eyes, and Elvis by his hair, eyes, and the shape of his
This is evidence that we remember each face by storing the
individual differences from an average face symbol. Exaggerating
these differences then creates the immediately recognizable, but
unnatural face of a caricature.
Perception associates sensory experiences into existing mental symbols, or into
extensions of those symbols. This allows the sensory experience to be recognized
and perhaps named. During perception limbic
attractors—mental systems for recognizing patterns—work to pull the sensory
toward the symbol it most closely resembles.
I Am a Strange Loop,
by Douglas Hofstadter
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,
by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Words, Radiolab podcast, August 9, 2010.
Website providing caricature images.