foundations 1 of 7

Laying the Groundwork
How do we apply an emergent systems perspective to cognition? As the basis for understanding emergence, levels are the main organizational feature of the emergent systems framework. They’re a way of zooming into phenomena to study patterns and interactions at different scales. With levels, we can start with an overview of cognition and work our way in.


foundations 2 of 7

The idea of levels in models of the brain, emotions, attitudes, etc. is nothing new. Although most of these models do not differentiate between emergent and other kinds of levels, they can still provide a good picture of the territory we are trying to explore.

foundations 3 of 7


Many models in both academic work and popular culture involve three levels of cognition. The most well-known example is probably MacLean’s triune brain, which maps the evolution of various brain structures to certain types of brain functions. Although not considered scientifically valid as an explanation of how the brain actually works, it is a helpful approximation for the organization of cognitive processes and structures.

  • Reptilian Complex: instinctual behaviors, “lizard brain”
  • Limbic System: pro-social behaviors, “mammalian brain”
  • Neocortex: reflective behaviors, “human brain”

Truine Brain | Wikipedia
Rule of Three | Wikipedia

foundations 4 of 7


A similar organization is evident in Ortony, Norman, and Revelle’s model of emotional affect in the context of reactive, routine, and reflective levels of cognition, which is also the basis of Norman’s model of visceral, behavioral, and reflective levels of emotional design. This work, however, doesn’t involve mapping brain structures to brain functions. Instead, the researchers were considering how different levels of cognition represent various aspects of the same information (emotion).

  • Reactive / Visceral: proto-affect; emotional responses based on instinct, physical sensation
  • Routine / Behavioral: affect; emotional responses based on habits, learned behaviors
  • Reflective: emotion; emotional responses based on thought, reasoning

Affect and Proto-Affect in Effective Functioning | Ortony, Normal & Revelle
Three Levels of Processing: Visceral, Behavioral, and Reflective | Norman

foundations 5 of 7


Another useful perspective on levels of cognition involves how we understand reference, or the relationship between what is being communicated (the signifier) and how it is being communicated (the signified). For example, an image of a dog, a paw print, and the letters d-o-g are all signifiers of the idea of dogs. However, the first bears a physical resemblance to a real dog, the second is an intuitive reminder of real dogs, and the third is an abstract form assigned to refer to a dog. In his work on sign theory, Peirce refers to these three types of signs as icons, indices, and symbols.

  • Icon: signifier refers to signified based on physical resemblance (image of a dog and dogs)
  • Index: signifier refers to signified based on co-occurrences (a paw print and dogs)
  • Symbol: signifier refers to signified based on assignment (word “dog” and dogs)

Peirce’s Theory of Signs | Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

foundations 6 of 7


Using sign theory, Deacon models how language evolves from the iconic, indexical, and symbolic reference represented by signs. Rather than looking at various levels of cognitive processing, Deacon focuses on various levels of information (reference) as a function of cognition. Although he doesn’t specifically mention emergent levels, he describes how iconic reference gives rise to indexical reference which gives rise to symbolic reference.

  • Iconic reference: unconscious substitution of signifier (image of a dog) for signified (dogs)
  • Indexical reference: remembered mapping of signifier (paw prints) to signified (dogs)
  • Symbolic reference: learned substitution of signifier (the word “dog”) for signified (dogs) and mapping to other signs (references to / of “dog” and dogs)

The Symbolic Species: Symbols Aren’t Simple | Deacon

foundations 7 of 7


How do these models inform each other? Not only do they focus on different topics, but they also represent different cause and effect relationships, from direct A=B mappings, to linear A-to-B-to-C progressions, to nested (((A) B) C) evolutions. Clearly the models represent specific points of view, but how might they collectively contribute to our overall picture of levels and cognition?

  • Iconic reference: unconscious substitutions based on physical resemblance between signifier and signified
  • Reactive / Visceral: responses based on instinct, physical sensation
  • Reptilian Complex: instinctive behavior, “lizard brain”
  • Indexical reference: remembered mappings based on co-occurrence of signifier and signified
  • Routine / Behavioral: responses based on habits, learned behavior
  • Limbic System: pro-social behavior, “mammalian brain”
  • Symbolic reference: learned networks of substitution and mapping based on assignment of signifier to signified
  • Reflective: responses based on thought, reasoning
  • Neocortex: reflective behavior, “human brain”