Interpreting the Signs
If cognition is essentially a form of communication, then representations are essentially forms of reference like the signs described by Peirce and Deacon. In his model of signs and reference, Deacon illustrates how one form of reference evolves into another. Using a modified version of that model, we can describe the relationships among types of reference, which can then inform our description of the relationships among types of representation.
ICON: A REFLECTION OF YOU
Let’s say you know someone named Eduardo. I can show you a picture that looks like Eduardo, play a recording that sounds like Eduardo, or even give you a whiff of something that smells like Eduardo. Any of these may act as a substitute sensory representation of the real Eduardo. The image, recording, and smell correspond to a visual, auditory, or olfactory embodiment of Eduardo’s physical presence. Even if Eduardo isn’t actually there, his physical presence is being mimicked through one of our senses and tricking us into thinking that he is. That’s iconic reference.
INDEX I: A REMINDER OF YOU
Then there’s Maria. Let’s pretend Maria is your best friend. If I play Maria’s favorite song, show you Maria’s favorite outfit, or imitate Maria’s signature dance move, this will act as an associative representation of Maria. The song, outfit, and movements act as triggers that remind you of Maria. She could be a thousand miles away, but these triggers are so closely associated with Maria that you’ll practically expect to see her walk through the door at any minute. That’s indexical reference.
INDEX II: THE GHOST OF YOU
Now let’s imagine that your idol has always been the historical figure, Galileo. Naturally, I feel compelled to tease you about this by repeatedly saying “Galileo”, writing “Galileo” on all your stuff, and even learning to spell “Galileo” in sign language. Your unconscious has learned that these auditory, written, and gestural perceptions are all versions of Galileo’s name — a word his mother decided to use to signify him as a person. So, just like with “apple,” when you hear, read, or see his name, there’s that somewhat confused part of your unconscious which acts like he’s there. Or at least, there in your mind. Nevermind that you haven’t ever actually met him. This index-as-icon transformation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for symbolic reference.
SYMBOL I: THE IDEA OF YOU
After your unconscious has learned to directly map any physical perception of the word “Galileo” to your imagined perception of Galileo, it doesn’t stop there. Now, every time you have any audio, visual, or gestural perception of “Galileo,” your unconscious automatically has a “Galileo”-as-imagined-perception-of-Galileo moment. Subsequently, its next trick involves processing the relationships from both word and referent (associations, perceptions, and all) into one integrated representation of “Galileo.” That’s symbolic reference.
SYMBOL II: THE STORY OF YOU
At some point in this imaginary scenario, I decide to stop teasing you by mindlessly repeating his name. Instead, I might use “Galileo” while explaining what a big nerd you are, or in the text I send you (about what a big nerd you are), or perhaps during my interpretative dance performance of Galileo’s life story, which just so happens to feature the song American Rhapsody by Queen (because it takes one to know one). In any of these contexts, you’re interpreting “Galileo” in relationship to everything else I’m saying, writing, or doing. That’s what we’re calling contextualized symbolic reference.
POINTS OF REFERENCE
By exploring types of reference, we begin to get an idea of how iconic reference relates to indexical reference and how both iconic and indexical reference relate to symbolic reference. This, in turn, gives us a starting point for exploring the relationships among forms of representation and the processes by which sensory interactions give rise to intuitive interactions and intuitive interactions give rise to abstract interactions.
Icons, indexes, and symbols are forms of reference that exist in the physical world. Representations, on the other hand, are forms that only exist within a cognitive system. We could say that perceptions, associations, and conceptions are basically the icons, indexes, and symbols of cognition.
PERCEPTION: THE (VIRTUAL) WORLD WITHIN
Perceptions are the icons of cognitive representation. While iconic reference involves substituting and/or confusing the physical presence of Eduardo with something physically similar to him, perception involves substituting the physical world with the iconic representation of our experience of the physical world. The result is a kind of virtual reality that is literally all in your head. See that sunset? Well, you’re not actually seeing the sunset. You’re seeing the perception created by your brain processing sensory interactions between your eyes and the light coming from the sunset. It’s worth repeating: Everything you’re consciously aware of experiencing in the physical world is really just in your head. Sure, the real world exists (probably), but perception isn’t a direct interface with the real world, it is only a replication of it.
ASSOCIATION: AN INTERNAL MAP OF THE WORLD WITHIN
Associations are the indexes of cognitive representation. They are derived from the interactions of perceptions. After you see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or otherwise have a perception of one thing, you then intuitively expect to have a perception of something else. Associations will have different strengths depending on your experience. If you’ve only ever perceived red apples, you may more closely associate apples with the color red than, say, a normal person who is familiar with differently colored apples and whose mind isn’t completely blown by trying to imagine that an apple could ever possibly be green.
ASSOCIATION: A ROAD MAP OF THE WORLD WITHIN
Most associations are clearly differentiated. As in not fully integrated. As in your unconscious can tell one thing apart from another, and treats them as different perceptions. But words are special. With words, we learn to fully integrate the perception of the signifier (the word) and the signified (whatever the word refers to). Our unconscious no longer discriminates between the two and begins to treat them as if they are the same perception. So you’ll hear the sound of the word “apple” and part of your brain acts like it’s seeing a real apple. It’s as if “apple” has become an iconic substitution for the perception of apples.
CONCEPTION: THE WORLD WIDE WEB WITHIN
Conceptions are the symbols of cognitive representation. As a prerequisite, your physical perception of a word must be super-associated with an imagined perception of what the word signifies. Then, whenever you perceive that word, your unconscious integrates the associations and perceptions of both into a single representation or conception of the word. This is a dynamic process, so you may represent the same word differently each time you perceive it. Certainly, your understanding of the word changes, too, as you experience new and different perceptions and as you learn new and different associations. So you probably will not always think of Galileo quite the same way that you do now.
INTERPRETATION: THE SEARCH FOR MEANING
Interpretations are the contextualized symbols of cognitive representation. This is when we process the interactions of multiple words-as-concepts (like “Galileo”). In addition to processing the words as perceptions and associations, your unconscious maps a constellation among the words-as-concept. Basically, your brain is integrating a network of relationships among all these words-as-perceptions, words-as-associations, and words-as-concepts into a sense of meaning.
READING BETWEEN THE SIGNS
Icons, indexes, and symbols give us a reference point for describing the interaction processing by which sensations gives rise to perceptions, perceptions gives rise to associations, associations gives rise to conceptions, and conceptions gives rise to interpretations. This description also helps us understand how cognition functions as a kind of internal system of communication. This in turn is the basis of an emergent systems perspective of the relationships among body, sensing, sensation, and perception; memory, feeling, intuition, and association; words, thinking, abstraction, and conception; and language, understanding, narration, and interpretation.