Human beings are visual creatures. Generally, we rely upon our eyesight more than any other sense. On a daily basis we look around our environments detecting colour, motion, shapes, contours, and gauge distance. We interpret body language, admire beauty, and we respond to the things we look at in a myriad of ways. When doing so, our mind is also constantly interpreting symbols. Even right now, while you are reading this blog, the letters that make up words are symbols that need interpreting. And the words themselves represent sounds and pictures which symbolise concepts that your mind can translate into meaning.
The definition of symbols is quite broad. To summarise, I’ve chosen the most concise and inclusive description from Cambridge online dictionary, along with a few examples:
- something that is used to represent a quality or idea, for example:
- Heart shape for the symbol of love
- Water, a symbol of life, recurs as an image throughout her poems
- The Berlin Wall was a potent symbol of the Cold War
- She’s a symbol of hope for people living with this condition
- The private jet is a symbol of wealth
- The symbol © shows that something is protected by copyright
- Symbols for mathematics ➕➖➗✖️, science μx, music 𝄢 🎶 etc.
Symbols aren’t always easy to decipher. To help, I find Charles Peirce’s (1839–1914) three levels of reference useful:
- Iconic = where a thing literally means what it is;
- For example, a bird means a bird
- Indexical = where a thing brings to mind other things;
- For example, a bird brings to mind flying, tweeting sounds, nests, other animals, etc.
- Symbolic = where a thing represents another thing, with referential connections to iconic and indexical levels;
- For example, a bird brings to mind abstract concepts like nature, beauty, freedom, peace, and so forth.
If you want to develop a deeper sense of how the three levels of reference build up in the mind to form of semantic networks, then I highly recommend you check out Small World of Words. It is an online research platform in which you can type in a word and ‘visualize’ via a graphic presentation the common associations people have with that particular word. If you’re bilingual, an extra cool feature is that you can alter the language settings and compare word associations from one language with another. For example, in English, the word ‘dog’ is commonly associated with walking, barking, cats, friends, love, and more. In contrast, in German, the word ‘Hund’ (dog in German) has associations with mouse and wolf, which are not found in English associations of dog.
In art education, the skills associated with interpreting symbols is called visual literacy, and in a world saturated with visuals from advertising, social media, and other digital entertainment, comprehending what we see is more important than ever.
In a nutshell, thinking and communication are based on symbols. That’s pretty much the basics of why symbolism is important to mental wellbeing – the brain is constantly using and interpreting symbols. There is a lot of great science out there about symbolism, but unfortunately, thanks to Freud, there is also a lot of psychological myths about so-called universal symbols. I won’t harp on about him right now, but if you want the full deal on why I think he was wrong just about everything, you can read my peer reviewed paper Freud’s Oedipus Complex in the #MeToo Era: A Discussion of the Validity of Psychoanalysis in Light of Contemporary Research.
Cambridge Dictionary. (2019, November 20). SYMBOL | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary. Cambridge.org. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/symbol
Science Direct – Visual Literacy. (n.d.). Visual Literacy – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. http://Www.Sciencedirect.com. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/computer-science/visual-literacy
Terrence William Deacon, & International Society For Science And Religion. (2007). The symbolic species : the co-evolution of language and the brain. International Society For Science And Religion.