I was originally going to make this a Twitter thread when I thought about the idea for this article during a run, but I think this probably deserves a full article. If you’re familiar with me or this site (re: The Meaning of AION, I), you probably know I’m a huge fan of symbolism, both for graphic design purposes (check out my work) and for more meaningful pursuits. Today, we’re going to take a look at the power of symbolism with some of the underlying mechanics that symbols operate on in the mind, their value in the culture, their role as memes, and a whole lot more.
Let’s get it.
We’re going to begin with some of the epistemological stuff regarding how symbols operate in the mind. This is really useful if you’re intimately concerned with optimizing the way you think and understanding the mind on a serious level, but if the word epistemological scares you, then it will probably suffice to skim this part. I will try and make it as fun and accessible as possible, but you’ve been warned. (I’ll also add that this is my first full-effort attempt at really conceptualizing some epistemological stuff, so I won’t vouch for the quality you come to know and love from MasterSelf- treat this article as fun musings until we get to the symbolism stuff, which starts at the heading The Power of Symbolism.)
When you observe reality, your brain receives what we’ll call raw sense data- sight, sound, etc. Interestingly enough, though we tend to imagine our senses as distinct and separate from one another (like several cords in a bundle- one for eyes, one for ears), on a lower cognitive level, everything is really intimately connected (more like a fire hydrant of information). Your brain actually processes all of your raw sense data together, and while this is actually totally off topic, I’m going to give you a handful of interesting and useful examples to explain sort of how this works.
First, you may have experienced that, despite trying really hard to remember what you got out of your bedroom to go do, you forgot when you walked through the doorway. This is the sense data grouping at work- your brain doesn’t “know” the difference between the thoughts you have in a room and the data of the room itself, so when you leave the room, you’re in a different head space. (This may also have something to do with why set and setting work the way they do when one uses psychedelics, but that’s a double tangent.) There are two things you can do now that you have this knowledge to easily hack your brain.
The first is: whenever you forget what you’re doing, walk back into the room you were in and get back in the same position you were in. This is like a manual remember-switch for the brain, since you’re mostly in the same headspace by having done that.
The second thing is higher level: If you know that, in the future, you will need to remember something important, visualize exactly where you’ll be when you need to know it- think about everything you’re going to be looking at, any particular smells, any sounds that might trigger it, whatever chair you’ll be sitting in, etc. If you take 30 or so seconds to do this properly, it works every time and will almost completely prevent you from forgetting stuff if done right.
Now for some miscellanea before we go a level higher than raw sense data.
Thought that I’ve had: the goal of certain kinds of meditation is to stop all thoughts and just experience things, which seems to be an attempt to return to a pre-language (and you’ll see why that matters here shortly) state of mind- pure experience, and potentially pure feeling. Feelings are way older than language in the brain, which is where the famous (and not completely accurate) notion that “7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements, and 55% through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc)” comes from. We would have had to communicate nonverbally as a species for ages before we ever learned to speak- this is why most people are not usually persuaded by pure logic.
Emotion (Pathos) is the old Queen, Authority (Ethos) is a middle-aged King, and Logic (Logos) is the young Prince that may very well be right, but everyone ignores anyway. (If you want to get really technical, the kingdom used to be a matriarchy before Ethos showed up, but he turned out to be more powerful than persuasive. That’s why even though people submit to authority, they tend to resent it when it’s not emotionally satisfying. This is mostly speculation, but it makes some degree of intuitive sense.)
Emotion is both very deeply rooted in the mind, and it’s more or less processed with the raw sense data. It may be more like the first-glance reaction to what’s being processed. This is why we get knee-jerk reactions before our rational mind kicks in- older circuits in the brain run faster than newer ones. Since it’s being processed with the raw sense data, emotions end up woven into our experiences of the world. A certain smell can bring back the nostalgia of childhood, a happy song can ruin our days if it’s a trigger for a good time with someone we now hate, even foods take on the character of our feelings associated with him. The late, great Anthony Bourdain always noted that his favorite foods were things traditionally considered to be peasant meals, because the people who served them had so much more of an emotional connection to them.
Authority (distinct from hierarchy, which is ancient) seems to appear later evolutionarily, so authority doesn’t really have much control over regulating emotions. (I’ll note briefly here that Pathos, Ethos, and Logos do appear to correspond to the Triune brain theory I covered at length in Pieces 0.3, but that thought just occurred to me as I wrote this, so I’ll leave you to your own theorizing there.) It may seem odd that I mention authority as a brain concept, but it’s the capacity for recognizing and submitting to authority that allows for humans to organize into groups- otherwise who is in charge? This is probably a natural outgrowth of the addition of emotions to our preexisting capacity for a social-hierarchical system, because the leaders would be those who could inspire emotions (whether positive or negative, and likely some of both), but this is a lot of pure speculation on my part.
Finally, we get to the logical part of the brain, which is late to the party as far as evolution is concerned. Let’s assume that each of these large layers of brain circuitry (pathos and ethos being primitive, and logos being “modern”) are means of conceptualizing. Raw sense data is basically what we call percepts (as in perception; not precepts, which are laws), and when filtered through the neural circuits they become internalized as concepts (abstract brain-stuff). The pathos circuit effectively just decides how it feels about percepts, meaning the ambiguous “thing that happened” becomes associated with whatever emotion it caused. If I went to sleep and it rained in the middle of the night, and now I’m sad (and wet), I’m probably going to start disliking the rain.
The ethos circuit would have come around more from the social interactions- if some big dude took over the tribe and started making shite-y decisions, your respect for him would begin to wane, and you may end up conspiring with other insubordinate types and overthrow him. In effect, the ethos circuit is where we start judging the quality of people, where the pathos circuit would only tell us how other people make us feel- emotion is solipsistic.
I’ve written about my theories regarding where the neocortex and the ability to use language emerged in Real Talk III and Myth and Meaning I, so check those out for more on that. As far as I’m concerned, the birth of language is the birth of Man. When we developed the faculty of language, the entire nature of cognition changes, at least to our perception of it. Raw sense data normally gets sorted into emotional bundles, then it gets some authority/dominance status assigned to it, but it’s language that really allows us to put things in boxes. I’ve said many times that clarity of word is clarity of thought, and in this case, it bears repeating.
A good example of the power of language at work is seen in how different cultures have different names for colors (link here)- if you don’t have a word for orange (the color), you’ll say that an orange (the fruit) is either red or yellow (assuming those are your colors, of course). Language is effectively the tool that allows the direct manipulation of concepts, but that’s a super technical explanation. What do I mean by that?
Let’s say you’re looking at a tree. Your brain receives raw sense data of a brown line with some green stuff on it. This gets filtered through your emotional attachment to it (go hug it, hippie), and your ethos circuit (maybe you take orders from trees, like the Lorax), but then we get to the Logos, and things get complicated. How much of the conceptual process actually goes on below the level of language isn’t something I’m qualified to speculate on, but as far as words and concepts go, I’m your guy.
We have the actual tree outside of you, then we have the internal percept created by observing said tree. From there, your brain has a vague concept of the idea of “tree” (perhaps the tree meme) which encompasses all possible trees (but refers to none in particular), then you have the concept of the word “tree” itself, which is connected to (but separate from) the idea of trees.
This is where language comes in. Obviously, there are lots of different types of trees. The first major category would be coniferous versus deciduous, or perhaps adult vs sapling, then we could get into different species like elm or oak, or different parts of the tree like branch and leaf, and so on. While your brain obviously is capable of knowing that there are separate parts of the tree (you have no instinctual desire to eat bark, unless you’re a vegan) before language, it’s language that allows us to manipulate the concepts (especially when it comes to other people.
While that may have been complex (and I promise that’s as hard as I’ll go, we’re taking down a notch from here), the important takeaway is that language is the scalpel that lets us act on concepts by separating them into increasing degrees of resolution. This is (probably) why Logos means both word and reason, because they’re effectively inseparable processes to us. Words are, in a sense, symbols. They represent concepts in a way that they can be shared and manipulated through groups via speech and writing- actually, writing is symbols representing words representing concepts representing reality, but that’s a different article in itself.
There is a difference, however, between words and symbols (because we probably wouldn’t have two words if they were the same concept)- a “pure” symbol, like a cross or the star of David, is a degree closer to the actual concept than the word is.
There’s a really cool Greek word called holon that we’re going to learn about here. A holon (ὅλον, from holos, meaning whole) is something that is both a part and a whole. (This is where we get the word hologram, by the way.) I’ll write a more detailed article covering the notion of holons in depth at some point, but for this it will suffice to note that symbols are basically holons.
How is that?
The best examples of symbolism, in my opinion, are religious symbols. These are the OG masterpieces of graphic design, branding, and marketing, long before we even had words for them. What’s really interesting is that a lot of the people who did the hardcore work of theology (especially in esoterica like Kabbalah, alchemy, and Hermeticism) spent inordinate amounts of time coming up with and manipulating symbols- look into the drawings of any esoteric sect to see what I mean.
When you see a Christian cross (assuming you know what it represents), it is both a very basic symbol and also a representation of the entire meme complex that is Christianity the religion/hierarchy/theology/social group/way of life. This is what a holon is, in essence- the part that contains the entire whole. In a meta sense, the cross itself is actually a meta symbol constructed of the two most basic symbols of all- vertical and horizontal lines. It’s literally the place where heaven (the vertical line, re: church design) and earth (the horizion/horizontal line) intersect. The Star of David works in a similar way (check out The Wisdom of Solomon for a breakdown of that.)
While I cover this more in The Meaning of AION, I, this is why I put so much effort into creating the symbol that I did. The AION actually contains essentially the entirety of my philosophy in one relatively simple icon- I can use it to explain a number of concepts like all the parts of the Pieces of Mind series, my Theory of Everything (covered in AION, II), and a lot of other random bits that I managed to fit there.
One interesting observation is that variations of symbols actually tend to function as variations of the ideology. This is why many Christian denominations use different types of crosses to symbolize them (consider the Russian Orthodox cross), as well as how some non-Christian ideologies and belief systems use less common crosses (like the Iron Cross, which is still vaguely Nazi-esque nowadays thanks to its use during WWII).
This is where things get really heavy (but not like epistemology heavy, more like mind-blowing heavy).
Remember that underneath the things we attach meaning to with symbols, there is the basic concept the symbol represents- technically, the cross isn’t just a Christian symbol, and the Star of David isn’t just a Jewish symbol. The cross (like the Vesica Pisces, also commonly associated now with Christianity via the ICHTHYS fish) in itself represents the place where heaven and earth meet, and the Star of David basically represents sexual union or the mystical union of the Syzygy, just like the swastika isn’t inherently a Nazi symbol, because it goes back way further.
Why does this matter?
Ideologies and belief systems become almost completely associated with their symbols. The average person is not going to consider the possibility that a cross means something other than Jesus, or that a swastika means something other than Nazism (even though everyone kind of knows that), because of how powerful the affiliated ideology is. Let’s be cautious with what I mean by powerful here- this is a reference to the ability of the symbol via its association with the ideology by assumption to cause a memetic effect in the person viewing the symbol. I can’t imagine that a Jewish person walking around in India wouldn’t at least have a slight gut reaction to seeing swastikas all over a temple.
Symbols are the most distilled of all memes, assuming that a person is aware of at least the implication of the meme complex. You don’t have to know what a swastika actually means (infinity, life, creation, and all that stuff) to recoil if you see a person walking down the street with a Nazi armband on. Part of this is because symbols take on new meanings, but the really complex component of this is actually that symbols co-opt earlier meanings in the process.
Christianity now effectively owns both symbols for the union of heaven and earth. The German National Socialist party (even long after its demise) has effectively taken ownership of something that was once a universally used symbol, both in the culture and in the hearts of people. If symbols are basically a direct route to the pure sensory data of the mind, then all of these religious/ideological symbols being used are an extremely subtle method of influencing your ability to look at the world.
In some sense, the continuing power of the cross and swastika is a testament to both the degree which Christianity conquered the world and the brutal effectiveness of the Nazi propaganda department. However, while Christianity is still going strong, the Nazis (meaning actual German National Socialists, not modern neonazi asshats) are no longer around. I certainly don’t think we’re anywhere near ready in the West to rehabilitate the symbol, but I wonder- is there a mechanism that we as a society use to disassociate symbols from their more recent uses? There are plenty of Eastern religions using the swastika, but will it ever be something that becomes common in the West in the way that crosses or the star of David are?
In the event that this wasn’t obvious, this is more a meditation on the nature of symbols and their emotional attachments than any sort of advocacy for bringing back swastikas, which should be obvious (but it’s [current year] so we have to clarify this sort of thing). If you take anything from this, it’s that despite the ideologies attached to symbols, you should look deeper into what the symbols themselves mean, whether its a religious icon, the Golden Arches, the FedEx symbol (which is magnificent graphic design, by the way), or some other thing that ad men and ideologues are using to manipulate your thoughts.
Symbols are among the most powerful of all ideas. Be very cautious in what you choose to take as a means of representing yourself, or what you let others use to represent things to you. The symbol is almost a direct link to your mind’s concept network, so be sure to look deeper, as it is the only way to defend your thoughts from those who would influence them.