Category Archives: Week 3

The Rainbow Pinwheel of Death

Processors, state changes, different kinds of memory… I know it’s far from a novel comparison, but the readings for this week made me think a lot about similarities between human cognition and computer processing. In 506 we’re learning the basics about how computers work. (And yes, in spite of using them daily for work and personal life, this is new information for me.) The concepts of extended cognition (Clarke), Symbolic Material Culture (Renfrew), and symbolic representation (Deacon), as well as Wong’s ancient evidence of a propensity for decoration, all point to a creative essence. Creative in the sense of building and looking for answers – not necessarily coming up with something no one has ever ever thought of before.

In Dr. Garcia’s Networks and Creativity class we’re talking about the distinction between an idea and a process of creation – R. Keith Sawyer’s Explaining Creativity (2012) describes the conflict between the Idealist theory, which posits that an idea is the creative process, and the Action theory, which posits that the creative process lies in the execution of the idea (Sawyer 87). Sawyer comes down squarely on the side of the Action theory, which I would associated with the concept of extended cognition. Both Action theory and extended cognition recognize the importance of ongoing interaction between the person with the idea and that person’s environment. The anecdote between Richard Feynman and Charles Weiner in “Supersizing the Mind” reminded me of this distinction. The paper Feynman used to write was integral to his creative process. Indeed, without that external storage, if you will, he would not have been able to accomplish what he did.

As its name suggests, Dr. Garcia’s course explores the role of networks in the creative process, attributing great importance to the context of a creative act. This may refer to a creator’s social context (people who helped, supported, critiqued, etc) but also to political factors and individual circumstances. In that class we’ve also discussed the idea that being creative has a lot to do with accessing and applying stored information quickly. Our external and symbolic storage systems make it possible for us to access and apply so much more information than if we were doing it all “in our heads” without these references.

Personally I’m fascinated by the idea of our daily communion with the outside world as input that we process, store, and sometimes output into action. I find myself using the term “processing” frequently to refer to needing time with new input before coming up with an answer. And of course, the mac’s rainbow pinwheel of death is the symbol this process conjures in my mind.


Sawyer, R. K. (2012). Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation (2 edition.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Symbols in the current context: Identity as a Symbolic Construction

As I finished this week’s readings, I realized that all readings were converging to one topic: Embeddedness and dependencies of human behavior and cognition.

While defining technology is a challenge, understanding the human symbolic system made it even more challenging for me. While the readings historicized human symbolic interaction, and Wong, in her article “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture,” described the process of behavioral revolution, I realized that human symbolic interaction was similar to that of a technological tool: While technology is path-dependent, human symbols are path-dependent as well, and that path is evolution.

What is even more challenging is understanding how symbols function today, and what is different in their functionality in regard to the past. The rise of globalism, consumerism, and nationalism in the current context, and the way ideologies use symbols might give the idea that symbols are socially constructed. Understanding the history of symbols, however, reveals that symbols still function to address survival instincts: Flags have symbolic value, because it symbolizes nations – whereas nations are defined in regard to enemies from other nations.

In the current context, however, symbols are functional in many areas. Communicating identity was probably not common throughout history. As symbols were employed to communicate identities, consumer culture found an instinctual basis to develop. Another occurance today is how the symbols carry value of the concepts they symbolize. And finally, symbols’ roles as stigmatizers: Symbols do not only help us communicate our identities, but also help us understand oru identity in regard to our environment. While cognition is embedded in the society, as Clark mentioned in “Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, action, and Cognitive Extension,” identity is embedded in the environment. It is probably not what we are, but rather what we are not that dbest describe who we are.

Barrett, Semiotics, Descartes

Having encountered theories of the extended mind in a class on Rhetorical Ecologies last semester, I found Barrett’s “The Archaeology of Mind: It’s Not What You Think” to be one of the most provocative of the readings for this week. Not only does Barrett’s article provide a brief overview of several evolutionary theories of cognitive development, as well as semiotics, Actor Network Theory, and what I believe to be a (dismissive) nod to Baudrilliard (in 15 pages, no less!), he also attempts to subvert almost all theories of mind that came before him, and I suppose I’m a sucker for subversive theory. Despite the admiration he might deserve for taking on such a huge project in the course of a short article, I found some of his dismissals a bit too hasty and it seems to me that his own theory of “mind” might also fall back into the Cartesian hole in which he perceives most of the current theories to reside.

Early in the article, Barrett writes, “The rejection of a Cartesian dualism is basic to materialist philosophies but, in archaeology at least, this has not resulted in the widespread questioning of the assumption that the mechanism basic to human cognition involves the mind’s ability to interpret experiences that are manifestations of an external reality, even if we have no idea as to what mechanism provides for that interpretation” (2), thus setting up his main criticism of the wide variety of theories that follow, namely that they rely on a split between mind and body, and inner self and external environment. However, the application of this criticism seems more apt with regard to some theories than others. For instance, his criticism of mind-as-brain theories seems spot on—in order to locate the mind solely in the brain, one would have to reinforce the distinctions between mind/body and self/environment. But when Barrett takes a detour through semiotics, things get weird. First, he appears to mis-define Saussure’s signifier and signified as conceptual category and public expression, respectively. But isn’t it the other way around—that is, signified as concept and signifier as public expression (7)? (Public expression might also not exactly match up with “sound image,” as it retains many additional connotations, e.g. public-ness.) He then connects this dyadic theory of semiotics to the Cartesian split between mind and body based on this potential mis-interpretation. Although I think this accusation is not entirely off, Barrett’s claim that it sets up “a relationship between external things and an ‘inner’ mind in which the body appears to play no part” (7) doesn’t seem like the best criticism. Indeed, from what I’ve read, Saussure’s theory seems almost unconcerned with how the sign relates to external reality, therefore I’m not sure where Barrett is finding this “relationship between exterior things and an ‘inner’ mind.” He might be onto something with regard to the lack of references to the body in Saussure, but it seems like a criticism that could be leveled against every philosophy that does not explicitly and regularly reference the body. Similarly, his claim that Peircean semiotics accounts for the body through the interpretant (“it follows that we must treat the interpretant as an agent requiring the motivation, physical faculties, and energy required to do the work […]” (7)) appears very generous to Peircean semiotics, and I suspect that he might be imposing the body into this theory. However, I am not familiar enough with Peirce to dispute this claim. But, from my standpoint, it appears that he prefers Peirce to Saussure, and so Peirce gets the body and Saussure gets the mind.

Which brings me to my final question: does Barrett’s theory of cognitive development fully displace the Cartesian split? As a good materialist, his theory certainly appears to rid the division between inner self and external environment through his emphasis on the body and it’s being in/of the world. However, I’m not so sure if Barrett’s theory succeeds in displacing Descartes’ mind/body binary; is it a displacement or merely an inversion through which Barrett exalts the body above the conventionally valorized mind? In the latter third of his article, Barrett sets up a distinction between the conceptual and sensual recognitions of things with common or contrasting qualities, and he overwhelming affirms the latter (i.e. the sensual) as “primary” (11). “The response of one body to a material quality was recognized empathetically by another,” “full bipedalism, the hand with opposable thumb articulation and a forefinger capable of pointing, complex facial musculature, and eye colouration,” “bodily decoration […] is more likely to have enhanced those enactments before others than to have the representation of some abstractly conceived concept of status,” “the world of qualities sensually encountered” (11), etc.: all of these passages privilege the body over the mind in the development of the symbolic. Does Barrett focus too heavily on the body? Does his cognitive development theory entirely displace the mind/body binary by making everything fully body, or is there still room left for the mind in the “representation of some abstractly conceived concept of status” or the slightly earlier mention of (without fully discrediting) metaphorical associations? More broadly, is Barrett’s theory merely an inversion of the Cartesian dichotomy, or does it succeed in avoidance of the lapse into the division between mind and body?

Let’s Think About Hominid

Last week’s seminar we talked about the misunderstanding we have and presumptions we take granted for the discipline of Communication. That was very thought provoking to me but at the same time, I am afraid that some “mainstream” research cannot convince me as much as before (Mia’s example in her last week’s blog). However, the curiosity to find the interdisciplinary method also drives me to dig deeper by stepping back to get a broader landscape. The landscape is historical (why and how human became symbolic species) and related to other disciplines (linguistic, communication technologies, media, etc.)

Since I’ve read all the materials for this week in last semester’s, I tried to understand the supplemental reading on mimetic skills, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens. I am not sure if I get the technical part of those explanations on brain structures but the idea of human evolution triggered intense thoughts about the final paper from last semester. I used language models to understand film cognition processes. The only reason for me using language models was that: it makes sense to me. However this week actually gave me a chance to rethink the real and solid reason for me to apply linguistic to filmic cognition.

According to Donald, there are three systems of memory representation: mimetic skill, languages, and external symbols. Each of these three is based on an inventive capacity, which means they are always growing— new lexicons, “new” languages (computer languages), new ways of presenting informations (digital versus old none digital) etc. Mimetic skill is the presumption of human language. We reflect on what we do and think. When we start reflecting, we became a symbolic species. We act and then think and eventually refine our actions. The refined actions are external representation of internal thinking and reflection. This process of converting internal information (meaning or thoughts) to somewhere external or vice versa is fundamental. From this perspective, languages, hunting tools, even just refining actions of grabbing things are essentially the same— something that helps exchanging meanings between the internal and external.

When I rethink of this argument and cognitive basis of language as “technologies”, I start to realize the solid research foundation for my final paper. Borrowing linguistic model to other media forms is not just “useful” but also based on the fact that human beings are fundamentally symbolic species. Cognitive approach is a good way to break the walls between different disciplines as cognition is beyond specificity of cultures and societies.

Mind and brain evolution

After finished this week’s readings, I attempted to find their similarities and synthesize a framework that can represent the common threads in recent work on the origin of symbolic thought. Wong’s article (Wong, 2005) pointed out that the “behavioral revolution” of anatomically modern humans around 40 thousand years ago was not an incident. Like evolutionist advocated, it was a process took several million years. Additionally, C.S. Peirce’s framework of understanding sign systems in terms of icons, indices and symbols was commented on specifically by several authors, and following Deacon’s explanation of these categories as hierarchical (Deacon 1998).

These authors envision the overall course of the evolution as a symbolic system that have some traits in common. Donald’s concept of mimesis states that while Donald identifies a series of significant steps towards fully-realized symbolic thought (Renfrew 1999). Therefore, he thought the mimic skill is an essential ability acquired by aps, and it’s also the foundation of human language development. The most fascinating while puzzling reading for me was Barrett’s “Archaeology of Mind”. It challenged the basis of many other author’s arguments. First, it attacked materialist and solipsistic approach to understanding the mind. Barrett put, “When it comes to the problem of mind, we still seem to be stuck in a Cartesian trap wherein we think of cognition as something that happens within the mind– a place totally distinct from the body and the rest of the world.” This raised a question that lots of scholars tried to explain: they were looking for ways to explain consciousness and symbolic capability through some kind of “magic switch” in the brain. Donald stated there’s a nod to the importance of “cognitive collectivities”, however; the first spark of consciousness can attributed to some feature of “neuromania”.

The difficultly in this debate arises from the confluence of the insights of multiple. Compare to other theories, Pinker’s approach seems more testable and his theory assumes the benefit of multiple genetic advantages over time.  As Pinker pointed out, “sociality in natural environments is based on concepts and motives adapted to kinship, dominance, alliances, and reciprocity. Humans, when left to their own devices, tend to apply these mindsets within modern organizations. The result of nepotism, cronyism, deference to authority, and polite consensus-all of which are appropriate to traditional small-scale societies but corrosive of modern ones.” Besides the bright side, the deep-rooted dark side is also generated through out time. This generative phenomenon seems gave the strongest evidence of his theory.



Deacon, Terrence W. The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, NY, USA: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Pinker, Steven. “The Cognitive Niche: Coevolution of Intelligence, Sociality, and Language.” InProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Supplement 2:8993–99, 2010.

“Get The Picture?” : Historicizing How We Follow the Signs for the Sake of Survival and Interpersonal Communication

Did you know that most of subtle of body cues could be the difference between whether you live or die in an encounter with a cougar in the woods? Not exactly the most obvious survival tidbit for trekking the rugged terrain, but necessary when considering you can’t just talk your way out of a duel with a 130-pound feline. Why? Because it’s not a human, meaning it won’t understand the sounds you utter because it’s not a member of “the symbolic species.” And while plenty of blog posts have been about reading the signs of animalistic non-human body language, we do not wholeheartedly understand them either. In fact, because of distinctive cultural meaning systems, it seems we, humans, don’t fully understand one another.

As we know, miscommunication and bad wiring with cultural standards lie at the heart of most domestic and international conflicts (thank goodness for United Nations). For example, translation from spoken and written language to another is not always as smooth and precise as one would hope in multicultural dialogue. Yet, verbal and nonverbal communication gets misconstrued even amongst those of the same national origin and native tongue.

I remember having a conversation with my relatives about their upbringing and what their parents taught them about interacting with police officers. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown tragedies – and having a general understanding of the historical strain between law enforcement and the Black community – I predicted that this discussion would have undertones of mistrust for the police. And I was correct. My female cousins narrated lessons from their elders telling them to consult a neighbor or trusted member of the community, not a police officer, if you needed help. More striking was the talk I received from my father, who said “Don’t catch an attitude with police” and “Don’t make any sudden movements in your car if you get pulled over,” insinuating that the wrong move – the wrong symbol delivery – could render guns being drawn. Message received.

In Kate Wong’s text, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture,” she examines the rise of material symbols as a means to “foster good relationship with others as a hedge against hard times.” And while this holds true in gift-giving scenarios, general interpersonal relationships are strained and dependent on the physical and mental exchange of symbols. A conjecture of signs could equate to triggering a defense mechanism: hazy air plus the smell of smoke and a rush of heat could lead one to suspect that a fire is near. In such a case, symbolism is a vital means of survival. But what about socially constructed and skewed symbols? A person is walking at night approximately 50 feet behind you with a dark hoodie and their hands in their pockets – does your instinct activate defensive tendencies as a means of survival or are you merely jumping to hasty conclusions about this person? That takes a lengthy deblackboxing of interacting systems.

This reflection on social cues and body language evoked thoughts about the creation of symbols for survival and commemoration within African and African American culture. A method of quilting, using geometric Afrocentric shapes and symbols, was practiced as a means of communicating when it was safe for slaves to escape to freedom. The Adinkra symbolic system originated in the Ivory Coast, thanks to the Gyaman kingdom. After being defeated by the Asantes, the king of Gyaman, Nana kofi Adinkra, wore a cloth adorned with symbols and patterns to express the sorrow of his loss. These Gyaman signs were adopted by the Asante people and later sketched on clothes, typically worn during at funerals to bid farewell to deceased loved ones. (Adinkra translates to goodbye or farewell in Twi, the dialect of the Akan ethnic group to which Asante people belong). [1]

Later in the text, Wong delves into the history of material culture and its primitive purpose as vessels for peace offerings. In the social media realm, it seems that likes and retweets/reblogs are the new measures for keeping that interpersonal peace. Users exchange symbols of approval to others within their digital reach. Similarly, with all symbols of communication, the omission or neglect of sending a signal or symbol – silence or virtual silence, if you will – is a sign in itself, typically of disrespect or disapproval. (See: the cold shoulder, the silent treatment in intimate relationships).

Before I wrap up this reflection, I think it’s important to note the universality of a particularly new craze in symbolic systems: the emoji.

Colin Renfrew explained it perfectly: “We live in a world which we have made: it is a world of artefacts, to the extent that is almost true to say that the world in which most of us live today is an artifact, albeit a complex one.”

Merging this pictorial meaning system with alphanumeric characters is creating new and breaking old bonds for written communication. I love using emojis because they add a creative layer to mundane language. While the emoji character options are finite, their incorporation into written dialogue adds a layer of animation and tone that gets misconstrued with text only.*


*Professor Tinkcom mentioned a book by Bing Xu, titled Book from the ground: from point to point, composed mostly of pictograms, with few textual symbols. I certainly plan on investigating this book, given my almost excessive use of emojis, to see if I can successfully get through it without blowing my mind each time. I recommend you all check it out, too.

[1] Teeteh, Valentina A. “Adinkra – Cultural Symbols of the Asante People.” St. Lawrence

University. Web. 27 January 2015.

Language: An Evolutionary Development for Human Survival

Scott Schroeder

All living organisms with developed brains exhibit communication in some form. Language, either verbal or written, is only one method in which thoughts can be transmitted to others. The pervasive question which universally plagues sociologists, paleontologists, and scientists of numerous disciplines is why humans are the only species which are capable of communicating in an intricate language. Several intriguing theories exist on the subject.  The Noam Chomsky position that a built-in language organ was plugged into the human brain in a single accident of prehistory, possibly through some sort of divine intervention, is a novel idea, but does not follow the logical progression of evolution as has occurred with all species on the planet.

The fascinating and mysterious phenomenon of evolution is not fully understood in terms of a mechanism which alters a species’ genetic makeup, modifying the appearance and physical traits of the species. All we know is that evolution occurs out of survival necessity to enable a species to adapt to its environments. If evolution is a natural process which enables a species to survive and adapt to its environment, why is spoken language a development of evolution?

By nature, humans have an innate instinct to congregate in social orders. This does not necessarily distinguish humans from other species. Other animals are social and congregate in packs, herds, schools, and flocks, but those species never developed the skills of language. What distinguishes humans from these other social species is the ability of humans to create artefacts. The ability to create artefacts created a need to communicate this technology to other humans so that technology could be passed along and built upon by others in the social order and to subsequent generations.

The sharing of technology led to more cooperative communal living arrangements of increasing complexity which involved collective hunting and foraging activities. This also created a need for increased sophistication in communication. In early environments in which humans were physically at a disadvantage to larger, quicker, and more powerful prey, the ability to build artefacts and the need to collaborate on multifaceted efforts was essential to the survival of the species. Spoken language was the most effective means of early humans to communicate these complex tasks, and therefore became a necessity of survival.

Animals may lack the physical or cognitive ability to communicate thoughts in spoken words, but they may still verbally communicate in tones. Some languages, such as Thai, are characterized as tonal because similar words take on different meanings based on the tone they are spoken. Dog owners are able to determine the mood of their pets based on the tone of their barks.  Anyone who has ever lived with more than one dog in the house can attest that dogs can seemingly have a conversation between each other. These isolated signals could possibly be one-­to-one correlational in nature.  We as humans may not be able to decode what is being communicated, but the responses of the dogs clearly indicate that communication is taking place.

Though unable to verbalize, evidence has proven that dogs can recognize symbolic  reference to human language. Psychologists Alliston Reid and John Pilley of Wofford College methodically taught Chaser, their border collie, the names of hundreds of toys over a three year period as part of a research experiment in animal psychology. In total, Chaser was able to selectively identify 1,022 individual toys based off of name recognition.

All species on earth have undergone evolution to some degree. These evolutions are a function of adapting species to their respective environments. In the case of the dog, a social animal which has been domesticated for thousands of years and congregates in packs in the wild, language was not a survival skill which necessitated evolutionary intervention. The dog’s tongue may not conform to speech, but it is an ideal instrument for the essential life functions of regulating the dog’s body temperature, drinking water, cleaning and grooming itself and others, and applying healing enzymes to wounds. These functions are far more essential to the dog than the ability to converse with other canine about the origin of their species or contemplate whether all dogs go to heaven.

Spoken and written language was the result of evolutionary necessity in humans. In order to communicate technology and interact in complex social architectures, humans required the ability to communicate complex thoughts which is accomplished most effectively through language. The mechanism which conceives evolutionary change remains a mystery. Another great question of relevance may be whether the inception of language itself further evolved the development of the human brain. These are questions which will likely be debated without ever being unequivocally proven. It could be that the phenomenon of evolution which provided humans the gift of language is simply one of the universe’s mysteries which man is not meant to understand.