A while back I wrote a piece about how movement, physical movement, was necessary for our creative minds. In fact, this was a trait we learned and passed on by the forces of evolution. To eat, we moved. As we moved, we learned to think. We had to be creative problem solvers on the move, and we survived.
That article was called, “Move Your Body, Move Your Mind.” And there, I explored the first “rule” in the book, “Brain Rules,” by John Medina. This guy, Medina, is a smart guy. He is a developmental molecular biologist.
This technique works for me, by-the-way. I get some of my best story ideas when I’m out hiking on the trail and I allow my mind to drift. Evolutionary vestiges repurposed. I hunt for words as my food is all neatly packaged at the grocery store now.
Well, the second “brain rule” is our ability to engage in IMAGINATION! More specifically, our ability to substitute objects in our minds so that one object can represent another, or maybe a whole bunch of different objects. This has been called “Dual Representation Theory.” More basically, SYMBOLISM.
It seems our fossil history shows that our ancestors evolved a lot physically since humankind’s estimated beginnings somewhere around 7 to 10 million years ago, but there wasn’t a lot of mental evolution going on until about 40,000 years ago. And then. Bam! We went from stone axes to painting, sculpture, fine art and jewelry. Soon, there would be mathematics and science. And, of course, more advanced communication. What caused this big change?
Apparently, it was the weather.
The changes weren’t fast, but they forced adaptation. Brought us out of the trees and into the savannah when food sources shifted. To become more streamlined and save energy we became bipedal.
In order to master survival in all of the biomes on the planet, our brains enlarged. This brings in another concept – Variability Selection Theory. Two powerful aspects of the brain developed. A database and the ability to improvise using that growing database.
And since survival not only meant staying warm and eating, it meant not being eaten too, community concepts evolved. There was safety and better hunting in numbers. And this meant learning to negotiate.
This raises the “Theory of Mind” or the ability to make inferences. To peer inside another person’s mental life and make predictions, to understand their motivations. All necessary skills to develop allies, cooperative behavior, and group species survival.
This ability to draw upon our databases and make inferences reminds me of the “predictive processing framework,” described in my piece,“My Intuition Tells Me . . ..”
With basic survival skills being mastered, humans could focus on more advanced pursuits. Those beyond only the four F’s – fighting, feeding, fleeing and fucking. And thus, in addition to art, music, mathematics, and science, us modern-day bloggers have electronic storytelling.
I think most of us still like the fucking, we just have more time for more things beyond the big four now. 😊
Storytelling is an ancient art, and we wordsmiths spend a lot of time in the world of symbolic thinking. We don’t use this creative process for basic survival like our ancestors did. Or do we ??? Maybe writing and creating worlds is survival for some of us. And I suppose some us actually do feed ourselves by writing, a lean diet that is . . .
But basically, every word we use is a symbol, either a subject or an action or a feeling. Every word has to represent something tangible in the physical world or summon an image or feeling into the mind.
In fact, symbols can convey meanings or reveal details of reality beyond just a physical image. Symbols can carry strong emotions. They can summon memories of sounds and smells and touches. Of happiness and laughter.
And as writers, we employ that Theory of Mind in multiple ways. We try to look into our reader’s heads, make predictions, understand what drives them. Figure out how to lead them through the story.
There are times when we want our words to evoke a particular image and have that image be universal for all readers. But there are other times when we deliberately want those words to convey multiple meanings, to give the reader a choice. Or to show contradictions between choices. Maybe they’ll choose a meaning that even we never saw as a possibility.
If we are writing fiction, we have to develop the mental lives of the characters we create. We add predictability and motivations for their actions, even providing historic context. Their fictional life traumas that have helped develop their passions, their fears, their hatreds, their loves, their essence. So the reader understands the next move on the chess board.
So, this survival skill of making inferences has evolved into us examining the minds of non-existent entities and developing believable characters based upon what we anticipate would be their universal actions. Wouldn’t we do the same thing in the same situation? And we do this for entertainment, not for negotiating the next mammoth hunt.
Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, the art of writing is stacking symbols in some sequence to complete a portrait. And we want to draw the reader in so they feel like they are a part of the story. A bystander. A witness. Or maybe even an active participant.
Symbols may relate to objects, but they don’t equate to objects. They reveal essence. Symbols are inclusive and expansive and evolve over time acquiring even more meaning from multiple sources.
Meanings may differ depending on peoples’ cultures. The Owl, for example, to the Pawnee symbolized protection, while to the Ojibwa it symbolized evil and death. To the ancient Greeks, the Owl represented wisdom.
According to Joseph Campbell: “Symbols are only the vehicles of communication; they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of their reference.” This implies that no two people would experience the object of the symbol in the same way. Maybe so, especially with cultural variations, but it seems the essence of the experience can be shared more universally with a symbol than with bare words.
With context, it seems to me that symbols are the supersonic highway of communication. The brain is able to process a symbol as an all-encompassing experience in a nanosecond. Faster than the blink of an eye, a complex story unfolds in images and associated feelings.
Symbolic thinking is said to be a uniquely human skill, and it allows us the ability to understand each other and coordinate within groups. And with that, I’ll leave you with a few symbols to make of them what you will. 😊
What do these images inspire in your minds?
Note: If you want to read more, there are some quotes on symbolism below.
Photos: An angel inside an old Spanish mission. The great Horned Owl. A sculpture in an art gallery court yard. Street sculptures in an eclectic small town. A vulture crosses it’s folded wings to make a heart.
A sort of Rorschach test 🙂
“Symbolism is no mere idle fancy or corrupt egerneration: it is inherent in the very texture of human life.”
― Alfred Whitehead
“Things do not have meaning. We assign meaning to everything.”
― Anthony Robbins
“Symbols can be so beautiful, sometimes.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
“If you have to ask what it symbolizes, it didn’t.”
― Roger Ebert
“In many college English courses the words “myth” and “symbol” are given a tremendous charge of significance. You just ain’t no good unless you can see a symbol hiding, like a scared gerbil, under every page. And in many creative writing course the little beasts multiply, the place swarms with them. What does this Mean? What does that Symbolize? What is the Underlying Mythos? Kids come lurching out of such courses with a brain full of gerbils. And they sit down and write a lot of empty pomposity, under the impression that that’s how Melville did it.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction
“A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men [and women] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
― Clifford Geertz
“The same principles that make a spiral galaxy also create the structure of a seashell and unfurling of a fern. This is why ancient spiritual people used natural symbols to convey universal concepts.”
― Belsebuub, Return to Source: How Enlightenment is the Process of Creation in the Universe in Reverse
“[A] symbol, like everything else, shows a double aspect. We must distinguish, therefore between the ‘sense’ and the ‘meaning’ of the symbol. It seems to me perfectly clear that all the great and little symbolical systems of the past functioned simultaneously on three levels: the corporeal of waking consciousness, the spiritual of dream, and the ineffable of the absolutely unknowable. The term ‘meaning’ can refer only to the first two but these, today, are in the charge of science – which is the province as we have said, not of symbols but of signs. The ineffable, the absolutely unknowable, can be only sensed. It is the province of art which is not ‘expression’ merely, or even primarily, but a quest for, and formulation of, experience evoking, energy-waking images: yielding what Sir Herbert Read has aptly termed a ‘sensuous apprehension of being’.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Symbol Without Meaning