Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Symbolic Intelligence

I was listening to NPR yesterday as is my afternoon commute ritual.   A story aired about "symbolic intelligence," the (as far as we know) uniquely human ability to see a solitary shape and associate a flood of meanings to it.  A few examples of this would be a crucifix, the American flag, and a peace sign.  Many of these associated meanings are dependent upon the individual beholding the sign.
This thought process goes beyond just symbols and strays into the area of language.  After all, what is writing but a symbolic representation of speech?  Single words invoke any number of memories and associations from our brains' storage banks.  Try the word "Christmas," or  "sunshine," or even "death."  Specific memories come back that help define the word through experiences.  Sensations might even return, such as smells.  All this within the amazing human brain that works far more like a network of computers than we even realized.
This set me on a tangent.  I know, I know, I'll give you all a moment or two to recover from the shock.
How often have not just words and symbols been associative to me, but day-to-day objects as well?  I very often associate entire segments of my life (such as it is) with seemingly inane things. In looking around the house last night, I found a number of examples of this.
I recently bought a used copy of Whitley Streiber's Communion.  This will always remind me of 1987 when I first read the book in high school.  My friend Brad and I really took off with that alien abduction meme and invented all kinds of naive and sophomoric sketches around it.  I can feel the hard chairs of the computer lab we would sit in and hatch these plots and schemes.
My copy of Les Miserables takes me back to November, 1988.  I was a senior in high school and secretly beginning to believe I was destined to be a writer, even though it would take another 15 years for me to fully come to grips with it.  This book was required reading in English class.  It really got me thinking about character, plot, diction, and how human beings must often endure the most deplorable of conditions solely due to the greed of someone else.  Good thing that was way back in the 18th Century, right?  Uh-huh.  I can smell the greasy fast food I would consume without remorse during lunch that senior year.
The album Green by REM takes me directly to August 17th, 1989.  My first night on campus in college.  Aside from crying my eyes out in fear of the transition, I remember this album playing on the stereo of a guy I met and later became friends with.  I had heard of REM and liked the songs I'd been exposed to on the radio, but this was the first time I listened to an entire record.  Even though I was a metalhead, I was secretly sold.  REM would develop into a favorite of mine.  I can feel the heat of Indiana in August and hear the sound of a fan despondently trying to keep the flies at bay with kamikaze winds.
Next to Green I have REM's Monster.  This takes me to winter of 1995 and my girlfriend at the time.  I can taste the ranch dip her parents kept in the fridge for snacking.  Then I push all of these thoughts out of my mind as quickly as they came.  I still like the record, though.  
I've got a copy of The Prisoner graphic novel that DC did long ago.  I'm in 1992 at that point.  Again it's summer and I'm in my room at my parents' house with Ghost Dogg and Dreamer.  Ghosty has an rpg version of The Prisoner and I'm playing a character who really shouldn't be involved with espionage on any level. Dreamer is playing a crotchety writer who doesn't know how to drive...and I keep giving him the wheel.  Oh the endless cackles.  Amazing the hilarious time three dorks can have in one room with nothing but their imaginations and a pair of dice.

There are any number of other examples I have of these kinds of mnemonic functions.  The human brain and the connections that it makes.  It will never cease to amaze me.

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  1. This is really just part of our mental machinery. When we experience a symbol, like a picture, shape, etc, we are experiencing things through many senses simultaneously and we are also assimilating this collective sensory input into emotion. All at once you could be sipping a carmel mocha latte, listening to Lady Gaga, looking at a picture of a frog, experiencing back pain, and feeling generally content. Your mind automatically links these things together and now any aspect of what you were sensing at that moment can be forever tied to all other things you were experiencing. Of course this is happening all the time but we certainly have certain moments where those link become much stronger and persistent and we can reinforce them by continually accessing them with specific associations. Most sort of fade away while others become dominant and we can forever associate a specific symbol with other things that were happening when we experienced it. It doesn't have to happen the first time we experience it, just at some point where our minds make it strong for whatever reason.

    So, in a way, everything we experience is symbolic in a way because we have associated it with something along the way. It really all comes back to fact that we only have our own perspective to experience the world and we all see the world in a very unique way and a very personal way which no one else could never know. Embrace your symbology.

  2. Nice post!

    I'm surprised to come across so many articles lately about symbols and language and perception. Perhaps it's because of an article I read recently about the Tetragrammaton.

    My research on the Tetragrammaton led me to the Sepher Yetsira...perhaps the ultimate esoteric work on "symbology".

    From a fascinating website:


    "...When a question is raised whether a scientific term is a sign or not, there will be no doubt that the word representing the term is one. Whatever a quasar or quark really is, the words "quasar" and "quark" are undoubtedly signs, created artificially to designate esotermic phenomena. But what happens if someone postulates that the enormous energy emitted from a quasar erupts from the word "quasar" itself? What if a scientific system arrives at the conclusion that the mountain emerges from the word "volcano"? In such a case, it will be possible to surmise that the word is the signified, while the material representation is the sign. This is actually the system presented by the Sepher Yetsira: The letter of the alphabet is the source of the planet, and not a sign by which it is designated.

    The Language of Creation and Its Grammar
    Joseph Dan, Jewish Mysticism, Vol I, Aronson, 1998, p.151"

    I find the notion that "the letter is the source" of the meaning completely fascinating.

    If you are familiar with the Sefer Yetsira, what are your thoughts on it's "symbology"?

  3. Thank you for the comment, Lara!

    I must admit that I am unacquainted with Sefer Yetsira. I am going to go research it and respond once am better informed. :)


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