When I think of symbols, I default to a rather literal sense of them. In my Introduction to Anthropology class, I put up the symbol for radiation, say there is nothing inherent in that symbol to tell us what it is, rather we put meaning on it – the symbol then tells us, beware of radiation. And thinking about early symbolism is often presented in a similar way. Pigments from Bombos caves, those must have been used to indicate group and individual identity. Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functional jokes meets Geertz’s system of symbols…
But when I write, I am often trying to feel my way, to find a way to express and configure and connect. Not always – good science writing requires trying to express complicated ideas in a literal way, but that is often helped along by metaphors and comparisons. And when I take a photo, it is not the meaning of the photo that captures me, but the composition and trying to catch a moment that works within larger constellations of happenings in my life and the lives of others.
A graduate student of mine sent me this article, Thinking in maps: from the Lascaux caves to modern knowledge graphs by Anne-Laure Le Cunff over at Ness Labs. It opens:
“What do hieroglyphs, flowcharts, road signs, and knowledge graphs have in common? They’re all thinking maps. Humans have been thinking in maps since the very first symbolic communication systems.
While thinking in maps may first bring to mind the idea of cartography, a map does not need to be geographic—it can be any symbolic depiction of the relationship between elements of some physical or mental space, such as themes, objects, or areas.
In the December 2007 edition of Philosophy of Mind, Professor Elisabeth Camp, whose research has focused on forms of thoughts that do not fit standard models, wrote: “Thinking in maps is substantively different from thinking in sentences.””
And immediately I am struck by how my approach to symbols is one based in “thinking in sentences” – symbols tell me things. Figurative renderings, not so much. But any symbolic relationship between elements could count… That opens a much wider field for how to think about symbols and cognition in the past and the present.
The songlines of indigenous Australians operate more in this figurative realm, as stories and maps and music all together. Nganyinytja, a Pitjantjatjara woman, tells us:
“We have no books, our history was not written by people with pen and paper. It is in the land, the footprints of our Creation Ancestors are on the rocks. The hills and creek beds they created as they dwelled in this land surround us. We learned from our grandmothers and grandfathers as they showed us these sacred sites, told us the stories, sang and danced with us the Tjukurpa (the Dreaming Law). We remember it all; in our minds, our bodies and feet as we dance the stories. We continually recreate the Tjukurpa … ”
This figurative relationship is illustrated so well in this video with Elwyn Henaway demonstrating how the patterning works.
Now back to the original article:
Most ancient maps carry a symbolic meaning through the use of figurative geometrical shapes, pictograms, and allegorical devices. While literal cartography (attempting to map the exact contours of the world) is captivating as well, I want to focus on maps as thinking tools—visual devices to capture our mental explorations and expand our minds.
Le Cunff goes through many iterations, past and present, of using maps. One of the more interesting for anthropologists might be her take on ontologies, and how mapping plays into ontologies.
In information science, an ontology is a formal representation and definition of the categories, properties and relationships between the concepts that make up an area of knowledge. These formal representations can have a profound impact on the way we think and the way we interact with the world. For instance, the modern web is built on the practical application of ontological principles, such as the standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium to create the Semantic Web and make Internet data machine-readable.
We create external patterns, such as songlines and the world wide web, and those relationships then shape how we think and act and experience.
My literal approach is likely too focused on our human cortices, often seen as machines to create associations – that system of relationships and symbols that takes us right back to Radcliffe-Brown and Geertz.
But neuroscience has turned in other directions as well. Take grid cells in the hippocampus:
““Our language is riddled with spatial metaphors for reasoning, and for memory in general,” said Kim Stachenfeld, a neuroscientist at the British artificial intelligence company DeepMind.
In the past few decades, research has shown that for at least two of our faculties, memory and navigation, those metaphors may have a physical basis in the brain. A small seahorse-shaped structure, the hippocampus, is essential to both those functions, and evidence has started to suggest that the same coding scheme — a grid-based form of representation — may underlie them. Recent insights have prompted some researchers to propose that this same coding scheme can help us navigate other kinds of information, including sights, sounds and abstract concepts.”
Or the coordination provided by the cerebellum:
“These findings expanded researchers’ view of the cerebellum’s role beyond the fine tuning of movement to predicting and correcting errors in other domains: Just as the cerebellum prevents people from tripping on an uneven sidewalk, it might also alert them when they sit too close to a conversation partner, or help them laugh or sympathize at appropriate times.
“The principal idea is that whatever the cerebellum is doing for movement — of which there is a massive literature — the cerebellum might be doing something similar for cognition,” says Catherine Stoodley, associate professor of psychology at American University in Washington, D.C.”
This sort of neurological patterning and encoding can work in conjunction with external patterns, such as social relationships, physical features, music, and other processes that can provide the sort of relational linkages that matter for symbols.
Such model building or mapmaking extends to more than physical space. Mental maps may exist at the core of many of our most “human” capacities, including memory, imagination, inferences, abstract reasoning and even the dynamics of social interactions. Researchers have begun to explore whether mental maps document how close or distant one individual is to another and where that individual resides in a group’s social hierarchy. How does the brain, in fact, create the maps that allow us to make our way about the world?
Songlines can help show us one concrete way those maps are created by humans at the intersection of how brains work and our engagement with dynamic environments that we help to mold.
“In 2014, the Nobel Prize for Medicine established how closely memory and spatial awareness are intertwined in the hippocampus. The finding confirmed the pairing of place and memory seen in many of the world’s indigenous cultures.
‘Songlines link positions in landscape. Each location in the landscape acts as a memory aid to a particular part of the information system, so the knowledge is literally grounded in the landscape,’ says Kelly.
The technique is reinforced by the use of portable devices, such as message sticks.
‘Using these devices, and the landscape, and song and dance and story and mythology—that combination is an extraordinarily powerful memory technique that reinforces itself’.”