MOAR Symbols!

It’s time to return to a discussion of symbols and symbolization in the emotional life of individuals. First lets just talk about how strong the symbolic impulse is by looking at the Bouba- Kiki test depicted in the picture below. The test allows people to name the each of two shapes below deciding which one is ‘Kiki’ and which one is ‘Bouba’.

In a display of conceptual synesthesia virtually everyone names the sharp pointy object ‘Kiki’ because the the name has a sharp and pointy sound and the roundy object is named with the ‘roundy’ sounding name. Additionally, listening to James Geary’s short Ted talk we learn that stroop tests (Tests dealing with reaction times to tests) metaphor has been shown to interfere with our ability to determine whether a sentence is literally false. Similarly metaphors implying agency – like house prices ‘climbing’ – interfere with the way in which we predict market trends in the house price market.


So now that we have established, once again, that metaphors and symbolization are generally important let’s look at some areas in a little bit more detail. One of the features of symbol in a person’s emotional life is that there is a dynamic element to it. One author described how symbolization allowed a patient to ‘language’ the polarized aspects of her experience. She was able to create an active experience for her and carry out an act of agency in a previously traumatic world in a previously traumatic world in which she was forced into passivity. One paper by James Lawley and Penny Tomkins seems interesting here. Despite some worrying mentions of Neuro Linguistic programming (NLP) and repeated reference to a buzz wordy type concept of ‘clean language’ it is useful in demonstrating the point that I am trying to point out here.

Cross to a Willow

In that paper they discuss a person describing how they felt like there was a sort of cross in their body. That person describes it as grinding and abrasive and containing bolts which will not allow for flexibility. The bolts ‘re-fuse’ to let go. The person goes from ‘re-fuse’ to electricity metaphors and uses wires to turn the cross into a willow tree. Now I consider much of this language stuff here to be wanky the turning of the cross into a willow tree might tie in more broadly to some more serious therapeutic approaches.

In Carl Roger’s Client Centred-Therapy the symbol here that contains the polarities of a person’s experience is the tomb. In Rollo May’s book Symbolism in Religion and Literature it is the cave symbol that contains the polarities of his patient’s experience. Rollo May discusses how his patient describes himself as having a foot in the cave and a foot outside the cave. There is a dynamic aspect to the symbol which May suggests must be, from his clinical experience, a part of the true symbol.

He says the following of the cave symbol: –


Here let us only note several characteristics of this symbol.First,the figure of the cave with its quicksand is infinitely more powerful than the specific words”womb” or “vagina” or such rational, positivistic statements as “I am afraid of being absorbed by my mother’s womb,”would be by themselves.Indeed,many patients in psychoanalysis try to phrase experiences in these  rational statements precisely in order to avoid experiencing the vital power and immediate reality of their situation which the symbol would force them to confront.

Yalom mentions the symbol of a rock which captures one woman’s anger (In that she has an anger rock) and at another point the same woman discussed her brother, who died, as being like her rock.




Another feature that is important to bear in mind when considering symbolization is the way emotions operate. Emotions cannot be remembered. Each remembering of an emotion is an actualization of that emotion. That experience of emotion exists outside of our normal perception of time. Add to this the lability of memories. Each remembered memory is itself a new memory and itself heavily affected by the emotional processes of the person at the time of this new memory.


In  Jan Cambpell’s book ‘Psychoanalysis and the time of life’ she talks about this. She says that emotion is like an essence that precedes objects and representation, generating new ideas. Emotion, like music, transcends the individual and we are introduced to it as created and suggested. William James sums up emotion when he discusses how it is never remembered; it is something searched for in memory and then with the image comes an actualisation of that emotion, as it is produced, always new and always in difference.’



Against this backdrop of the shakiness of emotions and memories the symbol is very useful because it allows the individual to organize their conflicting experience around a symbol (As discussed above). The emotions in general; their problems in general are all problematized in one moving image. Some of my dreams have helped me to appreciate the unusualness of emotion. Sometimes in a dream or, very occasionally, when I am awake I will imagine a point in the future where I will have lost something important to me. I then seize upon some, seemingly insignificant, detail or object in my current environment and I will give it the that meaning of future loss.This is a feeling that I have called pre-nostalgia.

Rather than being the pain of an old wound this is the imagined pain of an old wound but in the future. Ties into feelings such as pre-nostalgia. When viewed in this way though the emotions are confused. One cannot really have feelings about things that have not happened yet. There is some amount of of experiencing of something,like guilt, before a transgression occurs but the symbol reduces the confusion of these experiences.


The symbolization process, as can be seen in the discussion of ‘virtual roles’ in the Mann Gulch disaster, can actually save your life. Karl Weick in his article ‘The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster’ raised some very interesting points about how symbolization was very good at organizing one’s experience.

His analysis relates to a team of smokejumpers who put out forest fires and a disaster that occurred when one team were mostly killed in a fire. It was a wildfire that occurred in 1949 in the Helena National Forest in Montana.


He suggests that ‘it is intriguing that the three people who survived the disaster did so in ways that seem to forestall group disintegration. Sallee and Rumsey stuck together, their small group of people did not disintegrate, which helped them keep their fear under control. As a result, they escaped through a crack in the ridge that the others didn’t see or thought was too small to squeeze through. Wag Dodge, as the formal leader of a group he presumed existed, ordered his followers to join him in the escape fire. Dodge continued to see a group and to think about its well-being, which helped keep his fear under control. The rest of the people, however, took less notice of one another. Consequently, the group as they knew it, disintegrated, the smokejumpers became more frightened, stopped thinking sooner, pulled apart even more, and in doing so, lost a leader-follower relationship as well as access to the novel ideas of other people who are a lot like them. As these relationships disappeared, individuals reverted to primitive tendencies of flight. unfortunately, this response was too simple to match the complexity of the Mann Gulch fire.’


The point that he is making to my mind is that the people who survived were the people who were able to hang on to the ‘symbol’ or idea of a team even when it had largely disintegrated in reality. Additionally the team leader’s idea to actually light a fire and get into it was an idea that borrowed heavily from his own symbolic thinking. The tactic of lighting a fire to create a major prairie was mentioned in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1927 novel The Prairie, but there is no evidence Dodge new this source. He knew certain features of fires like what you do when you are the terrain is a certain way, that fires need oxygen, etc. It was through relating different but similar fire experiences that Dodge was able to come up with such a novel solution that saved his life.


If this is what keeping people ‘functional’ in a disaster situation looks like lets see what the use of symbolization looks like in an area that is much more familiar to us. ADVERTISING!


We have all seen Mad Men. Or at least we all should have watched Mad Men. We know that the way to sell products is to create an emotional connection to the product. There is more it than that though. It is about tapping into the pre-existing associations and symbolization processes of the consumer. In that way you get the benefit of all of the emotional associations your consumer has already made. There is a reason I will pay more to get Heineken bottles than cans and Heineken over other beers of better quality. The brand screams reassurance at me. When I see the green and red I see the ads. Friendly customs officials allowing heineken to be smuggled back into Cuba, rooftop parties and big Cellos being carried in lively scenarios. It ties into my own experience – watching films with a bottle of Heineken, being in a big house in Schull with a six pack, etc. It’s the same. It’s a constant.


In the next post I will discuss the ‘Share a Coke’ campaign which I love.



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