Say it with flowers. The emerging science of symbols and why it is important to business and leadership

We depend on symbols to make sense of the world around us, to help us find our way around, to communicate with others. Look at your computer screen and it is littered with symbols. Despite this extraordinary reliance on them, we know very little about how the brain processes them.

The dictionary defines a symbol as something — such as an object, picture, written word, a sound, or a particular mark — that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible. Symbols indicate, serve as a sign for, or represent ideas, concepts, and other abstractions.

A simple example in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK, is the red octagon that conveys the instruction to “STOP” on a road.

Other symbols are used on maps to denote places of interest, such as crossed sabres to indicate a battlefield, and in mathematics (and shopping!) the numerals used to represent numbers.

Symbols can be physical objects too. For instance, a lover might send a bunch of flowers and provoke a quite dramatic response.

These are all examples of representational symbols, but there is also a wide range of abstract symbols in daily use, that provide ways of communicating powerful concepts.

For example, theologians have spent millenia discussing the symbolism of the Holy Trinity and in Holy Communion symbols of bread and wine are taken from a literal context (representing the bread and wine of the Last Supper to the abstract representing the body and blood of Christ.

In psychology, we might find our behaviour shaped by the way in which we give power to someone by association rather than directly. The power of the police, for example, has progressively declined throughout the last century as people were less prepared to project onto them a position of authority. A phenomenon that it took them a long time to recognise and that they still struggle to come to terms with. In a similar fashion, alongside this there has been the changing role of men in society and the male authority figure in families has changed substantially. How we interpret these shifts in society is largely about symbolism.

Religion and psychology have long been associated with the study of symbols, and it was over their interpretation and processing that the well known rift between Freud and Jung occured in the early 20th Century. Freud held that symbols were essentially an individual thing determined largely by environmental factors (such as early childhood experiences), whereas Jung believed them to exist across cultures and to somehow be innate. This was a subject that Jung pursued until his death, and his last published work was “Man and his symbols”. (If you’d like to read a quick but informed summary of Jung’s work, try “Jung – a very short introduction” by Anthony Stevens.)

One theory of the processing of symbols is that the brain treats them in the same way that it does language generally. (Of course, language itself is highly symbolic so this is not such an odd idea.) Now the latest research using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) has confirmed this, with a number of consequences for knowledge management, business and leadership.

Kristian Tylén from the University of Southern Denmark in Odense and colleagues wanted to know which part of the brain was used to understand the meaning behind items placed in a symbolic manner*. They used fMRI to scan the brains of volunteers as they viewed pictures of everyday objects arranged to communicate meaning, such as flowers left on a doorstep, followed by the same objects in less meaningful settings, such as flowers growing in the wild.

The symbolic arrangements prompted more activity in regions associated with verbal communication, such as the left fusiform gyrus, used in reading, and the inferior frontal cortex, linked to semantic meaning.

Less conventional arrangements, like an art installation, also affected a “verbal” area – producing a pattern of brain activity previously associated with unusual verbal metaphors.

Previous research shows that the brain processes body language and facial expressions in a similar way to verbal communication. “It shows that language is more than just the processing of words – it pervades many of our activities,” says Tylén.

Why is this significant to business and leadership?

In linguistics, symbolism is an important link in the interpretation of meaning, and meaning is a growing target for current generation of web-related knowledge management. Search engines used to be based on mathematical algorithms related to links between sites, distributions of types of words and so on. Increasingly research is into ways of detecting meaning in a webpage so that search results are increasingly relevant to the user. The ways in which the people you hired to maximise your web-presence achieved this last year are now out of date and semantic based ones are increasingly prevalent.

In psychology, semantic memory is memory for meaning, in other words, the aspect of memory that preserves only the gist, the general significance, of remembered experience, while episodic memory is memory for the ephemeral details, the individual features, or the unique particulars of experience. Word meaning is measured by the company they keep; the relationships among words themselves in a semantic network. Leadership generally requires an ability to grasp theory, vision, strategy, rather than handling detail, especially details ‘on the edge’. If we want to understand how someone might be more effective as a leader, we need to understand this kind of processing and help them to develop skills of one kind rather than the other. If they were exclusively related to genetics, then there would be no point, but if they are associated with particular parts of the brain then we can devise exercises that strengthen this function, rather like training muscles, and so improve someone’s leadership potential.

* Kristian Tyléna, Mikkel Wallentin and Andreas Roepstorf (2008) Say it with flowers! An fMRI study of object mediated communication. Brain and Language, July edition.

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