The sense of meaning: Words and the cognitive emergence of symbolic language

| The perception, association, and conception of words as language |

We are so familiar with words that we don’t really think about them. Yet they are much more than they appear to be on the surface. Their depths may even reveal to us the inner workings of our own minds.

We are constantly processing information at multiple levels of cognition all the time. This is also true in the case of words-as-sensation. At the physical level, a word is something we can perceive as a sound, image, touch, or movement. At the energetic / affective level, a word is directly associated with other forms of physical information. At the mental level, our concept of a word is contextualized by the network of these associations. However, words-as-language involve an additional dimension of processing.

Both a word-as-sensation and the thing to which the word refers (its referent) are forms of physical information. For example, there is the sound of the word “cat” and there is the sight, sound, feel, smell of a cat. These are two separate physical perceptions.

However, at the energetic / affective level, the perceptions of the word and its referent form a direct association such that the perception of the word directly activates the perception of its referent and vice versa. For example, hearing the word “cat” can directly activate the energetic / affective perception (feeling) of a cat and seeing a cat can directly activate the energetic / affective perception (feeling) of “ cat.” Word and referent become so closely associated that their perceptual representations are functionally synonymous.

Through this association, the mental perception of a word-as-sensation has two distinct dimensions of relationships – its own relationships to other words-as-sensations as well as its referent’s relationships to other forms of physical information. It is the integration of word, referent, and the networked relationships of both which produces the conceptual meaning which underlies symbolic language.