“In us, the evolution of the world towards the spirit becomes conscious.”

— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Building the Earth: Human Energies




outline of woman sitting with hand on her stomach with four layers (bottom to top: model of an atom, dna strands, neurons, tree being struck by lightning)
This project uses the design of patterns and levels in nature to help us understand the complexity of awareness in new ways. But before going into the details of the project’s underlying framework, it’s helpful to have a sense of what awareness means in this context and how it is represented by the body, heart, mind, and spirit.

The following descriptions are informed by the theoretical framework introduced in Emergent Systems and Emergent Cognition. Emergent Systems provides an overview of the basic framework for describing emergence in terms of interactions, patterns, and levels. That work is primarily based on Wilensky and Resnick’s description of emergent levels. Emergent Cognition uses the emergent systems framework to describe levels of the cognitive processes that give rise to awareness. The framework is primarily derived from Ortony, Norman, and Revelle’s description of cognitive levels and Deacon’s description of levels of sign-based representation.


Deacon, T.W. (1997). The symbolic species: The coevolution of language and the brain. New York: Norton.

Ortony, A., Norman, D. A., and Revelle, W. (2005). Affect and proto-affect in effective functioning. In J.M. Fellous & M.A. Arbib, Who needs emotions: The brain meets the machine. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilensky, U., and Resnick, M. (1999). Thinking in levels: A dynamic systems approach to making sense of the world. Journal of Science Education and Technology, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 3-19.




brown face covered in variety of colorful paint and staring directly at the observer
So, what is awareness? We all experience it, even if we don’t have a true understanding of what it is or how it works. Beyond definitions related to having knowledge, consciousness, or understanding of something, awareness is the quality of being awake, with the recognition that there are different ways in which we may or may not be awake.


Awareness. Wikipedia.


multi-level image from bottom to top: table of elements, graphic of atoms in a dna mocule, a strand of dna, and a diagram of cell divison
For now, let us play with the idea that awareness is a capacity which evolves. So that, just as matter has evolved into increasingly complex forms, what we experience through awareness – our sense of the world, the body, the mind, the self – may also represent increasingly complex ways in which we are awake.



body-world-perception collage
The physical level of awareness is represented by the body and its sensations of the world. Although our sensations are experienced through the body, this awareness is distinct from awareness of sensation within the body itself.

two hands with map of the world painted on them against a sky with clouds superimosed on binary data streams
It can seem odd at first to discuss the body and the world as representations, but the truth is that our awareness of both is mediated by the brain. In reality, everything we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell is the brain’s translation of electrical signals from our bodily senses.


Eagleman, D. (2015). What is reality?. In The brain with David Eagleman. PBS.


Eagleman, D. (2015). What is reality?. In The brain: The story of you. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.


camera with display showing an image of the background
Which is not to say that the external world isn’t real, but that our awareness of it is the cognitive version of virtual reality. We don’t experience the world directly. Instead, as if looking through a video recorder, we experience our sensory perceptions of the world.


Adamovic, J. (2012). Color illusions. BrainDen.com.

Anyaso, H.H. (2012). When your eyes tell your hands what to think. Northwestern University.

Moffit, M. and Brown, G. (2014). Can you trust your ears?. AsapSCIENCE.


the word "body" engraved in stone
Nevertheless, the physical world is the basis of reality, which means that the body, as the means by which we are awake in the world, is the basis of awareness. Our capacity to be awake to the world is the ground that supports the higher level cognitive processes that give rise to more complex forms of awareness.


Barsalou, L. W. (2008). Grounded cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 617-645.

Casasanto, D. (2014). David Casasanto on the mind in context: How linguistic and bodily relativity shape thinking. UChicago Social Sciences.

Cowart, M. Embodied cognition. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Wilson, M. (2002). Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9 (4), 625-636.

Wilson, R.A., and Foglia, L. (2015). Embodied cognition. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


from left to right: man with palette and paintbrush painting in the sketch of half a bird with the other half being a real bird
Our sensory perceptions may not be direct or objective representations of the world, but like the colors on a painter’s palette, they provide the raw material for the entire representational process. Everything about what and how we feel, think, and understand is derived from our experiences of the physical world.



heart-body-association collage
The emotional level of awareness is represented by feelings within the body. The heart is often conceptualized as the center of emotions, so it can also serve as a reference to awareness of the internal physical world as distinct from awareness of the external physical world.


Reimagining the Heart. Emergent Cognition Project.


double exposure of troubled face of a man and dark clouds
Emotion is a tricky concept. It is used here to describe physical or embodied feelings (warm / cool, numb / pain, weak / strong, empty / full, light / heavy, etc.) rather than the words we may use to label how we feel (happy / depressed, pleased / disappointed, passive / aggressive, etc.). This distinction is important. The former relates to what we experience in the body, while the latter relates to how we think about what we experience in the body.


Doucleff, M. (2013). Mapping emotions on the body: Love makes us warm all over. NPR.


Nummenmaa, L., Glerean, E., Hari, R., and Hietanen, J.K. (2014). Bodily map of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 (2), 646-651.



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Our embodied feelings are reactions to our real or imagined experiences in the world. As such, they also represent relationships between our internal (interoceptive) and external (exteroceptive) bodily experiences: The feeling of warmth and the sun or summer or a fire or a hug; the feeling of a racing heart and exercise or a predator or an unexpected event; the feeling of fullness and a filling meal or a deep breath or occasions with lots of food.


Interoception. Wikipedia.

Sense (Exteroception). Wikipedia.


Craig, A.D. (2003). Interoception: The sense of the physiological condition of the body. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 13, 500-505.



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As we’re becoming aware of the nature of relationship in the body, we’re also awakening to patterns of association based on when and how we experience things in the world: The perceptions of flames and the sight of smoke, a duck and quacking, canines and growling, organic waste and the smell of decay.


Snow, Alana. (2015). Behaviorism: Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner. YouTube.


Behaviorism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Behaviorism. Wikipedia.

Behaviorism. Stanford Encyclodedia of Philosophy.


body as multi-colored, computer-generated, vector image superimposed on multi-color jigsaw puzzle
Like an energetic puzzle, this awareness of relationships is communicated to the conscious self through embodied and sensory feelings. This can involve a feeling about a present situation matching a past situation, the fit or rightness / wrongness of sensory elements, or even the feeling of rhythm that drives habitual or learned behavior like walking and talking.


Barrett, L.F. (2017). The cascade (video). In How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain (video playlist).

Cecilia Heyes • Geoffrey Bird | Mirroring, association, and the correspondence problem. Emergent Cognition Project.

Doug-Medin • Rob Goldstone • Dedre Gentner | Respects for similarity. Emergent Cognition Project.

Rhythm of the mind and body. Emergent Cognition Project.


Churchland, M. M., Cunningham, J. P., Kaufman, M. T., Foster, J. D., Nuyujukian, P., Ryu, S. I., & Shenoy, K. V. (2012). Neural population dynamics during reaching. Nature, 487, 51-56.

Heyes, C. M. & Bird, G. (2008). Mirroring, association and the correspondence problem. In P. Haggard, Y. Rossetti & M. Kawato (Eds.), Sensorimotor Foundations of Higher Cognition, Attention & Performance (461-479). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Medin, D. L., Goldstone, R. L., & Gentner, D. (1993). Respects for similarity. Psychological Review, 100, 254-278.

Wieland, E. A., McAuley, J. D., Dilley, L. C. & Chang, S. (2015). Evidence for a rhythm perception deficit in children who stutter. Brain and Language, 144, 26-34.


multiple talk bubbles that all say blah against multicolor puzzle pieces
As we develop the capacity for words, symbols can also play a part in how our awareness of relationships is communicated to the conscious self. However, this is still a relational mode of communication, based on associative feelings about particular symbols rather than their literal definitions.


Tammet, D. (2011). Different ways of knowing (video). TED.


metal compass on a paper map
Through our experiences over time, these relationships become patterns of association that take on a life of their own. They operate as a kind of internal, navigational guidance system. Yet we are only aware of these patterns to the extent that we pay attention to how they are expressed through our unintentionally motivated thoughts, feelings, and actions.


Barrett, L.F. (2017). Making Emotion: How Emotions are Made (video). In How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain (video playlist).

Barrett, L.F. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain (video playlist).


Barrett, L.F. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Barrett, L.F. (2017). The theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorization. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 0(0),1-23.

Body forecasts: Reconstructing the emergence of emotion. Emergent Cognition Project.

Research. Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory.

Theory of constructed emotion. Wikipedia.


bookcases with books reaching up to the sun with superimposed clouds
Just as our ability to perceive the world involves a vast amount of information about how the world works, our ability to make associations involves a vast amount of information about how things in the world are related. Together, the external and internal awareness of the body is like an imaginary library of physical and emotional information about the world.



mental-mind-conception image collage
The mental level of awareness is represented by the mind. At this level, we have an awareness of ideas about things and their relationships in the world.

hand holding lightbulb with filament shaped to form the word idea
This awareness of ideas is facilitated by the use of symbols. Anything used as a representation of something else might be considered a symbol. However, words as we use them in language are a uniquely powerful type of abstract symbol. As naming conventions for themes that emerge from our sensory and embodied experiences, words enable us to physically and mentally give shape to ideas that we can manipulate in dynamic ways.


Akhtar, J. (2017). The gift of words. TED Talks India.

Words. Radiolab.


To fully appreciate the conceptual power of words, it is necessary to consider how our awareness of them initially develops. Before we are awake to words as representations in our minds, we are awake to them as representations in the world and within our bodies. We can describe this as an evolution from sensory perceptions to embodied associations to abstract conceptions.


Deacon, T.W. (1997). The symbolic species: The co-evolution of language and the brain. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.



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At the physical level of awareness, a word and what it refers to exist only as sensory perceptions. That is, the actual sound, visual, or movement we use to physically represent the word and the physical representation of its referent. For example, our perception of the sound of “apple” and our perception of an actual apple are two separate and distinct perceptual representations in the brain.


English Course Tube. (2017). How to pronounce apple? Pronunciation of apple (video). YouTube.

Pronounced Success. (2017). How to say “Apple” (video). YouTube.

Andrew, T. (2011). Apples – a moment of ripeness (video). Vimeo.

Robyna (2013). Apples (video). Vimeo.

Simone Associates. (2014). Pennsylvania apples (video). Vimeo.



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At the emotional level of awareness, words exist as embodied associations. That is, we are subconsciously aware of a relationship between the real or imagined perceptions of the sound “apple” and an actual apple. Initially, this relationship is indexical in the sense that one perception reminds us of or points to the other. We hear “apple” and it subconsciously reminds us of an apple. Or we see an apple and it subconsciously reminds us of “apple.” The relationship involves a kind of cognitive coupling of the two perceptions.


Hoffman, W. and Mercadante, D. 2010. Radiolab and NPR present Words (video). YouTube.

Song as the evolution of community, communion & communication. Emergent Cognition Project.


double exposure of soundwave and apple
At the mental level of awareness, the relationship between a word and its referent moves from being indexical (one serves as a reminder of the other) to being iconic (one serves as a replacement of the other). The association becomes intensified such that the perception of “apple” and the perception of an actual apple become functionally the same. To hear “apple” is to subconsciously perceive the presence of an apple, and to perceive an apple is to subconsciously perceive the sound of “apple.” Not only do we perceive “apple” and apple as being the same, but we subconsciously experience their associations as being the same as well. It is this integration that empowers “apple” to serve as the symbolic representation of the idea (or concept) of apple.


On this day: Helen Keller comprehends the word “water”. findingDulcinea.


Keller, H. (1905). The story of my life. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company.


double exposure of apple word cloud and images of apples
Although the previous apple example referred to two perceptions (the sound “apple” and an actual apple), it should really have involved two sets of perceptions: one of different physical interactions with apples and one of different physical interactions hearing “apple”. Each set of perceptions forms a sensory network (a group of associated perceptions). The set of “apple” perceptions also forms the initial basis of a semantic network (a group of associated words). These networks of associations are all essential to the effectiveness of words as concepts.


Nikolić, D. Synesthesia / Ideasthesia. danko-nikolic.com

Ideasthesia: How do ideas feel? – Danko Nikolić. TedEd.

Geoffrey Leech | Seven types of meaning. Emergent Cognition Project.


black metal framing material against blue sky
While all concepts are inherently abstract because they only exist in the mind, the concept of something like apple is easier to grasp (literally and figuratively) than concepts like time or caring or awakward. Compared to concepts of tangible objects, the networks underlying intangible concepts may not directly involve sensory perceptions. However, words – as manipulable sensory forms – also make concepts more tangible. With the support of words, less tangible concepts (like time) can emerge / be developed “from the ground up” out of more tangible concepts (like clock, day, night, here, there, etc.).


Hofstadter, D. (2009). Analogy as the core of cognition. Stanford University.


hand holding up sign with the word concept cut out so that the background image of a tree is visible
Words are essentially cognitive tools. With words, we can label certain patterns in our experiences of things and relationships in the world. These labels make it possible to work with these patterns as things – that is, concepts. Words can also be a frame of reference for increasingly complex patterns, enabling us to work with increasingly abstract concepts.



spirit-self-interpretation collage
The spiritual level of awareness is represented by the self. This is not to assert that the self constitutes or is equivalent to what most people think of as the spirit, but that the self is our primary vehicle for the experience and expression of a spiritual / meta-physical / transcendent sense of the world. While the mind represents an awareness of symbols (e.g. words), the self operates at the level that represents an awareness of meaning (e.g. stories).

subject-verb-object sentence diagrams
This level of awareness involves our ability to creatively organize words — and therefore concepts — into complex but ordered patterns. This ability is facilitated by the socially reinforced use of language as an organizational system.


Patenaude, M. (2016). Sentences show up as predictable patterns in your brain. Futurity.

James, B. 2018. A sneaky theory of where language came from. The Atlantic.

Turner, M. (1998). The literary mind: The origins of thought and language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Kolodny, O. & Edelman, S. 2018. The evolution of the capacity for language: the ecological context and adaptive value of a process of cognitive hijacking. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

Yang, Y., Wang, J., Bailer, C., Cherkassky, V., and Just, M.A. (2016). Commonality of neural representations of sentences across languages: Predicting brain activation during Portuguese sentence comprehension using an English-based model of brain function. NeuroImage.


"once upon a time" written in black pen on a white piece of paper
The patterns of language help us understand the patterns (narrative structures) of story. Stories themselves are a way of creating order in or making sense of the world. They enhance our ability to describe, question, and imagine what is, what was, and what might be.


Eilam, M. (2012). The shapes of stories: A Kurt Vonnegut infographic.

Vonnegut, K. 2010. Kurt Vonnegut on the shape of stories. YouTube.


dictionary page focused on the entry of the word definition
Stories not only help us understand the world in more complex ways, they also help us interact with each other in more complex ways. Through the narrative structure of stories, we share information about everything from the definition of words to the defining aspects of what it means to be alive. Society as we know it would not be possible without complex communication, and communication as we know it would not be possible without the complexity of language.


Koenig, J. (2016). Beautiful new words to describe obscure emotions (video). TEDxBerkeley.

Koenig, J.The dictionary of obscure sorrows (video playlist).

Smith, T.W. (2017). The history of human emotions (video). TED@Merck.


woman looking at her reflection which is superimposed on a grid of scenes with other people
In a addition to complex interpersonal communication (talking), language also facilitates complex, intrapersonal communication with the self (thinking). It is through our intrapersonal stories about ourselves that we develop self-awareness.


Blue, A. (2017). Narrative journaling may help heart’s health post-divorce. University of Arizona.

Brown, B. Brené Brown on how to reckon with emotion and change your narrative. Oprah.com.

Moser, J. and Henion, A. (2017). Talking to yourself in the third person can help you control stressful emotions.Michigan State University.

Tippett, K. and Kling, K. (2016). The losses and laughter we grow into. OnBeing.

Revising as re-envisioning. Emergent Cognition Project.


woman standing next to her reflection in a glass door
This kind of narrative self-awareness can inform how we make distinctions among types of consciousness. At each level of awareness, we become awake to the experience of the body, heart, mind, and self, respectively. But if we understand consciousness as a measure of how awake we are to the experience of the self (as a self), then to be conscious it is necessary to first have awareness of or a narrative about the self. In which case, consciousness is a function of self-awareness, although at any given moment we may have varying states (awake – asleep) and degrees (attentive – inattentive) of consciousness.


Eagleman, D., and Gross, T. (2011). ‘Incognito’: What’s hiding in the unconscious mind. NPR.

Eagleman, D. (2012). David Eagleman looks underneath the hood of the brain (Preview). Being Human.


Armstrong, D.M. (1979). Three types of consciousness. Ciba Foundation Symposium, (69), 235-53.

Eagleman, D. (2011). Excerpts from Incognition: The secret lives of the brain. New York: Vintage Books.


silhouette of woman sitting with hand on her stomach against cosmic background
There is also a distinction to be made between awareness of being a self (self as subject) and awareness of having a self (self as object). The first does not require the second. Awareness of being a self involves having a story about yourself, but awareness of having a self is the impetus for intentionally talking and listening to yourself. It is the active listening quality of this awareness that enables us to ‘hear’ the physical, emotional, and mental dimensions of the whole self.


Baer, D. (2013). 4 important things about mindfulness you didn’t realize. Fast Company.

David, S. and Congleton, C. (2013). Emotional agility. Harvard Business Review.

Tolle, E. and Winfrey, O. (2012). Eckhart Tolle’s definition of God. SuperSoul Sunday.

Acceptance and commitment therapy. Wikipedia.


person with palms facing out with just and me written on them and various adjectives all in different color ink
It’s possible that to fully awaken to our own awareness, it is necessary to have the kind of complex communication that can only be supported by language. Although this form of communication relies on words as abstract symbols, our comprehension of words relies on our awareness of physical sensations and embodied emotions. Ultimately, our understanding of meaning is an emergent function of body, heart, mind, and spirit.

double exposure of the eye in a human face and a road leading off into the distance
This perspective of awareness comes from a specific interpretation of the nature of emergence. That interpretation is based on the framework used to describe emergent systems for this project. We can take a closer look at the framework to better understand what this perspective of awareness means and where it might lead.




This content is being created and curated as part of a project exploring how changing the ways we think about thinking can revolutionize the ways we change the world. See the Emergent Cognition Project overview to learn more.