Emergent Cognition

“We are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us.”

— Neil DeGrasse Tyson, TIME: 10 questions for Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Max Schlickenmeyer. The most astounding fact.


Emergent Systems Framework: individual, relational, and collective patterns on the horizontal axis and first, second, and third levels on the vertical axis
With the help of our emergent systems framework, we can use the language and organization of interactions, patterns, and levels to explore the idea of the cognitive emergence of self.

Repeating / nested image of human head from the side and slightly above - B&W
Levels, which are the main organizational element of the framework, are also a common construct in cognitive theory. MacLean’s triune lizard-mammal-primate brain is a well-known introductory theoretical model. However, the two examples of levels that have been central to the development of this project are Ortony, Norman, and Revelle’s model of effective functioning (emotion) and Deacon’s model of sign reference (representation). The interpretations of these models provided here are intended to highlight how they inform an emergent systems perspective of cognition.


One of the most popular models of cognition is Paul MacLean’s triune brain, which attempts to map the evolution of certain brain structures to certain types of brain functions.

There’s the reptilian complex, or “lizard brain,” which is related to autonomic or genetically-primed behaviors necessary for basic survival.

Then there’s the limbic system, or “old mammalian brain,” which is related to emotional behaviors displayed by most mammals (caring for young, etc.).

And finally there’s the neocortex, or “new / primate brain,” which is related to the kind of reflective or rational behaviors characteristic of humans.

Although it’s an oversimplified characterization of how the brain actually works, the model provides a useful introduction to patterns in the organization of the brain.


Triune brain. Wikipedia.
The triune brain in 60 seconds. Dahlitz Media.



Instead of using levels to organize how brain structures and functions have evolved, levels can alternatively be used to organize how the brain processes information. In their model, Anthony Ortony, Don Norman, and William Revelle described a way of “thinking about the design of emotions” at different levels of information processing. Norman later extended this model to develop his work on emotional design.

At the reactive or visceral level, we experience / express (primitive) emotion as an instinctive response triggered by physical sensations. We have the sensation of being angry.

Then at the routine or behavioral level, we experience / express (affective) emotion as a habitual response activated by behavioral conditioning. We react to being angry.

And finally at the reflective level, we experience / express (conceptual) emotion as a thoughtful response articulated by reasoning. We describe the state of being angry.

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.


Komninoa, Andreas. (2017). Norman’s Three Levels of Design. Interaction Design Foundation.



Levels can also be used to describe different forms of communication and, by extension, the cognitive processes that enable us to understand those communication. Charles Sanders Peirce identified three forms of communication or signs:

An icon communicates something based on physical resemblance. An photograph or statue of a dog iconically communicates / represents a real dog.

An index communicates something based on physical or temporal proximity. A paw print on the ground or barking in the distance indexically communicates / represents the presence of a real dog.

A symbol communicates something based on assignment. The word “dog” symbolically communicates / represents the idea of a real dog.


Peirce’s Theory of Signs. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.



Building on Peirce’s work, Terrence Deacon later proposed that icons, indexes, and symbols involve increasingly complex relationships between a sign and what it signifies. Our ability to understand each type of sign requires increasingly complex ways of understanding those relationships.

Iconic relationships involve substituting a sign for what it signifies. For a statue of a dog to function as an icon of a dog, we must recognize the statue as a replacement for a real dog.

Indexical relationships involve mapping a sign to what it signifies. For a paw print to function as an index or indicator of a dog, we must remember that a paw print related to a real dog.

Symbolic relationships involve learning to substitute a sign for what it signifies as well as mapping how the sign relates to other signs. For “dog” to function as a symbol (or word) for a dog, we must experience the sound of “dog” as a replacement for a real dog that is also related to the sounds of other symbols.

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



Each of these models of levels look at cognition from distinct points of view. Together they contribute to a multi-faceted perspective of the nature and organization of cognitive levels. From this perspective, we can begin to see how cognition involves levels of processing physical, relational, and abstract information.

Hand with paintbrush adding red color to black and white apple - color
The first level of processing corresponds to themes of biological, primitive, reactive, survival-driven (immediate concerns for self) domains of awareness. It involves creating a representation of the physical world. We don’t actually experience the world directly as it is; we experience it through our senses. Our senses provide us with information (interactions of visual light, molecular smells, haptic texture, etc) from which the mind creates its own iconic perceptions of the world.

Double exposure of woman and mountain forest in fog - color
The second level of processing corresponds to themes of emotional, predictive, routinized, socially-driven (immediate concerns for self/group) domains of awareness. It involves representing relationships among things in the physical world. Since this processing is pre-verbal, its representations are based in the body as subconscious / embodied feelings, memories, habits, etc., which act as indexical associations of information about relationships.

Physical light bulb on a chalkboard like diagram of words and images related to ideas - color
The third level of processing corresponds to themes of executive, proactive, reflective, progress-driven (long-term/linear concerns for self/group) domains of awareness. It involves using abstract symbols as substitute representations of things, relationships among things, and even relationships among other abstract symbols. Words, as linguistic symbols, do not simply to refer to things/relationships in the world but effectively replace their current presence in the world with their conceptual presence in our minds. Numbers, musical notation, and sometimes artwork can also serve as abstract symbols.

Repeating / nested image of hands holding a picture / mirror frame - B&W
The models presented earlier help us describe cognition as three levels of information processing. However, similar to the distinction between inorganic/nonliving and organic/living matter, it’s at least theoretically useful to differentiate between the processing of information and the processing of meaning. This “fourth” level of processing corresponds to themes of constructive, productive, self-reflective, strategy-driven (long-term/nonlinear concerns for self/group) domains of awareness. It involves using a system (language) to organize individual symbols (words) into narratives or stories of symbolic meaning. The interpretation of these narrative networks facilitates communication through language and mathematics.

Individual puzzle piece, peripheral puzzle pieces, and collective puzzle pieces as subset of a larger puzzle piece
To simplify, we could say that Perception is the level of processing physical sensation, Association is the level of processing embodied relationship, Conception is the level of processing symbolic abstraction, and Interpretation is the level of processing reflective narration.

Perception: Processing of sensory interactions giving rise to sensory representations (perceptions)

Association: Processing of relational interactions giving rise to relational representations (associations)

Conception: Processing of abstract interactions giving rise to abstract representations (conceptions)

Interpretation: Processing of narrative interactions giving rise to narrative representations (interpretations)



These descriptions of cognitive processes are very simplistic relative to how the brain actually works. That’s why it’s important to be mindful of the emergent dynamic the descriptions are based upon. In that dynamic, the representations that emerge (as wholes) at one cognitive level give rise to the patterns that are processed (as parts) at the next cognitive level. In this way, the emergence of mind is analogous to the emergence of life.

The processing of sensory interaction patterns derived from the world, which is represented as perceptions; analogous to a subatomic level of cognition

The processing of relational interaction patterns derived from perceptions, which is represented as associations; analogous to an atomic level of cognition

The processing of abstract interaction patterns derived from associations, which is represented as conceptions; analogous to a molecular level of cognition

The processing of narrative interaction patterns derived from conceptions, which is represented as interpretations, analogous to a cellular level of cognition



This framework of patterns and levels of Perception, Association, Conception, and Interpretation is a tool for organizing the ways we understand the complex relationships among physical (sensory), emotional (relational), mental (abstract), and metaphysical (narrative) dimensions of awareness.

The framework also presents new questions:

  • What are the creative implications of imagining body, heart, mind, and spirit as emergent systems?
  • What are the practical implications of using an emergent systems perspective of the mind to inform personal and social transformation?
  • What are the theoretical implications of imagining our interpretations of meaning as functions of our mental conceptions, our mental conceptions as functions of emotional/embodied associations, our emotional/embodied associations as functions of our sensory perceptions, and our sensory perceptions as functions of our physical experiences in the world?



One of the most profound implications may simply be the idea that the mind is part of the fractal design of nature — that within each of us is a universe of interactions, patterns, and levels giving rise to our awareness of the universe of possibilities.

More: Playing with ideas on emergence, cognition, and social transformation



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.