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 meaning of emergent cognition.

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 brain serves as a basic introduction. 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 triune brain model is an introductory example of how cognitive processes are organized.


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.

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

And finally at the reflective level, we experience / express (conceptual) emotion as a thoughtful response articulated by reasoning.

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 types of representations and, by extension, the cognitive processes that enable us to understand those representations. Charles Sanders Peirce identified three types of representations or signs:

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

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

A symbol signifies or refers to something based on assignment. The word “dog” symbolically 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 representational 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 is made by a real dog.

Symbolic relationships involve learning to substitute a sign for what it signifies as well as mapping how it refers 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 other sounds.

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



Each of these models of levels and cognitive processes provide 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 transforming information from physical perceptions of the world into intuitive associations of relationships into abstract conceptions of symbols and narrative interpretations of meaning.

Hand with paintbrush adding red color to black and white apple - color
The first level of processing corresponds to 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 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 emotional, predictive, routinized, social-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 executive, proactive, reflective, progress-driven (long-term/linear concerns for self/group) domains of awareness. It involves using symbols as substitute representations of things, relationships among things, and even relationships among other 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 symbolic concepts.

Repeating / nested image of hands holding a picture / mirror frame - B&W
While individual symbols (like words) enable us to name things, a system for organizing relationships among symbols (like the syntax of language) enables us to compose stories about things. This fourth level of processing corresponds to constructive, productive, self-reflective, strategy-driven (long-term/nonlinear concerns for self/group) domains of awareness. It involves using the organization of symbols to represent networks of relationships among symbolic representations. The interpretation of these symbolic networks facilitates communication through language and mathematics.

The models described earlier incorporate this fourth level within the third. However, as we’ll see later, to apply the framework to the processing of language, it is necessary to make a distinction between the two.

Individual puzzle piece, peripheral puzzle pieces, and collective puzzle pieces as subset of a larger puzzle piece
To simplify the description of these levels, we can say that Perception involves the processing of physical patterns into physical representations or perceptions, Association involves the processing of intuitive patterns into intuitive representations or associations, Conception involves the processing of abstract patterns into abstract representations or conceptions, and Interpretation involves the processing of narrative patterns into narrative representations or interpretations.

Perception: Processing of physical patterns of interaction = physical representations (perceptions)

Association: Processing of intuitive patterns of interaction = intuitive representations (associations)

Conception: Processing of abstract patterns of interaction = abstract representations (conceptions)

Interpretation: Processing of narrative patterns of interaction = narrative representations (interpretations)



Although the processing at each level is relatively simple, it is still important to understand the dynamic part-whole relationships within an emergent system. In that dynamic, patterns refer to the nature of the parts and levels refer to the nature of the wholes. 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 interaction patterns derived from sensations of the world, which is represented as perceptions; analogous to a subatomic level of cognition

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

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

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



With this framework of patterns and levels of Perception, Association, Conception, and Interpretation, we have a basic description of cognition as an emergent system. In its simplicity, the framework represents the complex relationships of the physical, emotional, mental, and metaphysical dimensions of the mind. It suggests how cognition can be embodied, distributed, computational, and situated all at once. It also implies alternative approaches to questions about body and mind, thought and emotion, experience and knowledge, as well as what and how we learn.


One of the most profound implications may simply be the idea that the mind is part of the fractal design of nature; that how we understand things emerges from how we think about things, which emerges from how we feel about things, which emerges from how we sense things; 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.