Cognitive Semiotics

by | London, UK

Friday, 1 April 2011

tags: emergence, europe, semiotics

Cognition and semiosis (meaning produced or communicated through signs) are mainly studied by two independent fields – cognitive science and semiotics. Cognitive science investigates mental processes and spans topics such as learning and memory, numerical reasoning, judgment, decision making and more recently affective processing. The bread and butter of researchers studying cognition consists of controlled experiments using quantifiable measures such as reaction time (the elapsed time between the onset of a stimulus and the subsequent behavioural response) and neuroimaging studies to understand cognitive processes at the level of brain activity.   Semiotics, on the other hand, is the study of communication, signs and sign processes.  

Cognitive semiotics, the brainchild of these two disciplines, is taught and researched at, among other places, the Center for Semiotics at Aarhus University, Denmark, which is closely affiliated with the university’s Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN).  Here I completed an MA in Cognitive Semiotics.  The discipline investigates meaning in general and explores, among other things, metaphors, categorisations, aesthetic cognition, narratives, and the neural processes causally implicated in semiosis. It also looks into how meaning is greater than the sum of the parts of cognition and semiosis, as entirely new emergent properties appear at the level of meaning that are not easily predictable rearrangements of the underlying cognitive and semiotic processes.

Although my own approach to cognitive semiotics relies heavily on quantitative approaches to the study of meaning such as statistical modelling this is not representative of cognitive semioticians in general. There are many views of what constitutes cognitive semiotics and as yet no single overarching paradigm. Traditional semiotics takes a macro-level view of meaning, in many cases relying on desk research. Although cognitive semiotic analysis may be undertaken in a similar manner (with additional insight applied from cognitive sciences), such analysis is usually applied to how humans encode and decode meaning as a micro-level phenomenon – without attempting to draw conclusions about higher-order cultural phenomena. These two perspectives may, however, also be complementary as, used in conjunction, they enable a holistic understanding of meaning, which has academic and commercial applications.

I will offer a glimpse into a practical application of a cognitive semiotic perspective here by looking at what’s called the peak-shift effect. This is a well-known psychological principle, originlly discovered during experimental studies of discrimination learning (learning to make different responses to different stimuli). Imagine a rat is trained to discriminate between a 1×1cm square and 1× 2cm rectangle as a result of being rewarded whenever it is shown the rectangle. After some training, the rat will have learnt to respond to the rectangle more frequently. Now imagine that the same rat is shown the same square (1×1cm) and a slightly different rectangle (1× 3cm). To which rectangle will it respond more favourably (the 1× 2cm or the 1× 3cm rectangle in relation to the 1×1cm square)? Have a think.

I hope you thought the 1×2cm rectangle would be favoured, given that the rat was trained on this rectangle. Surprisingly enough, that is not the case! In reality, the rat would respond more frequently to the longer rectangle (1×3cm). The rat responds more favourably to an exaggerated version of the training stimuli. The rat has not learnt to favourably respond to the actual rectangle used during the training, but it has learnt something profoundly more sophisticated. It has learnt an abstract rule of what constitutes a rectangle. The longer rectangle is more rectangle-like for the rat’s cognitive system. According to Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, eminent neuroscientist and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, the peak-shift effect is fundamental to understanding much of visual art, for example, how artists unconsciously encode the ‘very essence’ of something using the peak-shift principle (see Ramachandran & Hirstein1999 for an overview).

Here is an example of the peak-shift effect using the caricature of Albert Einstein. According to Ramachandran & Hirstein (1999), a caricature is created by unconsciously taking an average of all faces, subtracting this average face from Einstein’s face in order to maximise the difference between Einstein’s face and an average face. A skilled artist then amplifies this difference even more to create a caricature of Einstein that is more Einstein-like than a photograph of Einstein. The reason being that the caricature resembles accentuated features of Einstein’s face (e.g., hair, nose and eyes). In the jargon of neuroaesthetics and cognitive semiotics, a well-crafted caricature of an individual becomes a superportrait as it is usually better recognised than undistorted images of the same person. Cognitive semioticians have used this particular effect for investigating meaning encoded in cultural artefacts ranging from Renaissance paintings to brand logos or an on-pack illustration effect such as the Kellogg's Special K cereal box’s exaggerated female hourglass shape, further enhanced strategically by being placed at the edge of the box.

Once you are familiar with the principle, you will see, hear, taste, feel and smell peak-shift effects everywhere in popular culture. For an olfactory example, walk into the fragrance section of your local shopping centre during your next visit and sample some of the flowery perfumes – or the piped in fresh baking smell the extends far beyond the bakery section in any major supermarket.

The peak-shift effect is a universal and taxonomically widespread phenomenon, and it both moderates and mediates communication by exaggerating specific meaning effects. This is simply one principle that accounts for exaggerated meaning effects; however, meaning in general is usually influenced by numerous such principles, interacting with each other in unique ways. Cognitive semiotics provides a unique evidence-based framework for better understanding the nuts and bolts of meaning.

© Ajitesh Ghose 2011

Image Source:


Ramachandran, V. S., & Hirstein, W. (1999). The science of art: A neurological theory of aesthetic experience. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, 15—51.


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