As people communicate with each other throughout the day, they may forget that they are exchanging messages in more ways than just words. When a waiter asks someone if they want a cup of coffee, chances are that an image of a hot beverage popped into his head. By definition, an icon or symbol is a word, phrase, image, object, action, event, pattern, or the like that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention.
If someone sees a sign saying, “EXIT” over a door, then they know that they can leave through that door. Therefore, symbols act as short cuts to quickly convey messages. A heart shape is the symbol of love. “O” is the symbol for oxygen. Everything can be a symbol – numerals represent numbers, letters transcribe sounds, ideograms stand for concepts.
For example, concrete symbols physically resemble what they represent such as what they look like, feel like, move like or sound like. Concrete symbols include pictures, objects (such as a dress meaning a woman), iconic gestures (such as waving to say, “hello”) and sounds (such as “moo” means cow). People can learn to identify the meaning of these concrete symbols as young as 12 months old.
Symbols also assist people in learning throughout their lives. They provide a means of communication, help with conceptual understanding, promote greater independence, assist with the development of new vocabulary and provide structure and routine. Symbolic understanding is crucial for the development of the individual, for a sense of self, for a sense of reality, for being able to consider things lacking of the here and now, for literacy, and for being human.
Man is a symbolic creature. He thinks in symbols. Where would mathematicians, linguists, or musicians be without symbols? To psychologists like Jung and Freud, symbols are fundamental to the makeup and functioning of the psyche. Every culture and era has had symbolists and has devised multiple symbol systems.
For instance, all humans in this world recognize the peace symbol. It has instant recognition, which makes it such a powerful sign for peace. All of the meaning behind it and all of the associations that come with it give people an understanding without explanation. That means that when they see it at a protest, on necklaces, as a tattoo – people will know what to expect without having to think about it and they will understand that person's values and beliefs, even if they have never held a conversation.
Thus, symbols allow each and every person to express their inner identity and to understand and respect that of others within boundaries of a shared culture. Symbols are a crucial and inspiring way to convey meaning, as they provide humans with both personal and universal tools to reflect on the world. Symbols bring every human being together - beyond appearances and diversity.
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