May 20, 2011

External symbolic storage

Posted in Language and Myth, Values and the pfc tagged , , at 10:11 am by Jeremy

My last post described what I call the “external pfc” – the accumulation of symbolic networks of meaning that literally sculpt the growing brain of every infant born into a particular culture.  This idea is not completely new.  A celebrated and influential cognitive neuroscientist, Merlin Donald, has described the power of what he calls “external symbolic storage,” an idea that has generated much interest in academic circles, including symposia dedicated solely to exploring this idea further.  This section of my book, Liology: Towards an Integration of Science and Spirit, describes the linkage between Donald’s idea of “external symbolic storage” and my concept of the external pfc.

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External symbolic storage

Through these mechanisms, the external pfc exerts a profound influence on the shaping of the individual mind.  However, the power of the external pfc is magnified even further by the existence of what Donald refers to as “external symbolic storage.”  When early humans arrived in Europe and began carving and painting their first artefacts, they were forming external manifestations of the symbolic web of meaning structured by their mythic consciousness.  These were, in Donald’s words, “the first irrefutable expressions of a symbolic process that is capable of conveying a rich cultural heritage of images and probably stories from generation to generation.  And they are the first concrete evidence of the storage of such symbolic information outside of a human brain.  They mark a change in the structure of human cultures.”[1]  These were the original forms of external symbolic storage: the set of physical objects constructed, shaped or used by humans to hold and communicate a symbolic meaning beyond mere utilitarian function.

An early example of external symbolic storage: cave paintings from Lascaux, France.

While artwork is the most obvious example of external symbolic storage, it also includes personal ornamentation such as jewellery, stone-working styles, and even the spatial patterns of how a campsite is used.[2]  The crucial importance of this new form of symbolic storage is that now, the external pfc no longer resides merely in the network of other people’s minds.  It now takes up permanent residence in a set of concrete symbols that remain fixed, outliving  those who initially constructed them, and communicating stable symbolic meaning to countless new generations.  As Donald puts it, “this is more than a metaphor; each time the brain carries out an operation in concert with the external symbolic storage system, it becomes part of a network.  Its memory structure is temporarily altered; and the locus of cognitive control changes.”[3]

The power of external symbolic storage to shape the human mind arises partially from its fixed and stable attributes, but also because the nature of its symbolic meaning is different from the meaning that arises within a human mind.  Donald explains this crucial distinction by contrasting the biological memory records created by the brain, known as engrams, with external symbols which he calls “exograms.”  Engrams, he writes, are ” impermanent, small, hard to refine, impossible to display in awareness for any length of time, and difficult to locate and recall…  In contrast, external symbols give us stable, permanent, virtually unlimited memory records.”[4]

Because of this distinction, engrams and exograms store a qualitatively different type of information.  Consider a common abstract notion, such as patriotism.  Each time you think of your country, your mind will produce something slightly different than the previous time.  The concept arises within a tangled, momentary web of feeling, emotion, symbol, memory and narrative.  Now think of your nation’s flag.  The information stored in this external symbol is far more fixed, virtually unalterable.  The next time the flag is unfurled it will store the same symbolic information that it held the previous time.  Of course, over extended periods, even the information of exograms may degrade or disappear.  We no longer know what the Lascaux cave paintings symbolize.  But it is the relatively fixed nature of exograms that gives them so much power to influence each new generation of human minds.

A more modern example of external symbolic storage

External symbolic storage may therefore be said to stabilize symbolic meaning within a group, thus permitting communities to expand massively in size and complexity without disintegrating.  As Tomasello has pointed out, institutions that we take for granted such as marriage, money or government, exist only because their reality is grounded in “the collective practices and beliefs of a social group” that relies on external symbolic storage to maintain permanent and stable meaning.  Since the days of the Upper Paleolithic revolution, the sheer volume of external symbolic storage has of course expanded vastly.  In our modern world, it incorporates virtually everything around us, including books, newspapers, the internet, television, music, architecture, interior design, fashion, road signs… the list is endless.   Without external symbolic storage, human civilization could never have developed.  However, it has implications for the autonomy of each individual pfc’s search for meaning which need to be clearly understood.


[1] Donald (2001) op. cit., 374.

[2] For a full discussion of these other types of external symbolic storage, see Wadley, L. (2001). “What is Cultural Modernity?  A General View and a South African Perspective from Rose Cottage Cave.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 11(2(2001)), 201-21.

[3] Donald, (2001) op. cit., 313.

[4] Ibid., 308-10.

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