Recently, I have been posting here, and it concerns mostly with metaphysics.


Is interpretation a hardwired feature of the brain and person?

So, when we see symbols, we AUTOMATICALLY identify it as something we already know, we can't stop this feature.

In other words, we cannot ever stop identifying symbols. As you read this right now, you are identifying symbols, without even thinking about it.

Is that how this works? I posted a similar issue with

"x" and "2x" how the "x"'s could be different physically but have the exact same meaning. This applies here.

Without thinking about it, your brain automatically identifies "x" and "2x" as having the same meaning. Same goes with

"1", and "10," you know they are both "1", the number because you brain automatically identifies it.

So, as a recap, is there any reason why we interpret the way we do? Or is it simply a hardwired feature, which won't be changed?


  • 2
    I'm studying an unconventional math now, and I have to learn those symbols. There is definitely a learning process before the interpretation becomes automatic. Just like learning a new language. Oct 21, 2014 at 17:07
  • @GeorgeChen, thanks. I meant, okay SK you learned English, but then you autonaticslly saw symbols and recognized it. So "hello" you thought okay, this is hello, it is hardwired right?
    – Amad27
    Oct 21, 2014 at 17:57
  • Learning a word or a symbol consists of forming a habit. A habit permanently changes one's brain. So yes it is hardwired. Oct 21, 2014 at 18:04
  • So it is our habit, that leads us to interpretations? Thanks, you have helped me a lot!!
    – Amad27
    Oct 21, 2014 at 18:07
  • Yes, but once the interpretation becomes a habit, we don't call it interpretation any more. The response to a word becomes spontaneous. Oct 21, 2014 at 18:13

2 Answers 2


I am not sure an evolutionary argument gives a 'reason' in the sense you are asking. If it does, the answer to your questions is "Yes, both." Our strong leanings toward capturing simple symbols is just a hardwired mechanism, but it is shaped that way for a reason.

Most of modern experimental psychology would say that we reach out for symbols, and we capture them and then fit them into a context. (Though it requires a very broad sense of 'symbol'.) Our perception does not receive data passively and collate it, but instead projects forward assumptions to meet the incoming data half-way.

For instance, we begin to have emotional reactions before we identify their causes, and then shape the emotional experience to fit the cause. We screen out highly intrusive, obvious and outright scary data when we are acutely focused on something difficult.

Most strikingly to me, we invent object permanence. If we see identical things in two different places in our vision too quickly in succession, we see them as the same thing, we invent a continuous path between them in our vision, and we remember it as real. If the objects are seen in different orientations or in different colors, we think we can remember the exact point in our visual field where 'it' changed color or flipped over, even though 'it' was two different objects, and neither of them was ever in that position.

One way to make sense of this is via evolution. It makes sense that a general reasoning method evolved from a system originally tuned to a narrow range of targets or threats, sought or avoided situations, and not from some more general mechanism that just 'tried to make sense' of the world. As we developed subtler, less pointed goals, we began to see symbols instead of threats or targets. We started to piece our stimuli together into more and more complete packages, and to be less intensely motivated by specific details most of the time. But the basic methodology of scanning for known objects still dominates its structure.

So the theory is that we are not born to learn how to notice two "x" marks as the same thing, but we are born to learn things like how to know two ripe apples as the same thing, or two prowling cats as the same thing, and we have leveraged that for more general purposes.

Once you become attached to this, it is hard to see how other ways learning might evolve would be anywhere near as efficient. It is clearly not the only way of thinking. Many of our more artificial, explicit ways of thinking work directly opposite to this, trying to get the overall sense and not attach to detail or goal first. Resisting the impulse to pre-judge is a primary path to fairness, and whole religions have grow up with that focus. But it seems likely that most of the ways evolution would lead to a brain, would contain some aspect of this bias, since focus on danger is a basic mechanism for survival.

At the risk of continually over-promoting the same book, "Consciousness, Explained" contains this data and the argument much more detail. Dennett lays it out as motivation for his favorite theory of learning, and to make counterarguments to older theories.

  • I wrote this above to; so there really is no specific reason for interpreting two instances of pi, the mathematical unit as the same thing, it is simply a hardwired feature isnt it?
    – Amad27
    Oct 22, 2014 at 12:22
  • That was too long: Basically, we are wired to err on the side of assuming symbols mean more than they do, and taking them apart slowly, rather than starting from a pattern and building up evidence for them. That works well for pi, it works less well for apples, or people. We do learn that difference. So not as much is determined as you seem to believe.
    – user9166
    Oct 22, 2014 at 13:43
  • Our hardwired feature is designed to fail, to overestimate the power of a name. And when it fails we hand things over to more subtle processes. But in the case of math, it doesn't fail as expected, and we get very attached to those symbols.
    – user9166
    Oct 22, 2014 at 13:50
  • True. Thanks for replying. One more thing: Before this, I never thought about such things, I just did things, without conconsciously thinking why, such as interpreting symbols. I just interpreted symbols, similar looking to have the same meaning. Like "pi," I just took a similar looking shape to mean the same thing, "pi." Maybe, it is better to not question it, and continue it. In the end, does it really have an actual, concrete reason anyway? Thanks1
    – Amad27
    Oct 22, 2014 at 16:27
  • In my book, insofar as the mind is like he brain, it has many layers, each subtler than the last. To the extent lower functions serve you, it does not make sense to bicker with them. But each new layer exists just because the previous one fails at some things. All one can really say about this, in my opinion, is that when proceeding one way fails you, do not insist upon it.
    – user9166
    Oct 22, 2014 at 16:53

According to Relevance Theory, our cognitive system is hard-wired to search out relevance.

Something has relevance for us if it causes us to update our stock of assumptions in some way. This can be through us adding to it or by strengthening, weakening or eliminating one of our existing assumptions. One particularly rich way of updating is when some stimulus combines with an existing assumption leading us to infer a new one that we wouldn't be able to get from just the old assumption or the stimulus alone.

In actual fact, most stimuli which affect us in this way may be doing several of these things at the same time. So it starting to rain may cause Pamela to cancel her assumption that she's going to have lunch in the park, will combine with her assumption that her washing's on the line at home so that she infers that it's going to be wet when she goes back, will strengthen her assumption that she's going to need a beer after a horrible day at work and so forth.

What we have discussed so far isn't a good measure of relevance on its own. The reason is that there's a payoff to be had between informativity and the amount of cognitive effort (whether conscious or not) required to process any kind of input. So the more effort we have to expend, and the longer it takes us, the relatively less valuable that same stimulus is to us. Relevance then can be though of as how much bang you get for your buck, how much updating you get per unit of effort spent processing it.

When we communicate, we exploit each other's cognitive drive for relevance. In order to decode what someone's communicative intention is, we have to use all the clues we can get from the context in order to build a reading of what someone is intending to communicate. This goes on even at the most minute level. So for example, when someone says Bob's been arrested, we need a theory about who the intended referent of Bob actually is. There are, after all, millions of people whom Bob could refer to. Normally, however, the speaker, who wishes to affect your stock of assumptions efficiently without wasting effort of their part, will give you exactly the right amount of linguistically encoded clues for you to be able to identify their intended meaning from the context.

As a listener, you will automatically opt for the most informative reading that takes the least effort. So with regard to the sentence above, you'll automatically exclude from the potential Bobs any who you don't have reason to believe that you both know. People you've already been talking about, or who you both live or work with are more likely to be the intended referent. Effectively you will take the path of least resistance when trying to identify them. After all, if the speaker had intended you to scan your memory for obscure Bob's they'd have given you more specific information to make the assignment of the reference less difficult/effort consuming.

The upshot of all of this, is that whenever we engage with any linguistic type of encoding, our relevance search engine gets into gear. Its general operational mode is that of looking for the greatest informativity with the least effort - in order to understand the communicative intent of the 'speaker' (writer, or whoever). This means that when you see a couple of symbols repeated, you're cognitive system will make the inferences that are the least costly and fit with a potential communicative intent on the part of the speaker. So if we see two symbols (signs of communicative intent), we are going to interpret them as if they mean the same thing. Our cognitive system will assume that if they were intended to signify something different from each other, this would be indicated by the speaker, who after all wants their input to be relevant to us (otherwise they wouldn't bother to provide it in the first place). Also, if we see a symbol and recognise it as indicating a communicative intention, we will immediately start to process it to derive what relevance we can. The path of least resistance to us will always be to process symbols that we recognise as being exactly those symbols that we recognise!.

Not sure how clear any of that is, but that's my relevance theoretic attempt at an explanation!

  • 1
    This is basically the same answer, it just focuses on how things work rather than how they got that way -- different interpretations of 'why'...
    – user9166
    Oct 22, 2014 at 14:17

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