Symbolic thinking, simply put, is the ability to use symbols, abstract concepts, or objects to represent something else. It is a cognitive process where we assign meaning to things, events, and relationships based on the symbolic values we attribute to them, often derived from our cultural, social, or personal understanding. Symbols can range from languages, numbers, and signs to colors, images, and metaphors, which carry specific connotations beyond their literal meaning.1

Historical Background

Early humans used symbols to communicate and express their thoughts, emotions, and experiences long before written languages were developed. Cave paintings, stone carvings, and symbolic artifacts are examples of early imaginative thinking. Over time, written language, art, and mathematics evolved as sophisticated forms of symbolic thinking, with symbols standing in for complex ideas and abstract concepts.2

The journey of human evolution is a captivating one, deeply intertwined with the emergence of symbolic thinking. The earliest traces of symbolic material culture, dating back over half a million years, include not just tools, but also ornaments, body paintings, and non-figurative engravings. These practices, which predate our own species, are believed to be linked to the evolution of specific brain regions, playing a key role in the development of symbolic cultures within the homo genus.

Neuroarchaeologist Mathilde Salagnon, in her thesis, explores the neural bases of such thinking. She delves into how the brain perceives and distinguishes symbols, and whether this is connected to a form of social cognition in prehistoric humans. Salagnon’s groundbreaking work employs magnetic resonance imaging to uncover the origins of cognitive functions in humans. Her research extends beyond stone tool cutting to include other elements of prehistoric material culture, such as ornaments and engravings, which might offer further insights into human cognition’s evolution.

Different Areas

Science. Neurologically, abstract thinking engages various parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, associated with decision-making, problem-solving, and complex cognitive behavior. Moreover, symbolic thinking plays a fundamental role in cognitive development. Jean Piaget, a pioneer in developmental psychology, emphasized that children develop symbolic thinking around the age of two, which allows them to engage in pretend play and understand that one thing can represent another3.

Symbolic thinking permeates numerous fields. In mathematics, numbers and operations serve as symbols to solve complex problems. In literature, authors use symbols to provide deeper meanings to their stories. Philosophers use symbols to communicate abstract concepts, while computer scientists use it to write code that machines can understand.

Culture. Symbolic thinking is closely intertwined with culture. Each culture develops its unique symbols that carry specific meanings. For instance, a color like white may symbolize purity in one culture and death in another. Such symbolic differences can lead to cross-cultural misunderstandings4.

Beyond Humans. Allegorical thinking is not limited to the human species. Recent archaeological findings suggest that Neanderthals, too, might have been capable of symbolic thinking. A 51,000-year-old engraved bone found in Germany, for instance, indicates that Neanderthals could associate abstract concepts with specific objects, a key aspect of symbolic thinking2.

Modern Technology. In technology, symbolism is fundamental to areas like artificial intelligence and coding. In AI, symbols are used to represent knowledge and make inferences. Coding, at its core, is a form of symbolic thinking where specific code commands represent complex operations.

Individual Identity. Personal symbols, derived from our unique experiences and values, shape our thoughts and behaviors. For instance, a person might associate a specific song with a significant event in their life, giving that song a personal symbolic meaning5.

Psychology. In psychology, symbolic thinking is often associated with the use of symbols to represent complex emotions, ideas, or concepts. For example, in dream analysis, a common practice in psychoanalysis, various elements of the dream are seen as symbols representing deeper psychological realities. A snake, for instance, might symbolize a perceived threat or fear.

Perspective. Current research is focusing on further unraveling the intricacies of symbolic thinking and its role in cognitive development, intercultural communication, education, and technology. It’s believed that a deeper understanding of symbolism could help create more effective teaching strategies, develop more advanced AI, and foster better intercultural understanding.

Examples of Use

  • Traffic Lights: The colors red, yellow, and green are symbolic representations of the actions stop, slow down or prepare to stop, and go, respectively. A child understands this symbolism when they learn that red means stop, even if the concept of halting movement doesn’t inherently relate to the color red.
  • Mathematical Equations: In mathematics, symbols are used to represent quantities and operations. For instance, the equation “2 + 2 = 4” utilizes symbols to represent a relationship between numbers and the process of addition.
  • Flags: Flags symbolize a country or a group. For example, the United States flag has 50 stars representing the 50 states and 13 stripes symbolizing the original 13 colonies.
  • Art: Art often uses symbolism to convey deeper meaning. For instance, a dark stormy sky in a painting could symbolize turmoil or conflict within a character.
  • Metaphors in Literature: Authors often use symbolic thinking to enhance their narratives. For example, in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” different animal species represent different social and political classes in the human world.
  • Religious Symbols: Many religions use symbols to represent their beliefs. The cross in Christianity symbolizes the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, while the crescent moon and star in Islam are associated with the faith’s history.
  • Company Logos: Logos symbolize a company’s brand and values. For instance, the Apple logo symbolizes innovation and high-quality technology.
  • Emojis: In modern digital communication, emojis are symbolic representations of emotions, activities, and objects. For instance, a heart emoji is used to symbolize love or affection.
  • Dreams: In psychology, especially in the realm of psychoanalysis established by Sigmund Freud, dreams are thought to be full of symbols representing subconscious thoughts and desires.
  • Weather Symbols on a Map: Meteorologists use various symbols to indicate different weather conditions. A cloud symbol represents overcast conditions, while a sun symbol indicates clear and sunny weather.


In conclusion, symbolic thinking is a fundamental aspect of human cognition, playing a crucial role in our ability to communicate, understand, and interact with the world around us. As we continue to explore this fascinating cognitive ability, we can look forward to new insights and discoveries that could enhance our understanding of the human mind and its potential.


What is meant by symbolic thinking?

Such thinking refers to the cognitive ability to use symbols, such as words or images, to represent concepts, objects, or events that are not physically present. This form of thinking is fundamental to human language, reasoning, and creativity.

What is the opposite of symbolic thinking?

The opposite of symbolic thinking could be considered as concrete thinking, which is characterized by a focus on the immediate, literal, and specific details of a situation without applying abstract or metaphorical interpretation. In this mode of thinking, individuals perceive things as they are, without associating symbolic meanings or representations to them.

Alexander Lys

Reviewed by Alexander Lys, M.L., a specialist in the field of symbolism research and dream psychology. A certified participant in numerous psychological seminars and courses, the author of hundreds of articles on psychology, including studies on symbolism in dreams and myths from a scientific perspective.

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Encyclopedia of Symbols

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Symbolopedia is a comprehensive guide to the meanings of symbols. Our content is crafted by professionals in psychology and symbolism, striving to maintain a balance between scientifically proven data and insights derived from myths, legends, and folklore. While our approach leans towards scientific interpretations of symbols, we acknowledge the significant role of the subconscious in their understanding, allowing for a blend of rationality and creativity.

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