In my middle school English classes, I abhorred use of symbolism in stories and novels we read. My teachers would say things like,”see how the image of the bird reemerges again and again in the story? It is a symbol for freedom,” and I would roll my eyes. I thought that symbols were nothing more than stuffy literary devices, tools devised by ancient English professors to add a kind of pretentious depth to writing.
My stance on literary use of symbols has since softened (I find them quite useful and appreciate their power), and I have come to realize that symbolism is present virtually everywhere in our lives — in movies, on road signs, intertwined in holiday traditions. However, it wasn’t until I took a developmental psychology class that I realized how fundamentally interconnected symbols are with the inner workings of our minds.
Even in infancy, we are programmed make use of symbols. Studies show that newborns will show preference toward ping pong paddles with dots arranged in a face-like orientation compared to ones without such orientation (see diagram below). This suggests they can (somewhat) symbolically represent the human face inside their minds.
As we grow older, we develop mental representations, or symbols, for all types of things, from physical objects like dogs to more abstract concepts like relationships. Our brains must store sensory information in the most compact, understandable way possible, and that is in the form of symbols.
In learning about these developmental psychology principles, I realized that use of symbols is simply an extension of a mental process we engage in naturally. Symbols are not arbitrary literary tools — instead, they are a fundamental part of the way we perceive the world. This explains why use of symbols, and related devices such as metaphor, resonates so strongly with people.