Basic Elements of Thinking: Symbols, Concepts & Prototypes

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

When you're thinking about something, what are you really doing in your mind? In this lesson, we will discuss how symbols, concepts, and prototypes are part of the way you think about things.

What are Symbols, Concepts, and Prototypes?

Thinking is an activity that occurs in your brain, as electrical and chemical signals travel all over your cerebral cortex, that dense blanket of nerves that covers most of your brain and lies just under your skull. Thinking allows you to put ideas together and create other ideas. You can see pictures in your mind. You connect logical points together. You can imagine things that could happen and remember things that have already happened. You can develop works of art and science in your mind. You can dream and imagine. In this lesson, we'll be discussing three fundamental parts of your thinking: symbols, concepts, and prototypes.

Your mind thinks in visual pictures and other sensations, and often those pictures and sensations represent something. For example, if you think of the word 'apple', what picture comes to mind? What smell, sound, or taste? What does an apple feel like when you touch it? Symbols are basic units of thought, often words, that conjure up in our minds an object, like an apple. Symbols can also bring up a quality, such as the idea of being 'strong,' 'sweet,' or 'silent.' A concept is a class of objects that all share some common characteristic. Music is an example of a concept, with many symbols used to describe it. The specific picture that a symbol brings to mind is called a prototype. Let's go into a little more depth in each of these three elements of thought.


The most common symbols used by the typical human mind are words. Each word generally represents something other than the word itself. For example, when you think about the 'apple' symbol, you don't usually imagine the word or its spelling. You usually think about what an apple is to you. In fact, if you start thinking about how the word 'apple' is spelled, you find yourself working with different symbols, such as the letter 'a', the letter 'p', and so on.

Notice that if you say the word 'apple', the sound also represents that same symbol. Speaking the word brings to mind the object behind the symbol, which allows you to verbally communicate the idea of an 'apple' with someone else. Notice that a certain symbol can have many meanings. For example, when you think of the word 'apple' today, you might be thinking of the fruit, the corporation, Apple Computers, or perhaps one of the products they make, or even maybe a color that you saw once, which was called 'apple red.' The meaning behind the symbol can have many meanings, be different for different people, and even different for different times in your life.

By using symbols, we can imagine and communicate things that are different from what we experience in day to day life. For example, imagine the following picture: ''A unicorn sat on a toadstool and munched on an apple.'' Notice how the symbols in the sentence created elements of a picture in your mind. You've probably never seen a unicorn sitting on a toadstool and eating an apple, but you can certainly imagine one! The symbols brought the picture to life!


Our world is filled with concepts. Concepts are entire classes of objects, events, or realities that have something in common, some unifying, central idea. For example, music is a concept that contains many ideas, objects, symbols, and inter-connected possibilities. If you think about music, you can probably come up with several types of music in your mind. You might hear contemporary rock, or gospel, or country western. These are all connected to one concept: music. They are, of course, connected to other concepts, as well. For example, classical music is its own concept, which includes other concepts, like music, history, creativity, and human achievement.

Concepts allow us to classify groups of things. For example, if you think of the concept called 'school', you know immediately that you're not talking about the store, the state of your laundry, or your eye exam next Wednesday.

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