Trade marks – nature or nurture?

We are, in our daily lives, surrounded by symbols that have an inherent or acquired meaning. Indeed the very basis of language relies on symbols – 26 letters (symbols) of the Latin alphabet for western languages and the logographic elements or characters of Asian languages.

A key difference between western languages and their Asian counterparts is how the written symbols of Asian script represent meaning (semantic meaning) and speech (phonological features). Many Asian languages adopt a uniform system of written symbols (but not speech). The symbols represent ideas and not sounds. This allows the same symbols to be used across distinct languages (e.g. Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other parts of South East Asia) and many dialects.

This is in stark contrast to western languages, in which individual written symbols or graphemes (e.g. the letters of the alphabet) acquire meaning through being arranged and interpreted by rules to produce a sound that is then interpreted. A word is recognised in the “visual word form area” which is located in the left fusiform gyrus of the brain (as shown by functional MRI studies). However, word recognition is not synonymous with meaning recognition (as shown in alexia, agnosia and agraphia disorders).

So one difference between these language systems is how meaning is conveyed:

  1. Kanji uses a direct route by associating the visual form directly with the meaning, whereas
  2. Western writing uses an auditory representation as an intermediary between the visual form and the meaning of the word. Western writing is an indirect path to meaning. This is shown, for example, in dyslexia, in which the visual and the auditory systems are out of sync, and thus meaning cannot be easily obtained by looking at the symbols.

In a sense, the logographic elements of written Asian languages are a highly evolved writing system based on pictograms (symbols that convey meaning through pictorial representation) and ideograms (symbols that convey an idea).

Pictograms are also a significant and important multilingual form of written communication used to transcend language barriers. Examples include the system of pictographic symbols used in road signs to meet global standards that are intended to be understood by virtually all.

Pictograms and ideograms are the purvey of many a graphic designer charged with the responsibility of designing a symbol that represents a brand or conveys to the public the idea or concept of a brand. So we have all come to recognise the Nike SWOOSH logo – developed in 1971 by Carolyn Davidson, a graphic design student at the time, to represent an abstract wing of the Greek Goddess of victory. So strong has this symbol become that it is widely and instantly recognised as representing the company Nike. It also stands as a symbol of victory and ambition, conveying the philosophy and image of the NIKE brand in its own right.

It is perhaps through our inherent response to symbols that we learn to understand brand logos, in a subconscious even involuntary manner. William Gibson raised such issues in his novel: “Pattern Recognition” where symbols and trade marks were so powerful that in some people they produce an involuntary emotional and physical response.

Such exceptional individuals are used to:

  1. screen trade marks for big corporations as suitable or otherwise; and
  2. detect symbols that are indicative roots of possible future movements.  Such symbols may appear in art and other cultural expressions.

This gave rise to Gibson’s famous statement:

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”.

Choosing a logo for use as a trade mark that taps into future movements could therefore be a powerful tool for brand managers to persuade the public or convey an idea about a particular brand.

Starting place

Can symbols exist as powerful motivators without requiring interpretation?

Symbols communicate meaning by:

  1. instinct – they are a necessity for survival;
  2. providing the basis of language: they seed the acquisition and interpretation of meaning from complex concepts; whilst others
  3. acquire meaning through exposure (symbol grounding) and thus change with society’s learning and history. Case in point: the Nike SWOOSH logo.

We are born with encoded instincts that enable behavioural responses for our survival.

For example, a face is but a symbolic representation to a newborn. This is because newborns cannot “see”. Nevertheless, newborns (via grandmother cells) have highly selective responses to individual human faces.

While facial recognition appears to be encoded, our ability to understand the meaning of symbols can be also imprinted or learnt. Lorenz’s studies of instinctive behaviour and imprinting revealed that they could also be manipulated.

Lorenz revealed that newly hatched geese could be trained to understand symbols on gumboots as representing “mother” (an “object” from whom they will receive care). Thus, our understanding of naturally occurring symbols (a mother’s face) can be powerfully manipulated to imply meaning from artificial substitute symbols (symbols on gumboots).

If it can work for geese, it can work for humans. We can be “conditioned” to analyse and interpret the outer world in certain ways. Reinforcement embeds the learning.

Through learning we have fundamental symbols established so that we will respond in a patterned response.  These symbols are collective symbols used within our society and fundamental to our co-existence in society.

Symbols influencing our behaviour without our conscious perception

You know in your limbic brain – the seat of instinct – … beyond logic, that is where advertising works, not in the upstart cortex. What we think of as mind is just a sort of jump start gland, … but our culture tricks us to recognise it as the whole of consciousness … advertising addresses that older, deeper mind beyond language and logic” Gibson: Pattern Recognition

An example of symbols influencing our behaviour without our conscious perception is shown in “Blindsight” which is a neurological condition in which the perception of sight is destroyed by brain damage: such as neural pathways to the primary visual cortex being severed.

If you asked a blindsighted person to describe what shape you were drawing (such as a square) they would state that they cannot see it.  However, if you asked them to have a guess at what was drawn, they would generally be able to correctly tell you what shape was drawn.

This is due to the rods and the cones of the eye still communicating the visual field information to the brain; however, the lack of perception is due to the conscious interpretive areas of the brain not being able to receive or process the information. However, the non-cognitive areas of the brain still receive the information from the visual field.

Is this an example of interpretation of symbols on autopilot – that is, being able to “perceive” a shape without even a hint of “seeing”.  In The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks recounts the story of a woman who lost the ability to speak or read words as a result of a severe stroke, but who could group words by meaning. This is despite an inability to read a word when presented with the word in isolation. It seems we can interpret the world around us without conscious perception.

Can the non-conscious brain learn like the conscious brain?

Subliminal suggestion has been used to present information to subjects without their knowledge and compel a certain physical or emotional response. In order for subliminal suggestion to work, we need to be primed beforehand to respond to a symbol or trigger. However, there is no conscious awareness of being primed, but we have still learnt and remember the trigger through non-conscious cognition.

Memory disorders in the brain: is the non-conscious brain effected like the conscious brain?

Cases of memory disorder in the brain region of the hippocampus such as in the case of HM, showed that new memories could NOT be made after his accident – however, is this all memory?

HM’s concept of time and ability to learn new tasks was beyond his conscious mind: every time he looked in the mirror he was horrified in seeing an aged man reflected.  HM could not learn tasks like new directions to return home, since he would forget a new task within minutes.

However, in HM’s non-conscious existence he could learn new tasks by memorising events non-consciously: HM was tested by requesting that he draw a star as traced via a mirror. Over repetitive tests spaced sufficiently far apart, so that he had no perception of performing the task previously, showed that he was more skilled at the task with the more trials he performed.  This revealed that HM could learn new tasks in his non-conscious brain.

Symbols are learnt & lost in both the conscious & the non-conscious brain

Are symbols connected to stimuli from our environment? Possibly symbols are representations of our environment that are built up in our mind’s eye. We know that stimulating very local regions of the brain may evoke very particular memories or responses.  However, is there a link between stimulus and response that occurs in situ?

Are there people who are more sensitive to interpreting symbols?

A psychological sensitivity to symbols exists.  It is called “synaesthesia“, which is a neurological condition where the stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.

People with synaesthesia may perceive colours as having a taste or numbers having a colour, or combination of numbers in a systematical relationship (like western language) so that the combination of many numbers can be read instead of being calculated.  Examples of synaesthesia which in its extreme forms can lead to “savant” traits.  For example, a synaesthate who can “read” numbers as a grapheme can “read” pi to tens of thousands of decimal places.

In the case of Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition, unsuitable symbols used as trade marks may lead to involuntary responses such as vomiting which is a form of synaesthesia. Many other forms of synaesthesia also exist.  Apparently around 4% of the population has some form of synaesthesia which provides insight into cognitive and perceptual processes in the interpretation of symbols.

Symbol perception

The observations above reveal our interpretation of symbols and how they are perceived at a conscious and at a non-conscious level.

Perception of a symbol can be slowed when there is a conflict presented as shown by the Stroop effect: if you are shown a card with the word “blue” written in blue ink, you respond quickly and without conflict; however, if you are shown a card with the word “Green” written in red ink, then reading the word becomes slower and is prone to error due to the information presented that needs to be interpreted, since a conflict is present.

How might this be relevant to choosing and protecting trade marks?

What is kept in the mind is rarely a fully conscious mindfulness, and if it is to draw on our non-conscious resources, then symbols or ideograms are more powerful.  Choosing a “multilingual” symbol that can be convey meaning across different languages and cultures can make your trade mark more powerful and more likely to be “distinctive”. Whether this is in letters , pictograms, ideograms  or a combination is not important. It is the ability to convey a meaning in a way that can be perceived widely by the public that matters. Whether you literally perceive the Nike SWOOSH logo as a “check” or “tick” mark, or as the wing of the Goddess Nike is not important. It is the underlying meaning conveyed that makes the symbol powerful.

We all have representations in our mind; however, the memory traces between us are different and evolving.  Take the written word for example: reading is only 5,000 years old and painting is approximately 30,000 year old … mere specks in time of our 14 billion year old universe.  However, the languages of the east and the west have developed along separate branch lines. Culturally the East & West have re-utilised pre-existing brain regions differently.  Both use symbols; however, the West uses shapes taken from our natural environment to form letters into words to sound out meanings; whereas the East uses symbol to directly relate to meaning.  Each language system was culturally invented and each system has its unique benefits.

Blog & Photo By Dr Michael Bates, Principal & Founder, 1P
© 1Place Patent Attorneys + Solicitors

Interesting reading:

William Gibson’s book titled Pattern Recognition (2003) by Penguin Press.

David Eagleman’s book titled Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (2011) by Penguin Press.

Joshua Foer’s book titled Moonwalking with Einstein (2011) by Penguin Press

Oliver Sacks’ book titled The Mind’s Eye (2010) Random House

Neuroscience of Text Comprehension

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