The Mind on Paper: The Role of Interpretive Mind and Iconicity in Children's Symbolic Development

Open Access
Myers, Lauren Jeanette
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
December 12, 2007
Committee Members:
  • Lynn Susan Liben, Committee Chair
  • Richard Alan Carlson, Committee Member
  • Rick Owen Gilmore, Committee Member
  • Carol Anne Miller, Committee Member
  • cognitive processes
  • developmental psychology
  • symbol
  • symbolism
  • theory of mind
  • graphic representation
  • map
  • cognitive development
  • communication
A defining characteristic of human cognition is the ability to communicate referentially. In order to use symbols to refer to something, one must recognize that other minds do not necessarily share one’s own knowledge of, intentions for, or interpretation of symbols. The current study examined the development of this component of symbol understanding in 6- to 9-year-old children. Children made a map to communicate to a symbol-user about hidden toys. Additionally, they evaluated whether maps made by other children communicated effectively. In both tasks, the resemblance between the symbol and referent was manipulated – children either received iconic symbols that somewhat resembled the referents, or they received abstract symbols that did not resemble the referents. It was predicted that children’s success on these symbol-communicative tasks would be related to their awareness that other minds construe meaning in many different but equally valid ways (interpretive mind). In particular, success should depend upon children’s recognition that even when symbols resemble their referents, resemblance alone is not sufficient to convey meaning to a naïve symbol-user. This is particularly true in a context (such as the one used here) in which the same symbol might reasonably have been assigned to represent a different referent. Results showed that all children relied primarily on notations (words or pictures) rather than symbol resemblance to communicate meaning. Older children were especially sensitive to the information that the symbol-user needed to know, and were more likely than younger children to attempt map keys to communicate this knowledge. Specifically, older children were more likely than younger children to create categorical representations, using one type of symbol to represent one type of toy. Furthermore, interpretive theory of mind predicted children’s success on the symbol-communication tasks above and beyond chronological age, global intelligence, or memory. Overall, this study shows that 6- to 9-year-olds’ symbolic development is associated with their ability to recognize that people actively interpret and assign meaning to symbols. Elementary school-aged children gradually come to understand that graphic symbols do not have inherent, fixed meaning, but rather reflect the intentions and decisions of the people who create them.