The human mind is complex, elegantly fashioned and constantly surprising us as to its capacity. A recent study by a team of MIT neuroscientists has found that the brain can process images that are seen by the human eye for as little as 13 milliseconds, evidence of the extraordinary processing speed of the mind. Mary Potter, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and senior author of the study, observes: “The fact that you can do that at these high speeds indicates to us that what vision does is find concepts. That’s what the brain is doing all day long — trying to understand what we’re looking at.”
This is a model that goes back to ancient times, despite the fact that past generations didn’t have the knowledge to realize the full extent of the brain’s prodigious talents. But from pre-literate periods onward, humankind did realize that symbols communicated ideas to people quickly and efficiently. Today, branding is what makes the world go round. Look at any idea, event, product, organization, country…logos and symbols are all around us. Branding, or the identification of an entity through visual cues, is hugely important for companies. Fortunes rise and fall according to brand perception. In the field of semiotics, or the study of how and what meanings attach to symbols, a single image conveys a world of information given what is embedded of that image in the cultural zeitgeist. And in the 21st century, that can mean big business: “The contribution of brand meanings and perceptions to profitability – the Coca Cola brand is valued at over $70 billion – testifies to the power of symbolic representation to capture the hearts and minds of consumers by means of visual, audio, and verbal signs.” So our ancient ancestors were on to something when they started to create the images that we still see today. In modern times, we’ve just perfected—and monetized–the process.
Let’s look at a few of the symbols that were prevalent in past times and learn more about their derivations. In many cases, these symbols have changed in meaning, but continue to be recognized as important cultural touchstones.
The Star of David
While the Star of David is associated with Judaism, it actually also appears in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Hinduism has used the star the longest; for Hindus, it represents the Anahata, the fourth primary chakra, an energy point of the body.
The Ichthys or Fish Symbol
During the time of persecution under the Romans, it was dangerous to reveal one’s self as a Christian. So a secret code was devised. When two people met, one would draw the first arc of the fish, and the other, if a Christian, would know to complete the second arc. Symbols through time have held great importance in this way as group identifiers. There is also evidence the ichthys symbol was used by other cultures, some associating it with fertility as with the “Great Mother.”
The word also meant ‘womb’ and ‘dolphin’ in some tongues, and representations of this appeared in the depiction of mermaids. The fish is also a central element in other stories, including the Goddess of Ephesus, as well as the tale of the fish of the Nile that swallowed part of Osiris’ body (the penis), and was also considered a symbol of the sexuality of Isis for she had sexual intercourse with Osiris after his death which resulted in the conception and birth of his posthumous son, Harpocrates, Horus-the-child. So, in pagan beliefs, the fish is a symbol of birth and fertility.
The ‘Okay’ Sign
While in many countries the above sign indicates “okay,” it actually is an ancient mudra or ritual gesture in Buddhism and Hinduism symbolizing teaching and reason. Many representations of Lord Buddha have him indicating this sign.
The Cornucopia or Horn of Plenty
We associate this symbol with bounty and good fortune. In the United States it has also come to symbolize Thanksgiving. “The symbol dates back to an ancient tale of the Nymph Amalthea, who, as a reward from the infant Zeus for a meal of Goat’s milk, was given an enchanted goat’s horn which gave whatever one wished for” and was also associated with other goddesses including Fortuna, (good fortune) and Ceres (agriculture).
One of the most recognizable signs of evil in the 20th century is the swastika, which is associated with the Nazis. But the swastika was appropriated from a long and varied lineage of ancient societies, and is truly a symbol with cross-cultural meaning. It was employed in such religions as Buddhism and Hinduism and can be seen in various depictions by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Celts.
“Some of the older depictions of the swastika appear in Hinduism, where it is a symbol of the god Vishnu. In fact, the swastika is still commonly used in Hinduism and Buddhism. It can have different meanings depending on which way it rotates: Clockwise swastikas are a symbol of Vishnu, and counterclockwise swastikas represent Kali.”
So each of these symbols has a backstory that is remarkable for its versatility and endurance. Why do these symbols survive? Possibly because for good or bad, there are certain strains of behavior in humans that also prevail and continue to be reflected in these symbols. How do these seemingly universal symbols come to have such different meanings depending on the time and place? We don’t always have the provenance down, but there is a connectedness to human history that defies practicalities. Perhaps in our collective unconscious, branding has always been on our minds.
 In the blink of an eye. (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2015, from http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2014/in-the-blink-of-an-eye-0116
 What is Semiotics? – Marketing Semiotics. (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2015, from http://www.marketingsemiotics.com/semiotics/what-is-semiotics/
 10 Symbols That Lost Their Original Meanings – Listverse. (2014, September 10). Retrieved May 5, 2015, from http://listverse.com/2014/09/11/10-symbols-that-lost-their-original-meanings/
 Origin of the “Christian” Fish Symbol. (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2015, from http://www.albatrus.org/english/religions/pagan/origin_fish_symbol.htm
 10 Symbols That Lost Their Original Meanings
 10 Symbols That Lost Their Original Meanings