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Because too much data can cause “cognitive clutter”, individuals need a system to enable them to rank available data in terms of its immediate importance. The majority of the available data will be of minor importance. Some elements, the salient elements, will be the most important and require attention.


Human senses make a vast quantity of data available to the mind so the first question is to consider how the individual's internal mental organisation is configured to react. How does the mind interpret the data stream to filter out the irrelevant and leave only the salient signs? In semiotics, the process of converting signs into meaning is called semiosis. This is a metacognitive process working through schema that constitute a model of the world. Such schema are created through, and monitored using, a range of skills including pattern matching, analysis, and synthesis.

Meaning can be described as the “…system of mental representations of an object or phenomenon, its properties and associations with other objects and/or phenomena. In the consciousness of an individual, meaning is reflected in the form of sensory information, images and concepts.” (Bedny & Karwowsky, 2004). It is either denotative or connotative but the sign system for transmitting meanings can be uncertain in its operation or conditions may disrupt the communication and prevent accurate meanings from being decoded.

Further, meaning is socially constructed and dynamic as the culture evolves. This is problematic because an individual’s frame of reference and experience may produce some divergence from some of the prevailing social norms. So the salience of data will be determined by both situational and emotional elements in a combination relatively unique to each individual. For example, a person with an interest in botany may allocate greater salience to visual data involving plants, whereas a person training as an architect may scan buildings to identify features of interest. A person's world view or Weltanschauung may predispose salience to data matching those views. Because people live for many years, responses become conventional. At a group or community level, the conventional levels of significance or salience are slowly embedded in the sign systems and culture, and they cannot arbitrarily be changed.


Bedny, G. & Karwowski, W. (2004) Meaning and sense in activity theory and their role in the study of human performance. International Journal of Ergonomics and Human Factors. (26:2, 121-140.)

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