Centrum för kognitiv semiotik (CCS)

Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna | Lunds universitet


On Proto-Aesthetic and Prelinguistic Communication in Mother/Infant Interaction and Human Evolution

Michael Ranta (Centre for Cognitive Semiotics [CCL], Lund University)


Ellen Dissanayake has become mostly known for her interdisciplinary attempts (i.e. inspired by ethology, anthropology, and evolutionary theory) to re-define art as the activity of 'making special'; that is, art making involves taking something out of its everyday use and context and making it somehow special. The emphasis is hereby thus put on the activity of demarcating objects or actions from everyday environments or circumstances rather than on the resultant artifacts in themselves. This activity has also been named “making the ordinary extraordinary” or “artification”.The purpose of this seminar is to present and discuss some ideas put forward by Dissanayake regarding proto-aesthetic, prelinguistic, and affective communicative mechanisms in early mother-infant interaction as well as their adaptive consequences during human evolution. General adaptive advantages of artification, phylogenetically as well as ontogenetically, involve e.g. the reinforcement of social bonds as well as neurophysiological, emotional, and social coordination. As to the interaction with infants, mothers tend to use techniques such as simplifying, repeating, exaggerating, and elaborating affinitive facial expressions, utterances, and body movements (“baby talk”) that they use casually and unremarkably with adults. As to adult social groups, strategies such as ritualization, ceremonies and other means of artification are claimed to have been evolutionary advantageous.

Preparatory reading (these texts overlap to some extent):

  • Dissanayake, E. (2009): The artification hypothesis and its relevance to cognitive science, evolutionary aesthetics, and neuroaesthetics, Cognitive Semiotics, 5 - [paper (PDF)].
  • Dissanayake, E. (2011): Prelinguistic and preliterate substrates of poetic narrative, Poetics Today, 32:1 - [paper (PDF)].

Further information about Ellen Dissanayake is available from