Mental Moves #1: The Transformation of Mental Elements

Oliver Ding
Published in
11 min readMar 30


Three aspects of Mental Elements

This post is part of the Mental Moves knowledge project that aims to collect related articles about the concept of “Attachance” and more examples about “Moving between Thematic Spaces” in order to edit a book. You can find more details in the following links:

I coined the term Attachance by combining Attach and Chance in 2018 to discuss some ideas related to Affordance, a core idea of Ecological Psychology.

In 2022, the development of Attachance was tied to the development of Thematic Space which refers to a specific type of container: cognitive container. You can find more details in [Slow Cognition] The Development of the concept of “Thematic Spaces”.

On March 10, 2023, I wrote a short post about the development of “Attachance” on Linkedin. On March 24, 2023, I collected a set of articles about the concept of “Attachance” and “Moving between Thematic Spaces”.

Yesterday I made the first case study which is based on the following article:

Jan 17, 2022 — Thematic Space: The Art of Continuous Discovery

In a previous article titled Creative Action: The Attachance of Moving Mental Elements, I developed the model below for case studies.

Each project corresponds to a thematic space.

  • Each project is supported by a digital platform.
  • A mental element can move between two thematic spaces.

Now we can focus on Attachance Theory and pay attention to the moving between these three types of containers.

A “Part—Whole” Attachance

The article titled The Art of Continuous Discovery records the change in my views on “Activity Theory” and the “Activity Analysis Center” project.

The above diagram highlights three Mental Elements:

  • #1: My view on “Activity Theory” (Before)
  • #2: My view on “Activity Theory” (After)
  • #3: The Concept of “Activity Analysis”

The Change between #1 and #2 refers to a “Part — Whole” Attachance. Before, #1 is an independent whole. The “Activity U” project is about curating Activity Theory, so the “Activity Theory” thematic space is all about “Activity Theory”.

After, #2 is part of a whole. See the diagram below. The whole is an integrated framework for the D as Diagramming project.

The above diagram shows four conceptual spaces which are named the “Architecture” space, the “Relevance” space, the “Opportunity” space, and the “Activity” space. Each conceptual space refers to a set of similar theoretical approaches.

Each conceptual space can generate several perspectives. For example, the “Activity” space can generate the following perspectives:

  • Mediating Instrument
  • Division of Labour
  • Transformation of Object
  • Levels of Contradictions

The above four perspectives are adopted from Activity Theory which is one of the theoretical approaches to the “Activity” space.

A Transformation of a Mental Element

#3 refers to a transformation of a mental element. I expanded the “Activity” thematic space from “Activity Theory” to other social practice approaches. Eventually, I developed a meaning for the concept of “Activity Analysis”.

On Jan 9, 2022, I wrote an article titled Mapping Thematic Spaces #2 — The “Activity” Thematic Space.

The “Activity” Thematic Space refers to Activity Theory and Social Practice Theories in general. Its unit of analysis is not individual behavior, it is not macro social structure or cultural meaning either. Since 2001, a group of philosophers, sociologists, and scientists have rediscovered the practice perspective and used it as a lens to explore and examine the role of practices in human activity. Researchers called it The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. As Schatzki pointed out, “there is no unified practice approach”(2001, p.2). Davide Nicolini adopted a way of a toolkit to introduce six different ways of theorizing practice in his 2013 book Practice Theory, Work, & Organization. Activity Theory is considered one of six social practice theoretical approaches.

I also used the following picture for the Activity Analysis website.

Inspired by a diagram, I used the following diagram to represent the new meaning of “Activity Analysis”.

What’s the original diagram? It was developed for discussing the concept of “Epistemic Development”. See the diagram below.

Three Aspects of Mental Elements

What I discovered from this transformation is a new insight about the concept of “Mental Element”. There are three aspects of mental elements, see the diagram below.

The content of #3 comes from #2, however, its form comes from “The Context of Epistemic Development”.

The Transformation of Mental Configurations

The article titled The Art of Continuous Discovery also mentioned a knowledge model called “The Landscape of Culture” and related mental elements. See the diagram below.

#4 (The Landscape of Culture) is part of my 2020/2021 book (draft) Project-oriented Activity Theory. See the diagram below.

I used the above diagram to explain the concept of “culture” from the perspective of Project-oriented Activity Theory. It zooms out to a large view that connects the Individual mind (Idea) and Collective theme (Zeitgeist) through Collective Projects (Concept).

The book Project-oriented Activity Theory is an outcome of the “Activity U” project.

I applied #3 to think about the development of the Activity Analysis project and made the diagram below.

The above diagram describes an imagined project with a new concept.

  • An imagined project: the Activity Analysis project
  • A new concept: Knowledge Center

You can find my original description:

Now, the Activity Analysis project is a website that refers to my “Activity” thematic space. The website is just about an idea that belongs to an individual mind.

In the next phase, the Activity Analysis project is expected to grow as a knowledge center as a collective project. That means it is not my personal idea, but it should be a concept shared by a group of people who are passionate about adopting the “Activity” thematic space for their epistemic development. Also, they would like to contribute to the development of the collective “Activity” thematic space.

What did happen behind the move between #5 and #6 (The Future of Activity Analysis)?

What A Derive!

#6 (The concept of “Knowledge Center”) is part of #5 which refers to a three-phase process. Let’s turn the diagram “the Future of Activity Analysis” into a Semiotic System Diagram.

A Semiotic System Diagram about “Knowledge Center”

A semiotic system diagram is a network of themes or concepts. The concept of “Knowledge Center” is part of the network.

#5 is a network of themes, so the concept of “Knowledge Center” (#6) was derived from the network because its meaning was defined by the network, not its name. See the diagram below.

In the above diagram, the meaning of “X” was defined by its surrounding and the whole network. I just used the word “Knowledge Center” to name this meaning.

A “Universal Meaning— Particular Experience” Attachance

The move from #6 to #7 refers to a “Universal Meaning — Particular Experience” Attachance.

  • #6 — The Concept of “Knowledge Center”
  • #7 — “Activity Analysis” as a demo of “Knowledge Center”

Usually, we consider a concept as a mental object which refers to a bundle of attributes or features. This view is influenced by contemporary psychology and formal logic.

However, Project-oriented Activity Theory adopts Andy Blunden’s approach which is following Hegel’s philosophy and dialectical logic. According to Blunden (2012, pp.156–157), Hegel uses the following three movements to describe the internal development of the Concept:

  • Universal: the Universal Concept is what is represented by a word (or in general, the sign for a concept) taken alone, outside of any determination or context of use. The meaning is entirely ‘in itself’, waiting to be developed, but at the same time is ‘pure’, in that every utterance is identical…Hegel links the Universal Concept to Identity because it is taken to be self-identical.
  • Particular: the Particular Concept is a practice which differentiates one kind of the Concept, one genus of the species from another through its inclusion and differentiation in a system of social practice. The Universal Concept can only come to reality through particularity, by determining the Universal…While it is an error to represent the Concept by means of some finite collection of exemplars, the Universal can exist only in and through some exemplars.
  • Individual: the Individual Concept is the sole ground of the concept, in and through which alone the Concept can exist. The Individual Concept is the limit case of the Particular Concept, where it is not just some things, but this thing which is the Concept, the ground of all generalisation…Individual reduces the Concept to a common element linking the individuals. This is an extremely poor representation of a Concept…

I used the following diagram to represent the about idea. It also connects to “the Objectification of Concept”.

Blunden claims that there are three aspects of objectification of a concept: symbolic, instrumental, and practical.

You can find more details in Activity U (VIIII): Project-oriented Activity Theory.

#7 (“Activity Analysis” as a demo of “Knowledge Center”) refers to a particular activity that aims to use an individual project “Activity Analysis Center” to run the objectification of “Knowledge Center”.

It is both Particular and Individual because it is the first project that adopts the concept of “Knowledge Center”.

In the past several months, I launched several knowledge centers. I used “the Knowledge Center Project” to refer to this particular activity. In this manner, the Activity Analysis Center is an individual project of the concept of “Knowledge Center”.

In this way, I use a “Universal Meaning — Particular Experience” Attachance to name a specific type of Attachance behind the move between #6 and #7.


The term “mental elements” is adopted from Dean Keith Simonton’s Chance-configuration theory (Scientific Genius,1988).

What are mental elements?

According to Simonton, “In scientific creativity, the predominant mental elements are cognitions of some kind, such as facts, principles, relations, rules, laws, formulae, and images. Yet immediate sensations may also play a role in laboratory experimentation and field exploration, and feelings may figure in scientific thought and discourse as well (Mahoney 1976). Sometimes these mental elements can be evoked voluntarily (e.g., the deliberate retrieval of a stored fact from memory); at other times these elements enter mental processing involuntarily (e.g., via a conditioned emotional association). Moreover, these mental elements do not have to be fully conscious, but rather, many enter information processing at the periphery of consciousness. ” (1988, p.6)

I highlight some keywords from Simonton’s description of mental elements. It looks like this is a rough definition. And, it is very hard to give an accurate definition for such things.

Dean Keith Simonton’s theory is built with the following similar ideas:

  • The chance permutation of mental elements
  • The formation of configurations
  • The communication, social acceptance, and sociocultural preservation of those configurations.

The third idea is not relevant to the present discussion, we will focus on the first idea and the second idea. See the diagram below.

Why does Dean Keith Simonton choose the term permutation, not the term combination? He wants to emphasize how selected mental elements are arranged. However, the term combination only considers sets of elements that have no particular order.

How do we decide which chance permutations can or should be retained? According to Dean Keith Simonton, “the primary selection procedure is predicated on the fact that chance permutations vary appreciably in stability.” (p.8)

  • These unstable permutations we may call mental aggregates.
  • These stable permutations are labeled with configurations.

There are two types of configurations, one is Posteriori Configurations and the other one is Priori Configurations. What’s the difference between these two?

Dean Keith Simonton points out that a Posteriori Configuration derives from experience and it establishes a correspondence between perceived events and their cognitive representations. (p.10) In contrast, a Priori Configuration emerges from given conventions. These conventions define a set of mental elements and the rules by which these elements can be combined into a proper order. (p.11)

You can find more details in Creative Action: The Chance-configuration Theory and Beyond.

Dean Keith Simonton doesn’t give us a typology of mental elements. We also don’t know the details of significant aspects of mental elements. From this case study, I realized that three aspects of mental elements are necessary for further discussions.

Based on these three elements, we can develop a framework of mental elements:

  • Name: does it have a name?
  • Form: does it have an identifiable form?
  • Content: does it have more than one identifiable entity?

Now let’s apply it to the above seven mental elements.

This framework is really useful for understanding the transformation of mental elements. If these three mental elements form a separable whole, then it is easy to see the “A “Part — Whole” Attachance.

Let’s use #5 as an example.

  • Name: It has a name: “The Future of Activity Analysis”
  • Form: It has an identifiable form.
  • Content: It has more than one identifiable entity.

The name “The Future of Activity Analysis” is separable from the above diagram. If we use “The Future of CALL” to replace it, then we get the same diagram. It means the content of the diagram doesn’t blend with the name.

Its form has two aspects. The first is the name has an anticipatory structure: “Present — Future”. The second is the three-phase structure that gives a solution to the anticipatory structure.

Its content has three phases and four dimensions. See the Semiotic System Diagram again.

The three-aspect framework of Mental Elements is a significant insight. We will use it for more case studies.



Oliver Ding
Editor for

Founder of CALL(Creative Action Learning Lab), information architect, knowledge curator.