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In semiotics, salience refers to the relative importance or prominence of a piece of a sign. The relative salience of a particular sign when considered in the context of others helps an individual to quickly rank large amounts of information by importance and thus give attention to that which is the most important. This process stops an individual from becoming mentally overloaded with data.


The human senses are enabled to provide a vast quantity of data to the mind at each and every given moment. The internal mental organisation of humans has come to be configured in such a way, through the process of neuro-cognitive evolution, to make possible a reaction despite this bombardment. In the course of the development of the science of semiotics, the process of converting signs into meaning has come to be called semiosis. Salience is an integral aspect of the sign or signs involved in semiosis that allows the mind to interpret the so-called data stream and to filter out the irrelevant, leaving only the salient signs. This is a metacognitive process working through schema that constitute a model of the world. Such schema are created through, and monitored by, 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 trained 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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