Polyrhythms in Motivation Excavation: Mining for A.I. (“Authentic Intelligence”) with Adinkra Semiotics

Dr. W.N. Thomas IV
8 min readJun 2, 2023

This is a continuation of a series of articles focused on the strategic implementation of Adinkra symbols to activate, develop and apply motivational awareness to various research, education and leadership contexts. Motivational awareness is the ability to identify specific psychological needs that both impact your motivation and define your purpose in a designated social space. These needs include competence, relatedness and autonomy (Ryan and Deci, 2017). This means knowing what factors engage you in a way that impacts your body language, attitude and responsiveness to the environment.

Adinkra Semiotics

The modern western philosophical study of signs and symbols known as semiotics, began to be written about in the mid-nineteenth century by Charles Sanders Pierce. His research explored the cooperative interplay between three subjects: sign, object and interpretant. This triadic relationship was described with a philosophical logic that explained how signs signify themselves in relation to the type of combination of signs, objects, and interpretants. In addition, he emphasized that some signs can even incorporate and embody one another. However this triadic relational dynamic is not a new concept for indigenous cultures around the world. Many groups of people outside of the Western-European context (such as the Akan of West Africa) have used this language of symbols as a way to preserve a “collective unconscious” (Bynum, 2021) and spread their values system among the members of their community. Yet these indigenous funds of knowledge are rarely raised to the stature to anchor the best practices connected to research methodology, culturally relevant pedagogy or conscious leadership.

Permanent collection of Adinkra art at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. (photos by W.N. Thomas IV)

The Adinkra symbols have multilayered meanings that are understood at different levels of interpretation based on deep philosophical messages it conveys about social values and behaviors. However it’s important that the term “symbol” be interrogated so that it’s limited usage in this context of motivational awareness can be expanded to better understand the depth between these visual images and their contextual application. Temple (2010) emphasizes that the Adinkra system has been incorrectly described throughout the Diaspora and in West Africa today. Her research reveals that the term “symbol” or even “designs” do not fully express the authentic and timeless cultural values they communicate.

Some suggest that these seemingly innocent, yet reductionist, descriptions are just another example of the European inspired oversimplification of African culture. When Europeans encountered the Adinkra System, they dismissed the images as “symbols” and we fail to interrogate the description for the proper lexical refinement. (Temple, p 130)

The difficulty in translating the Adinkra system comes from how the interchange of ideas are multifaceted but yet gets reduced to simple literal translation of the symbol (Temple, 2010). However, the understanding of the term “Adinkra symbol” will be interchangeably used with “Adinkra communicator” and “Adinkra system” when describing the semiotic relationships between the ancient African philosophy and modern-day educational practices in research, leadership and instruction related to motivation. With meaningful application of the Adinkra system, the researcher, educational leader or teacher become what Gyekye (1997) describes as onyansafo which is a wise person and philosopher that “reflects, imagines, intuits and then condenses these reflections, imaginings and intuitions in proverbs’’ (p. 64).

Polyrhythmic application of the Adinkra system

Recognizing that these Adinkra communicators convey more than literal translations of objects or actions, the use of these communicators can be viewed similarly to musical notes, chords and melodies. In applying this multidimensional (cognitive, emotional and social applications) Adinkra system, researchers, leaders and educators are pushed to activate introspective rhythms, related to the contextual guidance from each communicator. However, these psychological processes that are impacted by sociological interactions, are understood within various cognitive, emotional and social funds of knowledge activated within different contextual time reflections that are oriented in the past, present and future (Sankofa). The unified practice of using the Adinkra system in critical self-reflection, particularly with each contextual time reflection manifesting as vibrational rhythms, creates a polyrhythm of self-knowledge activation that can be used for critical decisions, identity development, motivational awareness and healthy wellness. Polyrhythms are known in music as a combination of rhythms that are contrasting in nature. However, the unified logic between Adinkra communicators allows a music to be heard that harmonizes into messages and insights for researchers, educators and educational leaders to use to transform marginalized communities by disrupting inequitable and racist systems.

The “rhythmic concepts’’ in the Adinkra system are manifested in how the various Adinkra communicators are used within critical “rhythmic” Sankofian reflections. Each Adinkra communicator is unique and speaks its own individual message, allowing for personalized interpretation and creating opportunities for contextual application. The ability to apply motivational awareness depends on the genuine interrogating of self within different time reflections of one’s authentic past, relational present and potential futures, simultaneously creating an active perception of motivational transformation.

Motivation within a Polyrhythmic context

To understand the knowledge that can be gained from critical self-reflection, it is important to connect the exploration of memories as a means to better understand the origins and application of motivation. Motivation is understood to be the origin or cause of particular behaviors. The logic of polyrhythmics (Dompere, 2006) positions this abstract cause and effect relationship to have dual or polar contextual outcomes that can be positive or negative for the individual. Developing an awareness of both those agents of motivation that are extrinsic (externally controlled by the threat of punishment or potential for rewards) as well as intrinsic (autonomously internal sense of enjoyment or fulfillment) is an ethical practice for researchers as well as a practice that promotes longevity and sustainability for educators (and leaders) . However, the intrinsic characteristics of motivation is the focus when attempting to become aware of self-organization systems of this collective unconscious where funds of knowledge about one’s motivation can be revealed and ultimately applied within variations of phenomenological sociocultural contexts. The Sankofian Self-Organization Systems include:

  1. Self-reflection
  2. Self-communication
  3. Self-regulation
  4. Self-care
  5. Self-expression
Sankofian Self-motivation excavation using Nsaa and Akoben (created by W.N. Thomas IV)

The knowledge from the conscious sense-making within these renders an active consciousness that can be applied in context as motivational awareness. Mentor and Sealey-Ruiz (2021) emphasize that this practice of self-work is particularly important in the development of racial literacy within educational contexts. They describe that without it, “teachers cannot engage in and sustain deep conversations about race to explore how it impacts their teaching and what they need to change about their practice. While self-archeology of this kind must be done individually, it is also co-constructed,” (p. 20). Self-knowledge regarding motivation can springboard an entirely new experience of self-empowerment. This insight gives contextual guidance when navigating real-time decision-making and investing in proactive planning. Motivation reflection, when cognitively processed through the three rhythmic time contexts of Sankofa (past, present and future) can have a variety of functions when it comes to understanding how a particular variable within a contextual reality might influence a specific behavior (good or bad). Let’s take a look at the Adinkra communicators Nsaa (n-sah) as well as Akoben (ah-ko-ben) and unpack the complex nature of motivation by contextualizing it as it relates to understanding one’s authentic call to action or purpose.

Engaging the Nsaa wrapped Soul

The Nsaa represents the macro lens that researchers, educators and leaders should use to gain a deeper perception of various agents of self-motivation. Consciously applying this prism of authenticity and genuineness is necessary to make sense of all variables, possibilities and implications related to potential behavior variations. These rhythmic reflections should metaphorically be wrapped with the sincere recognition of the original self or soul — Sunsom (soon-soom) conceptually described in the Adinkra system. The concept of Nsaa extends the psychological positioning of the Sunsom in addition to embodying the human ability to determine what is authentic and what is fake. The African social value on the labor, craftsmanship, and intentionality behind the making of the Nsaa cloth is a manifestation of this psychological process of determining what is uniquely meaningful and true to your intrapersonal manifestation of self (intrinsic motivation) and what is inherently foreign (external motivation). The Akan proverb “Nea onnim nsaa na oto n’ago,” expresses the contextual coded knowledge of Nsaa translated as “He who does not know the real design will turn to an imitation.” This in essence speaks to the idea that one who does not know their intrinsic motivation will turn to extrinsic motivation to justify, guide and integrate autonomously within a given sociocultural context. The excavation of one’s genuine self will allow those engaged with vulnerable populations to hear the authentic call to action that reverberates through the concepts and hidden application of the Akoben.

Polyrhythmic Communicators and Sankofian Reflection Catalysts for Nsaa and Akoben. (created by W.N. Thomas IV)

Hearing the Akoben through the prism of the Authentic Self

The philosophy of the Akoben reveals itself in how villages in the African community would respond to the war horn in times of great threat. Alertness, mobility and action are connected to this communicator and also includes a key practice of interpretation and critical listening. However this interpretation, while at the core of the concept of motivation, can only be fully activated if the Nsaa cloth is wrapped around the authentic self. In the Akan social manifestation and communication of Akoben, a genuine and collective sense of mutual existence or relational unity was present to know when and why the horn was used and what should be done next. The interplay between how Nsaa and Akoben function within the process of obtaining greater motivational awareness, is crystalized with the extended application of other polyrhythmic Adinkra communicators. The secrets of one’s personal motivation system live in an active self-perception of self-transformation.


Bynum, E. B. (2021). Our African Unconscious: The Black Origins of Mysticism and Psychology. Inner Traditions.

Dompere, K. K. (2006). Polyrhythmicity: Foundations of African Philosophy.

Gyekye, K. (1997). Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience. Oxford University Press on Demand.

Mentor, M., & Sealey-Ruiz, Y. (2021). Doing the Deep Work of Antiracist Pedagogy: Toward Self-Excavation for Equitable Classroom Teaching. Language Arts, 99(1), 1.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. In Guilford Press eBooks. https://doi.org/10.1521/978.14625/28806

Temple, C. N. (2010). The Emergence of Sankofa Practice in the United States. Journal of Black Studies, 41(1), 127–150. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021934709332464



Dr. W.N. Thomas IV

Professorial Lecturer at American University in Washington, DC