Ideas, empirical data and methodologies from a broad range of disciplines are deployed in exploring the functional borderline between subsymbolic and symbolic processing in human cognition. Initial clarification of functional relationships between the two forms of representation involves a brain monitoring study based on the concept of ‘semantic transparency.’ The search for further clarification focusses on two major issues, the ontogenetic and phylogenetic origins of local neural areas and processes underlying formation of distal associations between them. Pursuing these objectives has proved to be a challenging, interdisciplinary enterprise. A model of development of local neural areas is presented which assigns a critical role to astrocytes and their interaction with adjacent neurons. An extension to include the phylogenetic dimension, draws on the concept of ‘cortical inheritance’, a largely ignored aspect of genetic theory. An account of distal association formation involves co-option of hippocampal place fields for a new use.