May 23, 2011

“Ensnared in an inescapable web”

Posted in consciousness, Language and Myth tagged , , , at 5:53 pm by Jeremy

This blog describes how our current state of consciousness may be viewed as a “tyranny of the prefrontal cortex.”  Sounds a little extreme, perhaps?  Well, hopefully browsing the pages of this blog will persuade you.  But, if you have a desire to place this view in the context of some highly respected academic viewpoints, look no further than the celebrated cognitive neuroscientist, Merlin Donald, who describes this very tyranny with reference to what he calls “Big Brother culture.”  Or check out the equally respected anthropologist/neurosocientist, Terrence Deacon, who describes how our “symbolic universe has ensnared us in an inescapable web.”

This last section of my chapter on the “Rise of Mythic Consciousness,” from my book Liology: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, pulls together my concept of the external pfc with the viewpoints of these two other luminaries.


“Ensnared in an inescapable web”

How much are we in control of our own constructions of meaning that we apply to the world around us?  To what extent has our culture’s external pfc shaped our minds so that we can only think in the patterns we’ve inherited from the past?  Merlin Donald warns us that the external pfc has “assumed a certain autonomy”[1] and in many ways acts like an organism with its own volition.  He makes his point with some hard-hitting words:

Our cultures invade us and set our agendas.  Once we have internalized the symbolic conventions of a culture, we can never again be truly alone in semantic space, even if we were to withdraw to a hermitage or spend the rest of our lives in solitary confinement.  Big Brother culture owns us because it gets to us early.  As a result, we internalize its norms and habits at a very basic level.  We have no choice in this.  Culture influences what moves us, what we look for, and how we think for as long as we live.  We work out the vectors of our lives in a space that is defined culturally.  In some cases, this process involves a hierarchy of influences that are normally invisible to us.[2]

The external pfc invades our consciousness like an alien force from an old Star Trek re-run

Like an alien force from an old Star Trek re-run, the external pfc maintains its existence outside any one of us, and yet at the same time pervades our minds.  In Deacon’s description, it’s “not bounded within a mind or body, and derives its existence from outside – from other minds and other times.  It is implicitly part of a larger whole, and … is virtually present independent of the existence of the particular brain and body that support it.”[3]  But as Deacon points out, it is most certainly not virtual in its impact on the tangible world around us.  The abstract conceptions created by the external pfc – whether it’s Valhalla, Olympus, Heaven, Hell or God – “have been among the most powerful tools for shaping historical changes.  These abstract representations have physical efficacy.  They can and do change the world.  They are as real and concrete as the force of gravity or the impact of a projectile.”[4]  The generation that witnessed the tragic events of September 11, 2001 needs no reminder of the concrete consequences of abstract symbols.

This is the source of the power that has led in modern times to what I refer to as the tyranny of the pfc.  As Donald describes it, “we have created a collective organism that appears ominous at times.  Our interlinked nervous systems, newly powerful in their electronic extensions, are now challenging the supremacy of the natural world.”[5]  Deacon, perhaps even more chillingly, compares it to a “mind virus” that’s out of control:

The symbolic universe has ensnared us in an inescapable web.  Like a ‘mind virus’, the symbolic adaptation has infected us, and now by virtue of the irresistible urge it has instilled in us to turn everything we encounter and everyone we meet into symbols, we have become the means by which it unceremoniously propagates itself throughout the world.[6]

It should be emphasized that this view of the external pfc’s power over our minds is no mere intellectual exercise.  It has real and tangible implications for the future of the human race and the planet on which we reside.  It has led, as Deacon puts it, to “a new phase of cultural evolution – one that is much more independent of individual human brains and speech, and one that has led to a modern runaway process which may very well prove to be unsustainable into the distant future.”[7]  Other tyrannies in history have eventually come undone through the will of brave individuals who have refused to surrender their fate to an external authority.  But in this case it’s our own minds that are subject to the tyranny.  We’re dealing with “a gigantic cognitive web, defining and constraining the parameters of memory, knowledge, and thought in its members, both as individuals and as a group,” a web which can “threaten our intellectual autonomy… rob us of the freedom to think certain kinds of thoughts.”[8]

Our minds are ensnared in the "inescapable web" of the external pfc

When one first realizes the immense power that our culture has had over shaping the very structures of our minds, it’s tempting to surrender to it, to abdicate responsibility for trying to disentangle oneself  from the “inescapable web.”  However, daunting as the task may be, it’s not impossible to regain at least some autonomy from the grasp of the external pfc.  Even our brains themselves, sculpted from infancy by our cultural influences, can literally be reshaped to a certain degree.  As will be discussed later in this book, modern neuroscience has demonstrated that even an adult brain remains plastic, thus permitting us the power to consciously re-sculpt some of the structures of our thought that the external pfc had shaped in us from infancy.[9]  If we go back to the analogy of the brain’s neuronal organization as a field of tall grass, where paths have been created over time from frequent usage, it’s also possible to find new ways through the bush, even after the main thoroughfares have been laid down.  Finding a different pathway through the tall grass can be inconvenient, messy and even scary, so it’s clearly something you’d do only if you discover that the old paths lead you to places you don’t want to go.

This book is dedicated to identifying some of the foundational structures of thought that have shaped our own cultural patterning, and examining how they may be taking our civilization to places where we don’t want to go.  I believe that it is only through a clear identification of these underlying structures that we are able perceive them in our own minds and thereby gain some freedom to disentangle ourselves from the “inescapable web,” to undo the tyranny of the pfc within ourselves and ultimately, perhaps, to influence the shape of the external pfc that will sculpt the minds of future generations.

We’ve seen in this chapter how the underlying cognitive foundations of social intelligence, theory of mind and linguistic capability created the groundwork for the pfc to construct meaning in our world, and how the intrinsic “patterning instinct” of the pfc led inevitably to the formation of mythic consciousness as the backdrop of the modern human mind.  Now the time has come to turn our attention to the specifics of the “comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe” that infused the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose way of living was the only one we humans ever knew for ninety-five percent of our history.

[1] Ibid., 12.

[2] Ibid., 298-99.

[3] Deacon (1997) op. cit., 452-3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Donald (2001) op. cit., 300.

[6] Deacon (1997) op. cit., 436.

[7] Ibid., 375.

[8] Donald (2001) op. cit., xiv.

[9] Part III, Chapter __.  For an overview of modern neuroscientific findings on the plasticity of the adult brain, see Begley, S. (2007). Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, New York: Ballantine Books.

May 20, 2011

External symbolic storage

Posted in Language and Myth, Values and the pfc tagged , , at 10:11 am by Jeremy

My last post described what I call the “external pfc” – the accumulation of symbolic networks of meaning that literally sculpt the growing brain of every infant born into a particular culture.  This idea is not completely new.  A celebrated and influential cognitive neuroscientist, Merlin Donald, has described the power of what he calls “external symbolic storage,” an idea that has generated much interest in academic circles, including symposia dedicated solely to exploring this idea further.  This section of my book, Liology: Towards an Integration of Science and Spirit, describes the linkage between Donald’s idea of “external symbolic storage” and my concept of the external pfc.


External symbolic storage

Through these mechanisms, the external pfc exerts a profound influence on the shaping of the individual mind.  However, the power of the external pfc is magnified even further by the existence of what Donald refers to as “external symbolic storage.”  When early humans arrived in Europe and began carving and painting their first artefacts, they were forming external manifestations of the symbolic web of meaning structured by their mythic consciousness.  These were, in Donald’s words, “the first irrefutable expressions of a symbolic process that is capable of conveying a rich cultural heritage of images and probably stories from generation to generation.  And they are the first concrete evidence of the storage of such symbolic information outside of a human brain.  They mark a change in the structure of human cultures.”[1]  These were the original forms of external symbolic storage: the set of physical objects constructed, shaped or used by humans to hold and communicate a symbolic meaning beyond mere utilitarian function.

An early example of external symbolic storage: cave paintings from Lascaux, France.

While artwork is the most obvious example of external symbolic storage, it also includes personal ornamentation such as jewellery, stone-working styles, and even the spatial patterns of how a campsite is used.[2]  The crucial importance of this new form of symbolic storage is that now, the external pfc no longer resides merely in the network of other people’s minds.  It now takes up permanent residence in a set of concrete symbols that remain fixed, outliving  those who initially constructed them, and communicating stable symbolic meaning to countless new generations.  As Donald puts it, “this is more than a metaphor; each time the brain carries out an operation in concert with the external symbolic storage system, it becomes part of a network.  Its memory structure is temporarily altered; and the locus of cognitive control changes.”[3]

The power of external symbolic storage to shape the human mind arises partially from its fixed and stable attributes, but also because the nature of its symbolic meaning is different from the meaning that arises within a human mind.  Donald explains this crucial distinction by contrasting the biological memory records created by the brain, known as engrams, with external symbols which he calls “exograms.”  Engrams, he writes, are ” impermanent, small, hard to refine, impossible to display in awareness for any length of time, and difficult to locate and recall…  In contrast, external symbols give us stable, permanent, virtually unlimited memory records.”[4]

Because of this distinction, engrams and exograms store a qualitatively different type of information.  Consider a common abstract notion, such as patriotism.  Each time you think of your country, your mind will produce something slightly different than the previous time.  The concept arises within a tangled, momentary web of feeling, emotion, symbol, memory and narrative.  Now think of your nation’s flag.  The information stored in this external symbol is far more fixed, virtually unalterable.  The next time the flag is unfurled it will store the same symbolic information that it held the previous time.  Of course, over extended periods, even the information of exograms may degrade or disappear.  We no longer know what the Lascaux cave paintings symbolize.  But it is the relatively fixed nature of exograms that gives them so much power to influence each new generation of human minds.

A more modern example of external symbolic storage

External symbolic storage may therefore be said to stabilize symbolic meaning within a group, thus permitting communities to expand massively in size and complexity without disintegrating.  As Tomasello has pointed out, institutions that we take for granted such as marriage, money or government, exist only because their reality is grounded in “the collective practices and beliefs of a social group” that relies on external symbolic storage to maintain permanent and stable meaning.  Since the days of the Upper Paleolithic revolution, the sheer volume of external symbolic storage has of course expanded vastly.  In our modern world, it incorporates virtually everything around us, including books, newspapers, the internet, television, music, architecture, interior design, fashion, road signs… the list is endless.   Without external symbolic storage, human civilization could never have developed.  However, it has implications for the autonomy of each individual pfc’s search for meaning which need to be clearly understood.

[1] Donald (2001) op. cit., 374.

[2] For a full discussion of these other types of external symbolic storage, see Wadley, L. (2001). “What is Cultural Modernity?  A General View and a South African Perspective from Rose Cottage Cave.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 11(2(2001)), 201-21.

[3] Donald, (2001) op. cit., 313.

[4] Ibid., 308-10.

May 11, 2011

The External Pfc

Posted in consciousness, Language and Myth tagged , , , at 10:46 pm by Jeremy

This blog describes how our consciousness is under excessive control from our prefrontal cortex (pfc).  But it’s not just our own pfc that controls our consciousness.  Far more powerful is the control exercised by the external pfc,  that cumulative collection of symbolic patterns over countless generations that governs how our own brains connected up as we developed in infancy.  That’s what this section of my book, Liology: Towards An Integration of Science and Spirit, is about.


The external pfc

With all the discussion of metaphors, you might be tempted to think that the notion of an individual’s pfc being molded by the thought structures around her is itself a metaphor, that it’s not literally describing a physical process.  However, in this case, it’s no metaphor.  The pfc of each individual infant growing up in her culture is quite literally shaped by the structures of thought that have evolved in that specific culture.

In order to see how this can be, it’s necessary to understand the basic process of how an infant’s brain matures.  In recent years, neuroscientists have made great progress in identifying these dynamics, and it’s now become clear that infant brain development is to a large extent a pruning process.  In the embryo and the newly born infant, massive amounts of neuronal connections, known as synapses, are formed quite variably and spontaneously.  As the infant gets used to certain behaviors, such as grasping, nursing or cooing, the synaptic junctions that led to a successful behavior quickly get strengthened by increased usage.  However, those connections which are never used by the infant begin to wither away.  As the infant grows, this process of synaptic reinforcement continues until some pathways are massively strengthened while countless others which turned out be useless have died out.  A useful analogy to visualize this process is an uncultivated field of tall grass through which, all of a sudden, people begin walking to get to various places they need to go.  At first, everyone’s beating about the bush, but after a while, certain trails begin to appear in the grass, as the most successful routes taken become more popular and cause the wild grass to get flattened down, so that eventually clear pathways emerge through the field.  The clearer the pathway, the more likely it is to be used by the next person, thus leading to a positive feedback cycle.  This process in the brain is sometimes referred to as synaptic pruning, because the less useful neurons and synaptic pathways are pruned away by lack of use.[1]*

Neuronal connections grow over time like trails through tall grass

This is how the pfc of each individual infant is literally molded by external factors which, as Donald describes, “can actually change the operational architecture of cognition in the individual by influencing the developing brain.”[2]  In a 2009 paper entitled “Foundations for a New Science of Learning,” one team points out that human infants remain immature for a far longer period than other animals, as the brain continues to grow throughout childhood.  This slow process of maturation permits the brain to adapt to the specific variables of the outside world through a process that they call “neural commitment,” whereby the brain’s “neural architecture and circuitry” is molded based on the “structured models” of the environment that the infant perceives.[3]  Another research team supports these findings, describing how “the extended postnatal development of the human cortex” permits “synaptic proliferation and pruning” to “restructure the maturing brain in response to the environment and to the community of practices in which development is embedded.”[4]

Because of this process, a human born in the modern world might be genetically identical to one of our ancestors born before, say, the Upper Paleolithic revolution, but if a brain scan could be performed on both individuals at maturity, they would look very different.  Cognitive neuroscientist Wolf Singer points out that “the organization of our brains is not only determined by the genes” but is also shaped by the influences of our “socio-cultural environment …  This is the reason why the fine-grained connectivity of our brains differs from that of our cave-dwelling ancestors despite the rather similar genetic dispositions.”  He explains that the differences in our brains would not be in the general layout and gross structure, but rather in the “the dense meshwork of local intracortical connections.”[5]

The external pfc is the sculptor of each individual's brain

So the brain is literally sculpted by the influences it receives in its early years.  But what’s doing the sculpting?  What I’m calling the “external pfc” is the cumulative symbolic network of meaning that’s been constructed by countless generations of minds within a given cultural tradition.  The pfc of each person born into that tradition is sculpted by the previous accumulation of symbolic meanings, and then may contribute its own unique interpretations of the inherited symbolic network to modify incrementally the external pfc for the next generation.  It’s important to understand that, although the external pfc, with its accumulation of prior meaning, is far more powerful than any individual pfc, the relationship between them is, to a certain degree, mutually interactive.  As described by one team of cognitive scientists:

The nervous system, the body and the environment are highly structured dynamical systems, coupled to each other on multiple levels.  Because they are so thoroughly enmeshed – biologically, ecologically and socially – a better conception of brain, body and environment would be as mutually embedded systems rather than as internally and externally located with respect to one another.[6]

The integration of symbolic meaning between an individual and his culture allows “human beings to, in effect, pool their cognitive resources both contemporaneously and over historical time in ways that are unique in the animal kingdom.”[7]  This symbolic interaction is the hallmark of culture and is viewed by many experts as the major driver of the massive changes that humans have brought to their environment over the millennia.  The famed evolutionary biologist, Conrad Waddington, sees as the defining characteristic of humanity “an extremely elaborate system by which the whole conceptual understanding of the past is made available to present recruits to human society.  We have here what in effect amounts to a new mode of hereditary transmission.  It may be referred to as the cultural or ‘socio-genetic’ system.”[8]

Is the external pfc, then, merely another term for what’s generally known as culture?  While there are subtle differences between the two, this is largely correct.  However, the word “culture” is often very broadly and loosely defined, and so I call it the “external pfc” to emphasize the symbolic network of meaning that interacts with the pfc of each individual growing up within a culture.  Two different definitions of culture by experts in the field will illustrate my point:

1.  “Culture is information capable of affecting individuals’ behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission.”[9]

2.  “By cognition, I mean simply the internal structure of ideas that represent the world and that directs behaviors appropriate to the world represented.  By culture, I intend only the distributed structure of cognition, that is, the causal networking of ideas and behaviors within and between minds.”[10]

The first definition emphasizes a one-way flow from society to the individual and focuses on the behavioral, rather than cognitive, effects of cultural transmission.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this definition, but it misses the dynamic I’ve been describing.  The second definition, on the other hand, points out the “distributed structure of cognition” and emphasizes a two-way flow of causal networking.   This cumulative and dynamic network of meaning “within and between minds” is what I mean by the external pfc.

However, interactive as the relationship may be between the external pfc and the individual mind, it’s certainly not a level playing field.  The external pfc is guaranteed to shape the individual’s pfc far more extensively than vice versa.  There are a number of reasons for this.  The first is that the external pfc, as a cumulative aggregation of meaning, offers a far more extensive modeling of the universe than an individual mind could ever hope to achieve.  Secondly, the individual mind is being molded when it is too new and unformed to make up its own patterns of meaning, so that by the time an individual has achieved a level of self-awareness enabling him to attempt to structure his own meaning, the neural pathways in his mind have already been largely sculpted.

Donald describes well how the process he calls “deep enculturation” begins from birth to “affect the way major parts of the executive brain become wired up during development”:

Shortly after birth, the infant is wedded to a specific culture that takes control of its cognitive development through a series of transactions.  This may sound improbable because cultural linkages are invisible to the child.  They hide behind many surrogates, such as parents, family, tribal customs, institutions, and so on.  These are the carriers of the culture, the front lines of the infant’s encounter with vast collective forces that it never sees and whose existence even the surrogates may not suspect.[11]

The impact of deep enculturation is “so close to us,” Donald notes, “that we are normally unaware of it.”  In fact, as we mature, the most structural aspects of this enculturation become embedded deep in our unconscious.  “All of our knowledge and beliefs,” write Lakoff and Johnson, “are framed in terms of a conceptual system that resides mostly in the cognitive unconscious,” which acts like a “hidden hand that shapes how we conceptualize all aspects of our experience…, how we automatically and unconsciously comprehend what we experience.”[12]


[1] The neuroscientist Gerald Edelman is credited with first developing this understanding of infant brain development, with his theory of “neural Darwinism.”  See Rosenfield, I. (1986). “Neural Darwinism: A New Approach to Memory and Perception.” The New York Review of Books, 33(15 [Oct. 9, 1986]).  Also see Edelman, G. M., and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, New York: Basic Books, 83-4 for a discussion in Edelman’s own words.  Separately, neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux developed a similar theory of “learning by selection”; see Rosenfield, I., and Ziff, E. (2008). “How the Mind Works: Revelations.” The New York Review of Books, June 26, 2008, 62-65 for a discussion of Changeux’s approach.

[2] Donald, M. (1999). “Material Culture and Cognition: Concluding Thoughts”, in C. Renfrew and C. Scarre, (eds.), Cognition and Material Culture: the Archaeology of Symbolic Storage. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 181-187.

[3] Meltzoff, A. N., Kuhl, P. K., Movellan, J., and Sejnowski, T. J. (2009). “Foundations for a New Science of Learning.” Science, 325(17 July 2009), 284-288.

[4] Brooks, P. J., and Ragir, S. (2008). “Prolonged plasticity: Necessary and sufficient for language-ready brains.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31(5 (2008)), 514-515.

[5] Singer, W. (2009). “The Brain, a Complex Self-Organizing System.” European Review, 17(2), 321-29.

[6] Thompson, E., and Varela, F. J. (2001). “Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(10), 418-425.

[7] Tomasello, M. (1999). “The Human Adaptation for Culture.” Annual Review of Anthropology(28), 509-29.

[8] Waddington, C. H. (1959). “Evolutionary Systems – Animal and Human.” Nature, 183, 1634-1638.

[9] Richerson, P. J., and Boyd, R. (2005). Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[10] Atran, S. (2002) op .cit., 10.

[11]Donald, M. (2001). A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness, New York: Norton, 211-12.

[12] Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books, 13.

November 28, 2010

The patterning instinct

Posted in Hunter-gatherers, Language and Myth tagged , , , , at 12:11 am by Jeremy

The human prefrontal cortex (pfc) instills in us a patterning instinct that shapes patterns of meaning to make sense of our world.  This section from my book Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness explains how this patterning instinct forms the essence of our mythic consciousness that is the source of religious thought.  It then begins to explore the question of how an infant’s pfc first begins to lock into the patterns of meaning of its specific culture.


The patterning instinct

The !Kung Bushmen possess one of the most ancient unbroken cultural traditions in the world.  As noted earlier, they belong genetically to one of the earliest lineages of the human race, dating back to before the takeover by the L3 lineage which now dominates the globe.  Their technology, “if uncovered by an archeologist and taken in isolation, would place them in the late Stone Age.”  Not surprisingly, anthropologists have been drawn to study them to gain insights into the earliest forms of human cognition.  Merlin Donald describes how “myth and religion permeate every activity” of their daily lives from the way they hunt wild animals to the celebration of a girl’s first menstruation.  The !Kung take their beliefs so seriously that they will rarely even discuss them; when they do, it’s only with hushed voices, and they’re afraid even to utter the names of their gods.  Donald summarizes their mythical thought  as “a unified, collectively held system of explanatory and regulatory metaphors.” He sees their sophisticated and complex ritual and myth as a paradigmatic example of how the human mind “has expanded its reach … to a comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe.”[1]

!Kung Bushmen: their mythic consciousness arises from the patterning instinct of the pfc

This is the essence of the mythic consciousness that arose with the Upper Paleolithic revolution, and it’s one that Donald relates closely to the development of fully modern language.  Modern language was first used, he proposes, “to construct conceptual models of the human universe.  Its function was evidently tied to the development of integrative thought – to the grand unifying synthesis of formerly disconnected, time-bound snippets of information.”  The pre-eminence of myth in early human society, Donald argues, is “testimony that humans were using language for a totally new kind of integrative thought,” which involved the “first attempts at symbolic models of the human universe.”[2] This is why, as Boyer has put it, “religion as we know it probably appeared with the modern mind.”[3]

In the previous chapter, we discussed how the pfc’s patterning instinct works to mold the young infant’s brain by picking up patterns in the voices she hears around her until she locks into those sounds that match her particular language, ignoring those that don’t fit.[4] Similarly, we now see the pfc honing into patterns of meaning to make sense of the everyday world, to create Donald’s “comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe.”  Crucially, the way the pfc applies meaning is to use the same symbolic behavior that it had developed for its social and linguistic capabilities.  As Deacon describes it, “the symbolic capacity seems to have brought with it a predisposition to project itself into what it models.”  Deacon compares the pfc’s symbolic predisposition to the relentlessly focused perceptions of an autistic savant.  The savant, he writes, “instead of seeing a field of wildflowers, sees 247 flowers.  Similarly, we don’t just see a world of physical processes, accidents, reproducing organisms, and biological information processors churning out complex plans, desires, and needs.  Instead, we see the handiwork of an infinite wisdom, the working out of a divine plan, the children of a creator, and a conflict between those on the side of good and those on the side of evil.”  This is the inevitable and all-embracing power of the mythic consciousness.  “Wherever we look, we expect to find purpose.  All things can be seen as signs and symbols of an all-knowing consciousness at work… We are not just applying symbolic interpretations to human words and events; all the universe has become a symbol.”[5]

It’s only in recent years that advances in cognitive neuroscience have enabled the linkage of our symbolic drive for meaning with the physiology of the pfc.  However, earlier observers have at times noticed the same unyielding drive for meaning in the human condition without the explicit attribution to the pfc.  The father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, saw this “craving to understand” as a natural consequence of human cognition, writing that “as soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally crave to understand what was passing around him, and would have vaguely speculated on his own existence.”[6] The influential 20th century anthropologist Clifford Geertz saw something similar, describing a human as a “symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animal,” whose “drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and as pressing as the more familiar biological needs.”  Geertz sees religion, art and ideology – the products of mythic consciousness – as “attempts to provide orientation for an organism which cannot live in a world it is unable to understand.”[7] More recently, other observers have arrived at similar conceptions to the pfc’s patterning instinct, one group describing a “cognitive imperative” for humans to “construct myths to explain their world,” and another researcher summarizing it as a “narrative drive” to “create meaning to our world.”[8]

Clifford Geertz: saw a human as a "symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animal"

Powerful as this patterning instinct of the pfc appears to be, we would severely understate the overwhelming force of its influence in molding our human consciousness unless we look more closely at the process of how the molding and patterning takes place in an infant’s developing mind.  Just as language “warps the perception” of an infant as she listens to the patterns of sounds around her, to the extent that a grown Japanese person can’t distinguish between the sounds /r/ and /l/, so the mythic patterns of thought informing the culture a child is born into will literally shape how that child’s pfc constructs meaning in her world.  It’s as though there is an external pfc created by the cumulative symbolic constructions of generations of minds gone before, which has already assembled the comprehensive mythological structures of thought that will be inherited by the new generation.  How this “external pfc” molds each individual’s own pfc as they grow up in their culture is what we’ll now examine.

[1] Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 213-16, 267.  Donald cites an earlier study of the !Kung Bushmen in his evaluation of their cultural traditions: Lee, R.B. and De Vore, I. (1976).  Kalahari hunter-gatherers: Studies of the !Kung Sang and their neighbors. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Boyer (2001) op. cit., 323.

[4] Chapter 3, page 39.

[5] Deacon (1997) op. cit., 435.

[6] Cited from Darwin, C. (1871)The Descent of Man by Sjöblom (2007) op. cit.

[7] Cited by Guthrie (1993) op. cit., 32.

[8] d’Aquili, E., and Newberg, A. B. (1999). The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 86; Sjöblom (2007) op. cit.

November 12, 2010

Religion as a spandrel

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , , , , at 11:20 pm by Jeremy

This section of my chapter, “The Rise of Mythic Consciousness”, examines the emerging view held by cognitive anthropologists of religion as a “spandrel” or a superfluous by-product of the structure of the human mind.  While this view yields some compelling results, I suggest that in fact religion, as a product of mythic consciousness, is a natural and inevitable result of the workings of the prefrontal cortex.  The chapter is taken from the book I’m writing entitled Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.


Religion as a spandrel

Evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin once kicked off a deservedly famous paper by describing the great central dome of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.  There are beautiful mosaics covering not just the central circles of the dome but also the arches holding it up, along with the triangular spaces formed where two arches meet each other at right angles.  These spaces are called spandrels, and Gould and Lewontin used them to illustrate a hugely influential evolutionary theory.  A spandrel doesn’t, by itself, serve any purpose.  It simply exists as an architectural by-product of the arches which of course serve a crucial purpose, holding up the dome.  But if someone looked at the beautifully decorated spandrels without knowing anything about architecture, they would see them as an integral part of the architectural design.  The living world, Gould and Lewontin argued, is full of evolutionary spandrels, features or functions that seem to have evolved for a specific purpose but which, on closer evaluation, turn out to have been a superfluous by-product of something else.[1]

A spandrel in St. Mark's Cathedral, Venice: is religion another spandrel?

For some cognitive anthropologists, religion is a spandrel.  To understand how religion evolved, they believe that you need to look, not just at religion itself, but at some of the key cognitive functions of the modern human mind, and what you find is that religion developed as a by-product or side-effect of those functions.  “Religion ensues,” writes Scott Atran, “from the ordinary workings of the human mind as it deals with emotionally compelling problems of human existence, such as birth, aging, death, unforeseen calamities, and love.”[2] It’s a “converging by-product of several cognitive and emotional mechanisms that evolved for mundane adaptive tasks.”[3]

These cognitive mechanisms are ones that we’re already familiar with from what we know about the workings of the pfc.  They include the all-important theory of mind,  along with our ability for thinking about people even though they’re distant from us in space and time, known as “displacement,” as well as our power to hold “counterfactuals” in our mind: things that we can consider even though we know them not to be true, such as “if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated…”[4] Without attempting a complete review of how these cognitive mechanisms engendered religion, we’ll examine some of the more important examples to get an idea for how the process is seen to work.

One of the most widespread aspects of religious thought worldwide and throughout history is the belief that a spirit exists separately from a body.  In order to see how this might relate to the pfc, consider the underlying process that leads to our capability for displacement.  As young infants, we quickly learn that people can apparently disappear and then reappear, sometimes minutes, hours or even days later.  A realization that consequently occurs to us is the continued existence of that person even while she has disappeared.  This continued existence of someone who’s left our immediate vicinity soon becomes an essential ingredient of our social intelligence, allowing us to think, for example, about what the other person would feel or think if they were there.  It is a relatively simple step for the same practice of displacement to apply to the thoughts and feelings of a dead person.  In one study showing our “natural disposition toward afterlife beliefs,” some kindergarten-age children were presented with a puppet show, where an anthropomorphized mouse was killed and eaten by an alligator.  When the children were asked about the biological aspects of the dead mouse, such as whether he still needed to eat or relieve himself, they were clear that this was no longer the case.  Yet when they were asked whether the dead mouse was still thinking or feeling, most children answered yes.  These beliefs could not be attributed to cultural indoctrination, because when older children were asked the same questions, they were less likely to attribute continued thoughts and feelings to the dead mouse.  These results led the researchers to suggest that the belief that a dead person still exists in some form may actually be our “default cognitive stance,” part of our “intuitive pattern of reasoning.”[5]

This makes even more sense when we remember, as noted in Chapter 2, that the same part of the pfc – the medial prefrontal cortex – is activated when we think about others and when we exercise self-awareness to think about ourselves.[6] As a result of our self-awareness, we tend to “feel our ‘self’ to be the owner of the body, but we are not the same as our bodies.”[7]*  It doesn’t take too much of a mental leap to view others in the same way, and therefore assume that when their bodies die, their “selves” continue to exist, especially since we can still think about them, talk about them, and imagine what they would be feeling about something.  As one researcher puts it, “social-intelligence systems do not ‘shut off’ with death; indeed most people still have thoughts and feelings about the recently dead.”[8] Given our social intelligence as the source of our unique cognition, it’s much easier for our minds to think of someone still existing but not being there in person, than it is to conceive of them ceasing to exist altogether.

Besides naturally believing in spirits, little children also intuitively believe that everything exists for a purpose, a viewpoint known as teleology, and one that is inextricably intertwined with religious thought.  Psychologist Deborah Kelemen has conducted a number of studies of children’s beliefs with some intriguing results.  When American 7- and 8-year olds were asked why prehistoric rocks were pointy, they rejected physical explanations like “bits of stuff piled up for a long period of time” for teleological explanations such as “so that animals wouldn’t sit on them and smash them” or “so that animals could scratch on them when they got itchy.”  Similarly, the children explained that “clouds are for raining” and rejected more physical reasons even when told that adults explained them this way.  Similar results were found in British children, who are raised in a culture markedly less religious-oriented than that of the United States.  Kelemen explains these findings as “side effects of a socially intelligent mind that is naturally inclined to privilege intentional explanation and is, therefore, oriented toward explanations characterizing nature as an intentionally designed artifact.”[9]*

Pointy rocks: 7-year-olds think they have a teleological explanation

As we get older, we may accept other reasons for pointy rocks, but we can never really overcome the powerful drive in our minds to assign agency to inanimate objects and actions.  If we’re home alone on a dark, stormy night and we hear a door creaking open in the other room, our first reaction is fear that it might be an intruder, not that it’s just the wind blowing the door open.  We have, as Atran puts it, “a naturally selected cognitive mechanism for detecting agents – such as predators, protectors, and prey,” and this mechanism is “trip-wired to attribute agency to virtually any action that mimics the stimulus conditions of natural agents: faces on clouds, voices in the wind, shadow figures, the intentions of cars or computers, and so on.”[10] It’s clear how these “agency detector” systems have served a powerful evolutionary purpose: if it was in fact just the wind blowing the door, there’s no harm in making a mistake other than a brief surge of adrenaline; if however, it really was an intruder in your house but you assumed it was just the wind, the mistake you made could possibly cost you your life.

More generally, the heightened risk of not identifying when another person is the cause of something has led to our universal tendency towards rampant anthropomorphism.  Stewart Guthrie, author of a book aptly named Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, argues that “anthropomorphism may best be explained as the result of an attempt to see not what we want to see or what is easy to see, but what is important to see: what may affect us for better or worse.”  Because of our powerful anthropomorphic tendency, “we search everywhere, involuntarily and unknowingly, for human form and results of human action, and often seem to find them where they do not exist.”[11]

When our anthropomorphic tendency is applied to religious thought, what’s notable is that it’s the human mind, rather than any other aspect of humans, that’s universally applied to spirits and gods.  Anthropologist Pascal Boyer notes that “the only feature of humans that is always projected onto supernatural beings is the mind.”[12] This, of course, makes sense in light of the evolutionary development of theory of mind as a core underpinning of our social intelligence.[13] This is the first time that we see a dynamic (which we will see again later in this book) of the human mind imputing its own pfc-mediated capabilities into external constructs of its own creation.  In this case, it is the power of symbolic thought that is assigned to the gods, as Guthrie describes:

How religion differs from other anthropomorphism is that it attributes the most distinctive feature of humans, a capacity for language and related symbolism, to the world.  Gods are persons in large part because they have this capacity.  Gods may have other important features, such as emotions, forethought, or a moral sense, but these are made possible, and made known to humans, by symbolic action.[14]

The approach to understanding religion as a spandrel clearly yields some compelling results, and casts a spotlight on how the pfc’s evolved capabilities can lead to consequences far removed from the original evolutionary causes of its powers.   There are, it should be noted, other theories of the rise of religion which, while not contradictory to the spandrel approach, emphasize very different factors, such as the role of religion in maintaining social and moral cohesion in increasingly large and complex societies.  However, the spandrel explanation, attractive as it is, tends to lead to a conclusion that religious thought of some kind is a likely, but not an essential part of human cognition.  In Boyer’s words, it suggests “a picture of religion as a probable, although by no means inevitable by-product of the normal operation of human cognition.” [15]

In contrast to this view, I would propose that underlying the cognitive structure of religious thought is a mythic consciousness that is a natural and inevitable result of the workings of the pfc.  We saw in the previous chapter that what has been conventionally termed a “language instinct” is really a more fundamental “patterning instinct” of the pfc.[16] Similarly here, as we look for the underlying driver of religious thought, we will see that the pfc’s “patterning instinct” leads as inevitably to a mythic consciousness as it does to language itself.


[1] Gould, S. J., and Lewontin, R. C. (1979). “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Biological Sciences. City, pp. 581-598.

[2] Atran (2002) op. cit.

[3] Atran, S., and Norenzayan, A. (2004). “Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27(6), 713-730.

[4] See Chapter 3, page 32 for a discussion of these abilities with respect to language.

[5] Bering, J. M. (2006). “The folk psychology of souls.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29(5), 453-498.

[6] Chapter 2, page 20.

[7] Pyysiäinen, I., and Hauser, M. (2010). “The origins of religion: evolved adaptation or by-product?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(3), 104-109, citing Bloom, P. (2004) Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes us Human, Basic Books.  This sense of a “self” distinct from the body  is discussed in more detail in Part II of this book.

[8] Boyer, P. (2003). “Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(3: March 2003), 119-124.

[9] Kelemen, D. (2004). “Are Children “Intuitive Theists”?: Reasoning About Purpose and Design in Nature.” Psychological Science, 15(5), 295-301; Kelemen, D., and Rosset, E. (2009). “The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults.” Cognition, 111, 138-143.  Her view is supported by Michael Tomasello who believes that “human causal understanding… evolved first in the social domain to comprehend others as intentional agents,” thus allowing our hominid ancestors to predict and explain the behavior of others in their social group.”  See Tomasello, M. (2000). The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 23-5.

[10] Atran (2002) op. cit.

[11] Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, New York: Oxford University Press, 82-3, 187.  Italics in original.

[12] Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, New York: Basic Books, 144-5.  Italics in original.

[13] See Chapter 2, page 19.

[14] Guthrie, op. cit., 198.

[15] Boyer (2003) op. cit.

[16] Chapter 3, “The ‘language instinct'”, pages 38-40.

November 6, 2010

The tragedy of cognition

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , at 11:04 pm by Jeremy

This section of my chapter, “The Rise of Mythic Consciousness,” from my book Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, looks at the theory that fear of death was responsible for the original rise of religion.


The tragedy of cognition

We’ve already had plenty of reasons to be impressed by the power of the pfc’s capabilities, even by this early stage in human history.  The unique connectivity of the pfc was responsible for our developing theory of mind, thus seeing others as independent agents; for creating hierarchies of thoughts, leading to complex tools and the recursion of language; and for crossing the metaphoric threshold that permitted us to think and communicate abstract thoughts, possibly leading to us becoming the only hominid species still around today.  But all these powers came at a terrible cost, something that one researcher has aptly described as the “tragedy of cognition.”[1]

Once you understand that those around you are thinking and feeling people just like you, a disturbing crescendo of connections will happen in your mind when one of those people dies.  It’s very clear to you that the mind and life force that previously animated that dead person have vanished.  And if that’s what happens to those around you, then by applying your pfc-mediated power to project future scenarios, you soon realize that this will eventually be your own fate.  Coursing along the pfc’s connections to the emotional centers of our brain, this realization quickly merges with the powerful evolutionary drive to live and becomes a terrible, profound dread at the inevitable future reality of our own death.  Terrence Deacon expresses well the inextricable linkage between our symbolic powers and the dread of death:

Knowledge of death, of the inconceivable possibility that the experiences of life will end, is a datum that only symbolic representation can impart.  Other species may experience loss, and the pain of separation, and the difficulty of abandoning a dead companion; yet without the ability to represent this abstract counterfactual (at least for the moment) relationship, there can be no emotional connection to one’s own future death.[2]

Early human burial remains: humans began burying their dead well before the Upper Paleolithic revolution

It seems reasonable to assume that there’s some connection between the emergence of that dread of death and the earliest signs of our ancestors burying their dead.  The first deliberate burials yet discovered date back to about ninety-five thousand years ago, before even the cross-hatched ochre from Blombos Cave, and there’s clear evidence that the Neanderthals also buried their dead.  So this tragedy of cognition seems to date back to a relatively early phase in the rise of our symbolic powers which has been searingly described by one archaeologist as “the birth of metaphysical anguish.”[3]

Not surprisingly, there has been a long tradition implicating this fear of death in the emergence of religious thought.  For example, the famed 20th century anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, theorized that “strong personal attachments and the fact of death, which of all human events is the most upsetting and disorganizing to man’s calculations, are perhaps the main sources of religious belief.”  For Malinowski, religion is the “affirmation that death is not real, that man has a soul and that this is immortal, [and] arises out of a deep need to deny personal destruction.”  Following his theme, a school of thought has since arisen called “terror management theory,” which posits that “spiritual beliefs serve the function of helping humans deny the finality of death.”  In this theory, just as an infant gains comfort and security from the authority of her parents, so as she grows up and becomes aware of death, she is comforted by the notion of deities who are frequently seen as patriarchal or matriarchal figures.

This all makes sense, as far as it goes.  However, it seems noteworthy that the fear of death extended all the way back to Neanderthals and other pre-humans, so it doesn’t seem like quite enough to account for all the complexity of religious thought.  Was there perhaps something in the cognitive breakthrough that caused the Upper Paleolithic revolution that was also responsible for the emergence of religious thought as we now know it?  Several cognitive anthropologists have recently proposed that this is, indeed, the case.


[1] Atran, S. (2002). In Gods We Trust, New York: Oxford University Press, 66-67.

[2] Deacon, T. W. (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, New York: Norton, 436-7.

[3] Culotta, E. (2009). “On the Origin of Religion.” Science, 326(6 November 2009), 784-787, quoting Henry de Lumley; Sjöblom, T. (2007). “Spandrels, Gazelles and Flying Buttresses: Religion as Adaptation or as a By-Product.” Journal of Cognition and Culture, 7(3-4), 293-312.

October 31, 2010

Out of Africa

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , at 11:07 pm by Jeremy

This section of my book, Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, covers the exodus of modern humans from Africa, and describes what happened when they met the Neanderthals in Europe.  It’s taken from the chapter “The Rise of Mythic Consciousness.”  The section begins by answering the question posed at the end of the previous section, called the “sapient paradox”: if modern humans evolved over 150,000 years, why did it take until 40,000 years ago for human to show symbolic behavior in the Upper Paleolithic revolution?


Out of Africa

Well actually, according to a growing number of experts, it did happen sooner.  A lot sooner.  In fact, there’s evidence that the beginnings of cultural modernity may have occurred at least seventy-five thousand years ago.  It’s just that it wasn’t in Europe that these stirrings of modernity first showed up, but in South Africa.  In recent years, excavations at two important sites on the coastline of South Africa – Howieson’s Poort and Blombos Cave – have uncovered startling new evidence of symbolic behavior by our human ancestors a full thirty-five thousand years before the Upper Paleolithic revolution in Europe.  Some of the findings include engraved ostrich eggshells and perforated shells that were probably used as personal ornaments, but the most striking treasure unearthed to date has been one particular piece of ochre with a series of complex cross-hatched lines engraved into it.[1] [Figure 3.]  These lines, in the view of archaeologists Renfrew and Mellars “seem certainly to be deliberate patterning”  and represent “the earliest unambiguous forms of abstract ‘art’ so far recorded,” and, along with the other findings, suggest that “the human revolution developed first in Africa … between 150,000 and 70,000 years ago.”[2] In fact, some additional engraved pieces have been found that are even older, leading Mellars to assert that “there is now no question that explicitly symbolic behavior was taking place by 100,000 years ago or earlier.”[3]*

Ochre with cross-hatching from Blombos Cave, South Africa

If our ancestors were thinking symbolically and behaving like modern humans a hundred thousand years ago, then what about the Upper Paleolithic revolution and the Great Leap Forward?  Doesn’t it perhaps begin to seem like a series of tentative steps rather than a great leap?  Certainly some observers think so.  Two archaeologists, Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks, have caused a stir with an article entitled “The revolution that wasn’t: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior,” arguing exactly this point.[4] And even the momentous findings in Blombos and Howieson’s Poort seem to peter out of the archaeological record after that, suggesting “intermittent” advances in modernity rather than one sweeping tidal wave of progress.[5] Mellars describes the process as possibly “a gradual working out of these new cognitive capacities” of our human ancestors “under the stimulus of various kinds of environmental, demographic, or social pressures.”[6]

But if the excitement of the Great Leap Forward is somewhat diminished, another epic story, perhaps grander than any other, has come into the foreground.  It’s a story that’s emerged through advances in mitochondrial DNA analysis, through which scientists can trace the patterns of previous molecular changes in the DNA of modern humans and thus establish accurate time estimates regarding the migrations of different human groups.  The story can only be called “Out of Africa”  and it goes something like this.  At some time around sixty to eighty thousand years ago, a certain lineage of humans (known as L3 based on their mitochondrial DNA type)  began to expand throughout Africa, becoming the majority population throughout the continent with the exception of the Khoisan (Bushmen) and the Biaka (Pygmies). One group of this L3 lineage got as far north as Ethiopia and from this group a small initial contingent, no more than a few hundred people at most, migrated across the mouth of the Red Sea, through Arabia and eastward along southern Asia until reaching Australia.  This epic journey happened sometime during the period between fifty to sixty-five thousand years ago.   A some point during this migration, another group headed north into western or central Asia, and from there arrived in Europe, where their descendants eventually instigated the Upper Paleolithic “revolution.”  A couple of startling facts arise from this story.  The first is that all non-African people currently alive today are descendants of this very small group of several hundred that made its way across the Red Sea.  Secondly, because of this, there is a far wider genetic diversity between different African populations than between all other non-African people on the planet. [7]

It’s a grand story, but it still raises as many questions as it answers.  What led to the original expansion of the L3 group through Africa?  And how does that tie in with the findings at Blombos Cave?  And we still have the “sapient paradox” to contend with: if humans were acting so modern all this time, why is there nothing special to show for it in the archaeological record other than some pierced shells and cross-hatched ochre until the flowering of achievements in Europe forty thousand years ago?

Archaeologist Richard Klein believes that the answer to the first set of questions may be genetic.  In his view, a genetic mutation, most likely in the “neural capacity for language or for ‘symboling’,” is the best explanation for the dramatic changes that ensued.  Here’s how he argues his case:

When the full sweep of human evolution is considered, it is surely reasonable to propose that the shift to a fully modern behavioral mode and the geographic expansion of modern humans were also coproducts of a selectively advantageous genetic mutation. Arguably, this was the most significant mutation in the human evolutionary series, for it produced an organism that could alter its behavior radically without any change in its anatomy and that could cumulate and transmit the alterations at a speed that anatomical innovation could never match. As a result, the archeological record changed more in a few millennia after 40 ky ago than it had in the prior million years.[8]

There are, however, other explanations for the dramatic transformation in human behavior which don’t require a genetic mutation to happen just at the right time.  Mellars has suggested that a positive feedback loop may have begun with the more efficient hunting weapons that the Blombos and Howieson’s Poort groups would have been capable of constructing.  Increased hunting efficiency, along with expanded trading and exchange networks between different groups, may have led to a sustained growth in population.  In fact, the mitochondrial DNA analysis does suggest rapid population growth between sixty and eighty thousand years ago.[9] Another group of archaeologists has produced mathematical studies showing that once a certain demographic critical size is reached, there is a greater impetus for more innovation and, perhaps most importantly, these innovations are more likely to be copied by other communities, creating a “cultural ratchet effect.”[10]

Either a genetic mutation or the positive feedback loop from denser populations could explain the successful migration out of Africa.  But neither of these are sufficient to explain the Upper Paleolithic revolution.  The population densities in Europe were no greater than those in Africa, and the people who made it to Europe were genetically no different than the rest of the L3 group.  So how might we explain that explosion in symbolic behavior and thus resolve the “sapient paradox”?  An important clue might be found in examining what these L3 humans encountered when they arrived in Europe.

Neanderthals: modern humans met them when they first arrived in Europe

When our human ancestors first showed up in Europe, they weren’t the only ones around.  The continent was already populated by Neanderthals, close cousins of homo sapiens who had diverged genetically only a few hundred thousand years earlier.[11]*  The Neanderthals had withstood more than two hundred thousand years of climatic variations in the cold reaches of Ice Age Europe, and with their heavy-set bodies they would have seemed better equipped than the homo sapiens arriving from Africa to handle Europe’s Ice Age climate.  But within ten thousand years of the arrival of homo sapiens on the scene, the Neanderthals were extinct.

To many anthropologists, the evidence seems cut and dried: the Neanderthals were outcompeted by their cognitively superior cousins.  They were “driven to extinction” by the homo sapiens invaders simply because they were “unable to compete for resources.”  They “perceived and related to the environment around them very differently” than our human ancestors and, as a result, “wielded culture less effectively.”  There’s even been mention of a “Pleistocene holocaust” prompting some observers to look at our more recent historical record and note acerbically that “homo sapiens has not been notable for a tolerance of differences or a drive toward coexistence with differing cultures – to say nothing of competing species.”[12]

Other archaeologists have, however, argued that the situation was not so simple.  In fact, they claim, the Neanderthals showed evidence of symbolic behavior just as sophisticated as that of their homo sapiens competitors.  Traditionally, when bone tools and ornaments were dug up from Neanderthal sites, they were dismissed by arguments that the Neanderthals were just mimicking the homo sapiens invaders without understanding the true meanings of these things.  But recently, the same kind of ornaments have been discovered that date back to fifty thousand years ago, or ten thousand years before modern humans came on the scene, offering unequivocal evidence of Neanderthal symbolic thought.[13] So what should we make of that?

A possible resolution to this debate arises if we go back and consider the three stages of language evolution posited in the previous chapter.[14] Under that hypothesis, the hominids living around three hundred thousand years ago had reached the second stage of language evolution, with a protolanguage that accompanied the stone-working complexity known as Levallois technology (which is associated with the Neanderthals).  Possibly, the Neanderthals had reached that level of cognitive sophistication, but were unable to make the leap across the metaphoric threshold to modern language.  It’s easy to imagine how a group that could say to each other “fire stone hot” would be outcompeted by another group that could say “I put the stone that you gave me in the fire and now it’s hot.”  A recent paper by Coolidge and Wynn speculating on the Neanderthal mind is consistent with this hypothesis, proposing that homo sapiens had greater “syntactical complexity” than the Neanderthals, including the use of subjunctive and future tenses, and that this enhanced use of language may have given modern humans “their ultimate selective advantage over Neandertals.”[15]

However, the competition between homo sapiens and Neanderthals was probably fierce and most likely endured for thousands of years.  In fact, it’s this very competition that might have been the catalyst for the dramatic achievements of the Upper Paleolithic revolution, thus providing a possible solution to the “sapient paradox.”  As we know from modern history, warfare is frequently the grim handmaiden of major technological innovations, and it’s reasonable to believe that the same could have been true of that much earlier conflict.   Conard, for example, has raised the possibility that “processes such as competition at the frontiers between modern and archaic humans contributed to the development of symbolically mediated life as we know it today.”[16]*

There’s more at stake in the possible distinction between Neanderthal and modern human cognition than just a forensic post mortem of how the Neanderthals became extinct.  As we’ll see in the next section, this distinction may help us to understand the underlying sources of the mythic consciousness that became the hallmark of everything accomplished by homo sapiens from that time on.


[1] Henshilwood, C. S., d’Errico, F., Vanhaeren, M., van Niekert, K., and Jacobs, Z. (2004). “Middle Stone Age Shell Beads from South Africa.” Science, 304, 404; Henshilwood, C. S., and Marean, C. W. (2003). “The Origin of Modern Human Behavior: Critique of the Models and Their Test Implications.” Current Anthropology. City, pp. 627-651; Henshilwood, C. S. et al. (2002). “Emergence of Modern Human Behavior: Middle Stone Age Engravings from South Africa.” Science, 295, 1278-80.

[2] Renfrew, op. cit.; Mellars, P. (2006). “Why did modern human populations disperse from Africa ca. 60,000 years ago?  A new model.” PNAS, 103(June 20, 2006), 9381-9386.

[3] Mellars (2006) op. cit.  Notably, the program director at Blombos, Christopher Henshilwood, sees these findings as evidence that, “at least in southern Africa, Homo sapiens was behaviorally modern about 77,000 years ago,” and other archaeologists who were initially skeptical of these claims are increasingly coming around, acknowledging that “the new material removes any doubt whatsoever.”  See Heshilwood (2002) op. cit., and Balter, M. (2009). “Early Start for Human Art?  Ochre May Revise Timeline.” Science, 323(30 January 2009), 569, quoting archaeologist Paul Pettitt.

[4] McBrearty, S., and Brooks, A. S. (2000). “The revolution that wasn’t: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior.” Journal of Human Evolution, 39(2000), 453-563.

[5] Powell, A., Shennan, S., and Thomas, M. G. (2009). “Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior.” Science, 324(5 June 2009), 1298-1301.

[6] Mellars (2006) op. cit.

[7] Forster, P. (2004). “Ice Ages and the mitochondrial DNA chronology of human dispersals: a review.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B, 359(2004), 255-264; Mellars (2006) op. cit.

[8] Klein, R. G. (2000). “Archeology and the Evolution of Human Behavior.” Evolutionary Anthropology, 9(1), 17-36.

[9] Mellars (2006) op. cit.

[10] Powell, A., Shennan, S., and Thomas, M. G. (2009). “Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior.” Science, 324(5 June 2009), 1298-1301; Culotta, E. (2010). “Did Modern Humans Get Smart Or Just Get Together?” Science, 328, 164.

[11] The Neanderthals and other hominids (for example, homo erectus) had already colonized southern Asia and Europe beginning over a million years ago.  See Mithen, S. (1996). The Prehistory of the Mind, London: Thames & Hudson, 29; Forster, P. (2004) op. cit.

[12] Quotations taken, in order, from the following sources: Forster, P. (2004) op. cit.; Mithen, S. (2006). The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; Tattersall, I. (2008). “An Evolutionary Framework for the Acquisition of Symbolic Cognition by Homo sapiens.” Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews, 3, 99-114; Klein, R. G. (2003). “Whither the Neanderthals?” Science, 299, 1525-1527; Proctor, R. N. (2003). “The Roots of Human Recency: Molecular Anthropology, the Refigured Acheulean, and the UNESCO Response to Auschwitz.” Current Anthropology, 44(2: April 2003), 213-239; Ehrlich, P. R. (2002). Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect, New York: Penguin.  See also Mellars, P. (2005). “The Impossible Coincidence. A Single-Species Model for the Origins of Modern Human Behavior in Europe.” Evolutionary Anthropology, 14(1), 12-27 for a valuable discussion on the topic.

[13] Bahn, P. G. (1998). “Neanderthals emancipated.” Nature, 394(20 August 1998), 719-721; Zilhao, J. (2010). “Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals.” PNAS, 107(3), 1023-1028; d’Errico, F., Zilhao, J., Julien, M., Baffier, D., and Pelegrin, J. (1998). “Neanderthal Acculturation in Western Europe?  A Critical Review of the Evidence and Its Interpretation.” Current Anthropology, 39(Supplement), S1-S43.

[14] See page 41.

[15] Wynn, T., and Coolidge, F. L. (2004). “The expert Neandertal mind.” Journal of Human Evolution, 46(4), 467-487.

[16] Conard (2010) op. cit.  This viewpoint is also argued by David Lewis-Williams who writes: “It was not cooperation but social competition and tension that triggered an ever-widening spiral of social, political and technological change that continued long after the last Neanderthal had died, indeed throughout human history.”  See Lewis-Williams, D. (2002). The Mind In the Cave, London: Thames & Hudson, 96.

October 25, 2010

The Rise of Mythic Consciousness

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , , at 11:14 pm by Jeremy

This chapter from my book, Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, investigates the rise of the mythic and religious form of consciousness in human evolution, beginning with the first symbolic expressions around 70,000-40,000 years ago.  It examines recent anthropological interpretations of the cognitive drivers of religion, and proposes a way to understand these drivers within the context of the “patterning instinct” of the prefrontal cortex (pfc).  The chapter goes to explain the rise of the “external pfc,” the powerful set of symbolic structures created by cultural traditions, expressed in tangible symbolic forms that Merlin Donald has called “external symbolic storage.”  The overwhelming power of the external pfc is contrasted with our individual minds, showing how we are all “ensnared in an inescapable web” of other people’s symbols, in the memorable words of Terrence Deacon.


Chapter 4: The Rise of Mythic Consciousness

The Great Leap Forward

In  September 1940, in Lascaux, France, four boys entered a cave their dog had discovered some days earlier, and stumbled upon what turned out to be the most dramatic spectacle of Paleolithic cave art in the world.  The cave, along with several hundred others scattered around Europe, contains over six hundred magnificent paintings of aurochs (the wild ancestor of domestic cattle), horses and deer, some as big as fifteen feet long.  More astonishing than the size and number of paintings, though, is their breathtaking sophistication and beauty.  This is no mere “primitive” or “prototype” art, but an expression of the power and mystery of the natural world that awes us today as much as the greatest art of more recent times.[1]

Aurochs from Lascaux cave" a powerful expression of the mystery of the natural world

In this chapter, we’ll see how these early flowerings of the new mythic consciousness relate to the rise of homo sapiens, and examine the implications for how our early human ancestors began to seek meaning in their world.  We’ll place these developments in their historical context as one of the most important stages in all of human history, and investigate how it both originated from the pfc’s evolved functions and fuelled the rise of the pfc’s power within human consciousness ever since.

Female figurine from Hohle Fels Cave

The cave paintings of Lascaux have been dated to approximately seventeen thousand years ago which means that, ancient as they are, they’re actually part of a tradition that had already been flourishing in Europe for over fifteen thousand years.  In recent times, a cave site named Hohle Fels in southwestern Germany has been yielding a slew of magnificent carved ivory specimens, dating as far back as thirty-five thousand years ago, including a figurine of a bird, a “Venus” figure with huge breasts and carefully carved genitalia, three “lion-men” with human bodies and lion heads, and the world’s earliest known musical instrument: a bone flute complete with well-spaced holes.[2] These beautiful objects are constructed with just as much aesthetic sophistication as the Lascaux paintings, powerfully demonstrating, in the words of one archaeologist, that “instead of a gradual evolution of skills, the first modern humans in Europe were in fact astonishingly precocious artists.”[3]

Lion man from Hohle Fehls Cave

When you look at these intense expressions of artistic vision, it’s easy to understand what archaeologists mean when they say this was the time that humans achieved “cultural modernity.”[4] We may not understand what the precise symbolic significance was of the Venus or the Lion-man, but there’s no doubt that they held symbolic meaning to their makers.  This revolution in symbolic thought didn’t just occur in these carvings, but in virtually every aspect of “the entire amazing behavioral panoply that characterizes symbolic Homo sapiens worldwide today.”[5] For the first time, humans were “finely sewing garments using tiny eyed bone needles;” they were “baking ceramic figures in simple but remarkably effective kilns,” using complex tools with multiple components and devising “elaborate notation systems.” They were engaging in long-distance trade, utilizing storage facilities, and organizing their homes just like we do today, with different spaces for kitchens, sleeping areas, and eating.[6] This is why, in the view of archaeologist Paul Mellars, “to describe the Upper Paleolithic revolution in Europe as … an explosion in explicitly symbolic behavior and expression is in no sense an exaggeration.”[7] Or in the words of Peter Conard, the archaeologist responsible for many of the stunning findings at Hohle Fels, this is the “point in human evolution when people became like us.”[8]

It’s an impressive moment in human history.  However, some archaeologists have recently had the temerity to look past the great accomplishments achieved in that period and ask “why didn’t it happen sooner?”  Why did it take so long for symbolic thinking to really get going?  It’s generally agreed that humans were anatomically modern by about 150,000 years ago or earlier.  And as you’ll recall from the previous chapter, even the proponents of the “late and sudden” emergence of language, Noble and Davidson, argue that it emerged sometime between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago.[9] So what were our ancestors doing for fifty thousand or so years before they finally began acting in ways that we can call culturally modern?  “Why the long delay,” asks Merlin Donald, “before this cultural potential was realized?”[10] This rather awkward question was first framed by archaeologist Colin Renfrew who referred to it as the “sapient paradox.”[11]*


[1] Bahn, P. (2007).  Cave Art: A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd.  See also Lewis-Williams, D. (2002). The Mind In the Cave, London: Thames & Hudson, 55.

[2] Sinclair, A. (2003). “Art of the ancients.” Nature, 426(18/25 December 2003), 774-5; Mellars, P. (2009). “Origins of the female image.” Nature, 459(14 May 2009), 176-177; Conard, N. J. (2009). “A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany.” Nature, 459(14 May 2009), 248-252; Adler, D. S. (2009). “The earliest musical tradition.” Nature, 460(6 August 2009), 695-696.

[3] Sinclair, A., op. cit.

[4] Conard, N. J. (2010). “Cultural modernity: Consensus or conundrum?” PNAS, 107(17), 7621-7622.

[5] Tattersall, I. (2008). “An Evolutionary Framework for the Acquisition of Symbolic Cognition by Homo sapiens.” Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews, 3, 99-114.

[6] Tattersall, op. cit.; Mellars, P. (2005). “The Impossible Coincidence. A Single-Species Model for the Origins of Modern Human Behavior in Europe.” Evolutionary Anthropology, 14(1), 12-27; Bar-Yosef, O. (2002). “The Upper Paleolithic Revolution.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 2002(31), 363-93.

[7] Mellars (2005), op. cit.

[8] Conard, op. cit.

[9] See Chapter 3, page 37.

[10] Donald, M. (2008). “The sapient paradox: can cognitive neuroscience solve it?” Brain(December 2, 2008).

[11] Renfrew, C. (2007). Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, New York: Modern Library: Random House.  Renfrew’s original framing of the question dealt not just with the time-lag between anatomical modernity and the Upper Paleolithic revolution, but also the ensuing time-lag until the rise of agriculture, some thirty thousand years later.

October 12, 2010

The Magical Weave of Language

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , at 11:24 pm by Jeremy

Here’s a pdf version of the chapter on the emergence of language from my book, Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.


The chapter’s called “The Magical Weave of Language.”  It examines what makes language so special as a defining characteristic of humanity, and sees the crucial neuroanatomical source of language as the prefrontal cortex.  It explores theories of language evolution, from the “gradual and early” school to the “sudden and recent” school.  It goes on to refute Steven Pinker’s concept of the “language instinct,” arguing instead that we humans have a deeper “patterning instinct” which gets applied to language from the earliest months of infancy.  The chapter proposes that there were, in fact, three phases of language evolution, with the most recent phase of modern language involving a crossing of the “metaphoric threshold,” which allowed for the emergence of a “mythic consciousness”.  This permitted humans to think for the first time in terms of abstract concepts and begin the never-ending search for meaning in our lives.

October 9, 2010

The metaphoric threshold

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , at 8:19 pm by Jeremy

In my previous post, I proposed three stages of language evolution, with fully modern language emerging between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.  Along with fully modern language, I suggest, came the first usage of metaphor.  This was far more significant than merely adding to the impact of language.  Rather, it involved humanity crossing what I call the “metaphoric threshold,” necessary for humans to achieve abstract thought of any kind, including the search for meaning and the construction of mythic and religious ideas.  In this final section of my chapter entitled “The Magical Weave of Language,” (from my book Towards A Democracy of Consciousness) I describe the importance of the metaphoric threshold in human thought.

[Click here for the pdf version of the chapter “The Magical Weave of Language.”]


The metaphoric threshold.

We generally think of metaphor as a technique used by poets and other creative writers, but not really something that’s an integral part of our everyday speech.  However, in a truly groundbreaking book published in 1980, cognitive philosophers Lakoff and Johnson have shown how virtually every aspect of our normal speech uses underlying metaphors to communicate abstract ideas and concepts.[1] We saw earlier how simple statements like “stocks falling” or “the Fed easing the money supply” utilize metaphors that work below our level of conscious awareness.  If you examine your regular speech, you will soon discover that it is in fact virtually impossible to say anything with any level of abstraction without using an underlying metaphor that usually relates to something more concrete.

Here are some simple examples of how these unconscious metaphors work:

“I gave you that idea” – Metaphor: AN IDEA IS AN OBJECT

“My spirits rose”; “I fell into a depression” – Metaphor: HAPPY IS UP; SAD IS DOWN

“He broke under cross-examination” – Metaphor: THE MIND IS A BRITTLE OBJECT

“His ideas have finally come to fruition” – Metaphor: IDEAS ARE PLANTS

“He’s a giant among writers” – Metaphor: SIGNIFICANT IS BIG

“I’ve had a full life” – Metaphor: LIFE IS A CONTAINER

“She gave me a warm smile” – Metaphors: FACIAL EXPRESSION IS A GIFT; INTIMACY IS WARMTH

“I don’t have much time to give you” – Metaphor: TIME IS A VALUABLE RESOURCE[2]

The examples are limitless, and I urge you to observe your own language and that of others around you, to discover the full extent of our reliance on metaphors.  In the Upper Paleolithic example, this new form of thought might have enabled our human ancestor to turn to his friend and say, “Since I lost my son, my heart has turned to stone.”

This dynamic has profound implications for how we humans structure our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, and in this book there will be many occasions to return to it.  Right now, there are two important observations to point out.  The first is that metaphors are the quintessential example of Fauconnier & Turner’s  “double scope conceptual blending” described above, whereby two different conceptual arrays of experience are blended together to create new, emergent meaning.  As such, the pfc, with its unique powers of connectivity, would be the logical part of the brain to mediate the creation of metaphoric thought.  The second observation is that, without metaphor, we are simply unable to conceptualize and communicate abstract thoughts about feelings or ideas.

Therefore, I believe that the first use of metaphor in language was not just  another milestone in the increased sophistication of human linguistic abilities.  It was the threshold necessary for human thought to cross in order to achieve abstract thought of any kind, including the search for meaning in life and in the universe and the creation of mythic and religious ideas.  In short, the crossing of the metaphoric threshold of thought led to the first stirrings of the pfc’s power in the human mind, opening the gateway to the Upper Paleolithic revolution of symbols.  This led to the emergence of a mythic consciousness in human thought, which imposed meaning and structure on the natural world based on a metaphoric transformation of the tangible qualities of everyday life, using them as a scaffolding for more abstract conceptions.  This new world of mythic consciousness which arose on the other side of the metaphoric threshold is what we’ll examine in the next chapter.

[1] Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1980/2003). Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago.

[2] Examples taken from Lakoff & Johnson, ibid.

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