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Consciousness and Cognition: Fragments of Mind and Brain

Consciousness and Cognition: Fragments of Mind and Brain

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Consciousness and Cognition: Fragments of Mind and Brain

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Oct 10, 2011


What were the circumstances that led to the development of our cognitive abilities from a primitive hominid to an essentially modern human? The answer to this question is of profound importance to understanding our present nature. Since the steep path of our cognitive development is the attribute that most distinguishes humans from other mammals, this is also a quest to determine human origins. This collection of outstanding scientific problems and the revelation of the many ways they can be addressed indicates the scope of the field to be explored and reveals some avenues along which research is advancing. Distinguished scientists and researchers who have advanced the discussion of the mind and brain contribute state-of-the-art presentations of their field of expertise. Chapters offer speculative and provocative views on topics such as body, culture, evolution, feelings, genetics, history, humor, knowledge, language, machines, neuroanatomy, pathology, and perception. This book will appeal to researchers and students in cognitive neuroscience, experimental psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy.
  • Includes a contribution by Noam Chomsky, one of the most cited authors of our time
Oct 10, 2011

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Consciousness and Cognition - Academic Press



The 1990s were designated the ‘The decade of the brain’ and this phrase reflected the pervading optimism that we would finally unravel the secrets of how the mind and brain work in the healthy and the diseased state. Hardly a month goes by without the media reporting some new discovery, another piece found to help put the big puzzle together. Fancy tools and machines have been developed which let us watch the brain in action, monitor electrical impulses passing through brain tissue in mere milliseconds, or trace the effects of specific genes and biochemicals on brain functioning. Scientists with such diverse backgrounds as cognitive science, computer science, linguistics, neurology, psychiatry, neuroscience, (neuro)psychology, philosophy, and physics are united in the search for clues as to how the mind and brain work. This much desired and very necessary alliance has its drawbacks. The sheer number of journal and book publications on this issue is daunting. Every researcher focuses on aspects that are pertinent to his or her particular discipline; this means that their vocabulary, specialties, and working models are not always easily accessible to those outside the field, and may not even be known in affiliated disciplines. The idea of breaking this deadlock was our major incentive to create a book that would unite researchers and writers from various disciplines in the effort to communicate to educated laypersons, scholars, and students, in a challenging, creative, and accessible way, about a range of topics relevant to the study of the mind and brain.

The idea for this volume came from an encounter with another book (actually three books, since it was in three volumes), fifteen years ago, while one of us (HC) was on sabbatical at UC Berkeley. The book in question was Fragments for a History of the Human Body, first published in 1989 and edited by Jonathan Crary, Michel Feher, Hal Foster, and Sanford Kwinter. This was a book about the representations and modes of construction of the human body in history; it covered the phenomenological, instinctual, artistic, sacred, cultural, and organic views that had prevailed or clashed at different times and in different places. This was a formidable literary and scientific tour de force and the idea of emulating this effort and producing a rich and vibrant analog dedicated to the brain and mind (Fragments for a History of the Brain and Mind) has been with us ever since. However, dreams are easily transformed when confronted with the unavoidable constraints of reality. Still, we tried to remain faithful to our original idea and opted to change publishers rather than to submit to major structural and content changes because some publishers’ marketing departments were not prepared to provide profit estimates for a relatively unconventional approach. Throughout the process of pulling this project together, our minds were challenged many times and changes were made when necessary. In the end, our idea of another formidable and ambitious work evolved and the outcome is a more compact, more accessible, and more fun to read work about aspects of the mind and brain.

As the notion of ‘fragment’ suggests, the contributions to this volume do not pretend to draw a complete picture or define a compact portion of the brain and mind. This collection of outstanding scientific problems – and the revelation of the many ways they can be addressed – only indicates the scope of the field to be explored and reveals some avenues along which current research is advancing. Distinguished scientists and writers across disciplines who have in the past advanced the discussion of the mind and brain were asked to either contribute a state-of-the art presentation of their field of expertise or offer speculative and provocative views on a related topic of their choice, and – in keeping with the goal of the book – to present the information in a witty, clear, and accessible way. The authors were especially encouraged to be creative with their writing style, to use examples, figures, and artwork to clarify their points, and to engage the Internet as an interactive medium to supplement the written chapters. This book has a companion website where readers will find more to explore, found at Some of the authors have provided extensions of their contributions in the form of links, games, experiments, or additional text, pictures, or movies – and these are noted where appropriate in the chapters.

Of course, no one-volume book will suffice to cover all the different aspects of the mind and brain and, as explained previously, some highly relevant themes were selected. The fragments of brain and mind thus covered include sixteen chapters related to body, culture, evolution, feelings, genetics, history, humor, knowledge, language, machines, neuroanatomy, pathology, and perception. There is an inherent order in these fragments, and Noam Chomsky brings this work to a conclusion as he exchanges questions and answers with the other contributors to the book.


We wish to express our gratitude to Sanja Obradovic for her infallible help and constant attention to all aspects of this work. Her resourcefulness, good humor and efficient organization and communication have greatly contributed to bringing this work to completion.

Many thanks to Zofia Laubitz who was the copyeditor for all the chapters in the book.

We also want to tell the contributors that we are grateful for their enthusiasm, patience and trust in seeing this project come to fruition. The editors gratefully thank Yves Lahey ( for allowing the use of his artwork entitled Lady Picasso in Barcelona on the front cover. Last, but not least, our thanks to Johannes Menzel, our contact at Elsevier, who saw the promise of this unusual work and helped carry it through.


How Did Modern Human Cognition Evolve?

I. Tattersall

Publisher Summary

The chapter discusses the evolution of human cognition. The evolutionary process that gave rise to the species was not one of the gradual fine-tuning over the eons. It is impossible to see how such a process of infinitesimal improvement could ever give rise to entirely new and unexpected modern Homo sapiens. One seems to have come as the product of the same process of evolutionary experimentation and triage that seems to have conditioned the evolution of all successful groups of mammals. There really is something uniquely, even disturbingly, distinctive in the way in which modern Homo sapiens perceive the world and interact with it. Rather than simply responding to the stimuli they receive from outside, they recreate the world in their minds to explain it to themselves. Homo sapiens have slim grounds for identifying the key factor possessed by the human brain that accounts for their unique reasoning abilities

Few people with no ax to grind would argue that our species, Homo sapiens, did not evolve from a precursor that lacked the sophisticated symbolic reasoning capacity that we ourselves exhibit. And, if so, it is natural to inquire at what point, and how, our precursors made the transition from non-symbolic to symbolic thought. Natural, perhaps, but also with its own touch of hubris. For the twin questions of what it is, exactly, that underlies the cognitive processes of modern Homo sapiens and makes them unique in the living world, and how and when that something was acquired, are among the most impenetrable of all those facing science. Still, they are nonetheless among the most alluring questions that science can pose, for our narcissistic species is unfailingly fascinated by the contemplation of itself and of the ways in which we human beings are distinguished from the rest of the living world.

Certainly, we started off as an integral part of that world, from which we emerged precisely as every other species has done. Yet there is undeniably a gulf between us and every other living organism – including our closest living relatives, the great apes – of a kind that transcends the boundaries that typically separate species. And it is a gulf that lies, above all, in the ways in which we process information about the world, rather than in any of our undeniably striking physical characteristics. For although every living species is anatomically and/or behaviorally distinctive in some way or another, even while all remain part of the biotic world, no other organism tries, as we do, to distance itself from that world. And while this difference between us and the rest of nature, certainly as we learn to accept it, is at least in part a product of our perceptions, it is nonetheless a real one. There really is something uniquely – even disturbingly – distinctive in the way in which we modern Homo sapiens perceive the world around us and interact with it. For rather than simply responding to the stimuli we receive from outside, we recreate the world in our minds in order to explain it to ourselves.

But as I’ve already suggested, it was not always so. The family Hominidae (the group containing Homo sapiens and all those now-extinct species that are more closely related to it than to the great apes and their fossil relatives) has roots that extend quite deep in time. The known human fossil record now stretches back to over six and perhaps seven million years (7 myr) ago. At the time of writing, it contains around 20 distinct species (Figure 1.1), up from half that number only a decade or two ago. Yet, as far as we know, no hominid besides Homo sapiens has ever interacted with the world in the way we do. Indeed, even the earliest fossil populations that anatomically resembled modern Homo sapiens apparently did business in much the same way as their extinct predecessors had done, rather than in our own distinctive manner. So how did this unusual phenomenon of symbolically thinking Homo sapiens emerge?

FIGURE 1.1 A ‘family tree’ of hominid species over the past 7 million years. This tree is extremely ‘bushy’, indicating that several kinds of hominid have typically populated the Earth at any one time. However, it almost certainly underestimates the number of hominid species currently known from fossils, which itself substantially underestimates the total number of hominid species that have ever existed. Mya = million years ago. © Ian Tattersall.


Clearly, the answer to this question must somehow lie in the evolution of our brain, for it is the brain that determines how we will behave. Established wisdom tells us that hominid brain size increased gradually over time; from this point, we leap easily to the conclusion that our remarkable cranial organ was gradually burnished by natural selection over hundreds of thousands of generations. This perception directly reflects the power of a movement known as the Evolutionary Synthesis. This grand paradigm of evolutionary theory swept through paleoanthropology (the study of human origins) around the middle of the twentieth century, and has ruled there ever since. To cut a long story short, the Synthesis reduced virtually all evolutionary phenomena to the action of natural selection, acting slowly and consistently on the gene pools of lineages of organisms over vast spans of time. In essence, the focus of the Synthesis was on the accumulation of tiny changes within a continuous reproductive chain extending over the eons. Which is a great pity, because it turns out that the evolutionary process is a great deal more complex than this, with many more levels of action. Under pure natural selection, it is the reproductive success or failure of individuals that is the key element in evolutionary change; and while natural selection is doubtless an important factor in influencing evolutionary histories, it is far from the whole story. Populations, species, and environmental changes are also critical elements in the evolutionary drama.

One of the factors that facilitated the acceptance of the simple linear picture of evolution was the undeniable fact that, the farther back in time one goes, the smaller hominid brains tend to become. In fact, this evident pattern is the strongest evidence that anyone can actually quote for a pattern of linearity in human evolution. Brain sizes (when this information is preserved) are by their very nature easily quantifiable; and it turns out to be quite simple to join these fairly steadily enlarging (though spottily distributed) numbers into a sequence, implying that change is more or less inevitable and that it is only rates of change at different times that may complicate things. But is this ‘evidence’ really so strong? Well, it might be if the notion born of the Synthesis were sustainable: namely, that hominid species were few and time-successive, merging into one another with the passage of time. But the actual pattern that is currently being revealed by the enlarging hominid fossil record is very different. Instead of a gradually changing chain of hominids across time, the signal is one of a diversity of hominid species present on our planet from the very beginning of hominid history.

The paleoanthropologist’s job thus becomes one of recognizing the species within the morphological spectrum our fossil precursors represent, for we can no longer see species simply as arbitrary segments of evolving lineages. As yet, we have hardly started to tackle this task. But it is already quite obvious that the true number of known hominid species is already large, and that those species were morphologically very diverse. Which gives us yet more reason to believe that the story of human evolution has been one of consistent evolutionary experimentation (with multiple species originations and extinctions), rather than one of within-lineage fine-tuning over the eons. And, if we cannot read hominid fossils simply as links in a chain, it follows that there is a pattern out there – a pattern that we cannot simply discover, but that requires an active effort of analysis.

The central units of such analysis are the species themselves. Numerous hominid species have appeared, have competed in the ecological arena, and have gone extinct (with or without leaving descendant species). If we are properly to discern the pattern of events in the human fossil record, then it is essential that we be able to recognize those species with reasonable accuracy. This is not an easy task. But it is an essential prerequisite to any further studies, including any attempt to determine the pattern of hominid brain size increase over time. And at present we have to admit several things. First, we do not know the true number of hominid species out there in the fossil record (though we can probably make a good stab at determining a minimal number without severely distorting the phylogenetic pattern we perceive). Second, within-species brain size is notoriously variable (the brain sizes of behaviorally normal modern humans, for instance, run from under 1000 to over 2000 ml); and even with a relatively good hominid fossil record, we have no idea of the ranges of brain size variation that characterized even those few extinct hominid species that we can agree on. Third, if we want to calibrate rates of change in brain size over time, we need reliable dating. But even where reasonably accurate dates exist for individual fossils, we have no idea of the overall time ranges (which probably varied widely) of the species they represent. This means that we have no accurate notion of when they might have given rise to descendant species. And, finally, we are very far from reaching anything approaching agreement on the phylogenetic relationships among those species of whose identities we can be reasonably confident.

So what does the ‘average’ increase in human brain size over the past several million years mean? Yes, go back to over 2 myr ago, and hominid brains were in the ape size range – about a third the size of ours. At 1 myr ago, hominid brains were, in very approximate terms, two-thirds the size of ours. And by about 200000 years (200 kyr ago), before the appearance of Homo sapiens, some hominid species, at least, had brains as big as our own. There is, then, no question that larger-brained hominids (with many other derived characteristics as well, of course) eventually won out in the evolutionary stakes (though some big-brained species lost out, as well). Overall, then, it seems justifiable to detect a time-related trend. But what’s the pattern?

The traditional tendency has been to join up brain sizes over time in a straight line, with the implicit assumption that slow, steady change linked them all. But as we’ve just seen, that’s hardly a practical option. And if it is correct, as it increasingly appears to be, that human evolution has been, among other things, a story of species competing with their close relatives as well as with other elements in the environment, a different possibility altogether emerges. For it is at least as likely that a relatively small number of discrete enlargement events in different species was involved in the overall trend towards larger brain size as that hominid brains (in diverse lineages) inexorably expanded generation by generation, come hell or high water. Big brains use a huge proportion of the available energy, and there must certainly have been a strong countervailing advantage for them to have emerged as the norm. The conclusion is compelling that this advantage must have lain ultimately in increased ‘intelligence’ (whatever that is). But, at a more basic level, it is at least as probable that more-intelligent hominid species outcompeted less-intelligent ones, as that larger-brained individuals simply reproduced more effectively in successive generations. This must have been especially true in the dramatically fluctuating environmental and geographical circumstances of the Pleistocene ‘Ice Ages’, during which most hominid brain size increase took place.

If the pattern of brain size increase over time among hominids is far from clear-cut, what about other brain attributes preserved in the fossil record? Well, it turns out that they are not much more informative. Endocasts, which are natural or artificially made replicas of the space within the skull that houses the brain, show minor differences in the brain’s external contours among hominids of different periods, but there has been considerable argument over just what those differences mean. The more that is learned about the working of the brain in living people, the more evident it becomes that some brain functions, at least, are quite widely diffused within the cortex, and that the relative surface areas of different brain areas don’t necessarily tell us very much. We are going to need to know a lot more about brain function, and to show that we can accurately identify specific functional areas exposed on the surface of the brain that correspond to our unique cognitive abilities, before we are able to interpret brain evolution in behavioral terms from endocasts. Comparative studies of the minutiae of brain structure and organization may have a better chance of elucidating the basis of our extraordinary abilities, at least in the short term. But if we want to know more about the origins of human cognition, for the time being at least, we are going to have to look at more indirect indicators. Which means turning to the archaeological record, the archive of ancient human behaviors.


It is perhaps not very surprising that fossil brains and braincases should not get us very far in our quest for the origins of our extraordinary modern human cognition. For, although we now know quite a lot about which brain regions are involved in which mental activities, we are still utterly ignorant of how a mass of electrochemical signals in the brain is converted into what we experience as our consciousness. All of which means that, if we are to pursue this question further, we have little choice but to seek proxies for cognitive function in the behavioral record left behind by our precursors. And with the exception of some chemical studies – which suggest that at least some populations of early hominid bipeds in the 3 myr range ate substantially more meat than is typically consumed by apes today – the behavioral record is more or less synonymous with the archaeological record. And that record begins with the invention of stone tools, about 2.5 myr ago.

The earliest stone tools, known from several sites in eastern Africa, consist of simple sharp stone flakes knocked off one small riverbed cobble using another. Not very impressive, perhaps, but making stone tools even of the crudest sort is a feat that, cognitively speaking, goes well beyond what any living ape has been able to achieve – and energetic researchers have tried very hard to teach them! In terms of lifestyle, this invention must have had a profound effect on the lives of the smallbrained creatures who made it, and it may also have had a feedback function in producing a more complex social and technological milieu in which the emergence of behavioral innovations could be promoted.

Cut-marks on the bones of animals found at archaeological sites in association with such simple cutting tools, show that the sharp flakes were used for butchering animal carcasses. There is also ample evidence, in the form of characteristic ‘torsional’ fractures of mammal long bones, that larger cobbles were used not only as hammers for flake production but to break such bones to get at the nutritious marrow within. These resources would have been effectively unavailable to the early hominid bipeds, who were small-bodied and still dependent on the shelter of the trees. Most intriguingly, perhaps, the reconstitution of complete cobbles from multiple flakes found at the same butchery site has shown that the makers of the earliest stone tools were able to plan their activities with considerable foresight. For suitable cobbles are not found everywhere, and the early toolmakers carried such stones intact over substantial distances before making them into tools as needed. Here again, then, we are glimpsing another significant advance over the cognitive capacities of living apes, as well as over those inferred for the ape/human common ancestor.

What is less clear is how these undoubted advances affected the ways in which the early hominids experienced the world around them. For one of the most signal limitations of our own remarkable cognition is that it is impossible for us to experience, even in imagination, any cognitive state other than our own.

Nonetheless, it is quite evident that it is a fundamental error to assume that our hominid precursors were simply inferior, less-developed versions of ourselves. There are evidently many ways of being a hominid, and ours is only one of them. It is critically important to bear this in mind as we look at the record of human evolution, for too often in the past the error has been made of regarding human evolution as a process of burnishing, of tiny incremental improvements upon what had gone before. This flawed perception has made it relatively easy to interpret our history as a single-minded slog from primitiveness to perfection. And the realization that it is fundamentally wrong has made our interpretive task trickier. For it shows that in looking at our remote – and even recent – precursors, we are looking at the activities of creatures for whose cognitive processes we have no living model. It is highly unlikely that members of even the earliest, pre-tool making, hominid species behaved in a way that more than generally approximated that of any living ape; and the problem of employing observable behavioral models becomes more intense as time passes. For, as I have already implied, the pattern of events in hominid evolution was not simply one of a simple straight-line increasing approximation to ourselves. And in practical terms, of course, there is yet another difficulty. Hominids are not simply stone-tool-making-machines, and stone-tool-making styles are at best an indirect reflection of the richly varied cognitive capacities and expressions of any kind of tool-making hominid. Other behavioral patterns and lifeways may have differed substantially among hominids who possessed similar tool kits. Yet stone tools and site size and structure – or its lack – are in most cases virtually all the evidence we have from which to reconstruct the various behavioral patterns and conscious conditions of our precursors.

This said, on the preserved technological level, one aspect at least of the pattern is clear. This pattern is one of long periods of relative stability, even of complete lack of change, interrupted by the relatively sudden appearance of new technologies. Throughout the Paleolithic period (the Old Stone Age), older technologies tended to persist for long periods alongside the new, while there is little evidence for a pattern of gradual change or development from one technology to another. This is hardly surprising, for it is exactly what we see in technological development today. Major technologies tend to be based on new principles, which are then elaborated upon in various ways, but the old does not immediately disappear with the introduction of the new, and it is rare that new technologies develop linearly from old ones. This pattern was established early on, for simple flake tools continued to be made into comparatively recent times (after all, a sharp cutting implement always comes in useful), even as more complex stone tool types appeared. A million years after the first stone tools were made, their successor utensils had barely changed, and it was not until around 1.5 myr ago that a new type of stone tool appeared on the scene. Interestingly, while it seems that the first crude stone tool kit was made by hominids that were physically archaic, retaining numerous features that would have been useful in the trees (though how much those abilities were used must remain conjectural), later kits of equivalent simplicity continued to be made by hominids with body structures much closer to our own and totally emancipated from the trees. Such hominids appeared on the scene sometime after about 2 myr ago.

The new stone tool type, introduced after the archaic hominids had essentially disappeared, was the ‘Acheulean’ hand-ax, a much larger and more complex utensil carefully fashioned on both sides to a deliberate and symmetrical shape. For the first time, it seems, stone tool makers had begun to fashion tools according to a specific ‘mental template’ that clearly existed in their minds before production started, rather than simply aiming for an attribute (a cutting edge) regardless of the exact shape of the finished product. The change in technological styles must imply some kind of cognitive advance, though whether as cause or effect is less clear. But exactly what that advance was underwritten by is far from evident, and in pondering its nature it is useful to keep in mind how and where behavioral advances must originate. In a nutshell, any technological innovation has to arise within an existing population, for there is nowhere else it can do so. In addition, it’s obvious that any individual who invents a new technology cannot differ significantly in physical organization from his or her parents or offspring. A corollary of all this is that we cannot usefully invoke the emergence of a new kind of hominid to ‘explain’ the introduction of a new way of doing things – however convenient it would be if we could – despite the possibility that in the remote past technologies may have been passed ‘sideways’ by cultural contact of some sort between one kind of hominid and another.

Certainly, the invention of the hand-ax was a cognitive advance in the sense that it represented a new way of envisioning possibilities in the mind. But what this innovation actually meant in terms of the physical apparatus underlying this cognitive process is less than crystal clear. The established pattern of highly sporadic innovation continued to persist beyond this point, at least as far as stone tool-making is concerned, for it is only at about 300 kyr ago that we see the introduction of a new stone-working technology. This was the ‘prepared-core’ technique, whereby a stone ‘core’ was carefully shaped with multiple blows (often using a ‘soft’ hammer of a material such as bone), until a single blow could detach a quasi-finished stone tool with a continuous cutting surface all the way around its periphery. Meanwhile, however, important developments had taken place in other areas of technology. Notable among these was the domestication of fire in hearths, for which strong evidence is first found at around 400 kyr ago (though a few earlier potential signs of fire use have been reported). Inevitably, the use of fire and cooking must have made an enormous difference to the lives of the hominids who controlled this technology, but again, it’s hard to specify exactly what the ramifications were. Certainly, we must be wary of ascribing to early hominid fire use all of the symbolic overtones that characterize the uses of fire by Homo sapiens today.

A remarkable glimpse of life at around this time is also provided by the recent discovery of several long and carefully crafted throwing spears at the site of Schoeningen, in Germany. Before this find, few archaeologists had been prepared to assume that sophisticated ambush-hunting techniques had been introduced at this phase of human evolution. Wood is preserved poorly if at all over more than a few hundred years, and it was thought that, if possessed at all by hominids half a million years ago, spears would have been of the thrusting type, their use involving dangerous up-close encounters with prey animals. Yet the 400-kyr-old spears miraculously preserved in a bog at Schoeningen are two meters and more in length, and are clearly shaped like modern javelins, with their weight concentrated at the front. Another hint of substantial cognitive advance – but again, in exactly what did that advance reside? And, whatever it was, how long had that advance been in existence in Schoeningen times?

To return to the much more comprehensive stone tool record, the best-documented practitioners of prepared-core stone tool making were without doubt the Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis. These were anatomically distinctive hominids, with brains as large as our own, and they inhabited Europe and western Asia from 200 kyr ago or maybe a little more, to somewhat under 30 kyr ago. Despite its large brain size, however, Homo neanderthalensis was behaviorally and anatomically very distinct from modern humans who were almost certainly the agents of its extinction. The matter of the behavioral contrasts between the Neanderthals and ourselves can be summarized succinctly by noting that, while it seems that in broad terms the Neanderthals did pretty much what their predecessors had done, if perhaps a little better, modern humans, in the guise of the invading Cro-Magnons, were behaviorally unprecedented. Yes, the Neanderthals were indeed probably the original inventors of the burial of the dead, though they practiced this behavior only occasionally, and only at the most basic of levels. And yes, the long survival at Shanidar, in Iraq, of an individual who was severely handicapped for many years by a withered arm, shows a degree of social caring and support within the Neanderthal social unit. But despite these echoes of what we would all instinctively recognize as humanity, the Neanderthals showed no evidence at all (at least until post-contact times: see Figure 1.2) of symbolic activities of the kind that so richly characterized the

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