posted 1 September 2003


William H. Calvin, A Brief History of the Mind (Oxford University Press 2004), chapter 11. See also

William H. Calvin 
it's an image, you need to type it, not copy it (spam...)       
 University of Washington




From the origin of human language 100,000 years ago until the invention of writing 5,000 years ago, the oral tradition had been the principal creator, conserver, and communicator of human knowledge. Our brains are biologically adapted to the tempo of oral interaction in real time.

                                – Steven Harnad, 2003



But surpassing all stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, though distant by mighty intervals of place and time!  Of talking with those who are in India; of speaking to those who are not yet born and will not be born for a thousand or ten thousand years; and with what facility, by the different arrangements of twenty characters upon a page!

– Galileo Galilei, 1632



[E]ducation is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at.  Children don’t have to go to school to learn to walk, talk, recognize objects, or remember the personalities of their friends, even though these tasks are much harder than reading, adding, or remembering dates in history.  They do have to go to school to learn written language, arithmetic, and science, because those bodies of knowledge and skill were invented too recently for any species-wide knack for them to have evolved.

– Steven Pinker, 2002




Civilizing Ourselves

From planting to writing to mind medicine





A wise man learns from his experience;
a wiser man learns from the experience of others.

   – Confucius




We live and learn and pass it on.  By itself, that’s a big improvement over what the great apes, lacking true teaching, can do – but with written language, passing it on works a lot better.  We can even learn from authors long since deceased.  Once agriculture allowed towns and specialized occupations to develop by 6,000 years ago, writing developed from tax accounting about 5,200 years ago in Sumer (the last six seconds of the movie).

            With knowledge better able to accumulate and be taught, philosophy and the beginnings of science developed around 2,500 years ago in both Greece and China.  That’s also the time of the earliest historians such as Thucydides, who not only collected accounts of events but contrasted different reports of the same battle.  Origin myths are not very good about doing that, though sometimes an alternate version was preserved if both were sufficiently poetic – as when the leadoff seven-days story is followed at Genesis 2:5 by the “second genesis” where God fashions man from the soil.  It wasn’t until the Darwinian Revolution of the past century that science finally began to make some sense out of where humans come from.

            Cultural evolution has now become much faster and more profound than what business-as-usual Darwinian processes are currently doing in biological evolution.  Culture interacts with developmental processes, as in my example of how structured stuff could have become possible at earlier and earlier ages.  A number of present-day human abilities have some potential for future elaboration even without natural selection helping.  Reading and writing will serve as a good example.

            The percentage of Europeans who were literate did not begin to increase substantially until the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on everyone (even women) reading the Bible themselves rather than just relying on a priest to interpret it for them.  So until a few centuries ago, only a small percentage of the population had much opportunity to be improved by natural selection for reading abilities.

            Still, at least 85 percent of us can be taught to read without much difficulty, even though we don’t pick it up spontaneously in the manner of spoken language.  It suggests that we surely had the latent capacity to read before 5,000 years ago – but that there need not be a “reading instinct” with its own brain area.

            But there is a specialized brain area for reading.  How can that be?


In an adult human who can read, you can sometimes find an area in the brain that is essential for reading.  It can do other things as well, but you can have strokes in small areas where the only obvious symptom is that the person loses the ability to read, without losing the ability to talk or write.  Let me give you an example of what happened to my father, adapted from my account in Conversations with Neil’s Brain.

            One day he had a bad headache, quite unlike any other he ever had before.  The next morning, he felt somewhat better and fixed himself breakfast, then went out to pick up the newspaper off the sidewalk.  Upon sitting down to breakfast and unfolding the newspaper, he discovered to his astonishment that he could not read it.  The words weren’t blurred.  He could name the letters, but couldn’t read the words.

Some days later, the neurologist asked him to write out a paragraph in longhand.  My father accurately took the dictation.  Asked to read aloud from his own handwriting, he couldn’t.  The neurologist had seen this before, but I was astonished that there could be such a “disconnect” between the two abilities.  My father could name the letters correctly.  He could often correctly guess at the shortest two- and three-letter words.  But he often made errors when he would try to piece together longer words.  His spoken language was normal and he understood everything that was said to him.  He didn’t have any abnormal blind spots that might interfere with reading and he could drive a car without problems.  He just couldn’t read anymore.  A year later, he had recovered his abilities to read the newspaper, but he tired easily and wouldn’t read for more than 20 minutes at a time.

            So my father, like the other patients suffering from alexia without agraphia, appeared to have a specialized cortical area that was essential for reading.  But where could such a thing come from in evolution, if reading is such a recent invention and the literacy rate was too low to expose reading to natural selection for its usefulness?  One hint is that the strokes that cause such reading-only problems are in various places in various patients, not in some standard place common to all humans in the manner of, say, primary visual cortex in the back of the brain.


Experience can rewire the brain and there is some evidence that reading abilities are wired up on the fly during childhood – as we say, they are “softwired” during development rather than hardwired in the manner of instincts.  Self-organization from experience can create specialized areas of expertise in human cerebral cortex, when done early enough in life – and it changes the foundation on which later things can build.  It’s not just that the earlier you do it, the better as an adult, but that the order in which you learn things might matter.

            The science of this is not well worked out yet, but let me give you an illustrative example from the research of my neurosurgical colleague George Ojemann.  In studying the physiological organization of the left middle temporal gyrus (it’s just above the left ear), he showed a strong association between the location of specialized reading and naming sites and, of all things, that patient’s verbal IQ.  He found that patients whose sites for reading were in the superior temporal gyrus, with naming in the middle temporal gyrus, had high verbal IQs.  And he found the reverse in the patients with low verbal IQs.  So some “residential layouts” of these functions in the cortex are more favorable than others. Why?  Might early acquisition of reading skills lead to higher verbal IQ, simply because phonetic languages rely on writing to represent sounds, and the closer the reading areas are to auditory cortex, the better?

            Tune in next year – parents are always experimenting on their children and researchers increasingly have the tools to image the brain’s functional specializations and correlate them with test scores and learning history – but for present purposes, I just want this to serve as an example of how cultural feedback can cause self-organization, softwiring the developing brain to determine adult human capacities.  It’s a softwiring example, on the developmental time scale, of the hardwiring for acquisitiveness of structured stuff that I sketched out earlier on the evolutionary tweaking time scale: how overheard examples of structured stuff could allow softwiring for structured stuff at an age where it “takes better.”

            Culture works so well in the case of reading because we have childhood education for reading at a time when the brain is very plastic.  Does softwiring add atop more instinctive stuff – say, sharing tendencies – to make a new type of person?   Do professional musicians develop cortical specializations for harmony that the rest of us adults don’t have?  What about logical abilities, or being able to feel empathy well enough to routinely practice ethical behaviors?

We know that education matters, in the sense that ignorance is often expensive, but does properly staged education hold the potential for reorganizing the brain in profound ways?  Even without genetic changes, the future baby might still be like modern babies when fresh out of the womb but become profoundly different in mental organization before reaching adulthood.


Education isn’t required for some things.  Children will learn to walk and talk without assistance, though swimming, reading, and writing usually require teaching.  Recognizing someone from their face or the way they walk is a very difficult task, judging from many decades of attempts in artificial intelligence, but kids do them without being taught how.

            It looks as if our minds come with good intuitions about some things, but not others.  There is an intuitive physics about how objects fall and bounce but it’s not very good.  If you are out running and your keys drop out of your hand as you jump over a puddle, and if you manage to take two more steps before you hear them hit the ground, where did they land – back in the puddle or after the puddle?  Intuition will tell you to look back in the puddle, where you were at the time they dropped.  (This is called Aristotelian physics – Aristotle failed to do the experiment that would have shown him that his impetus-based reasoning was wrong.  You have to study Newtonian physics to realize that the keys continue traveling forward at the same velocity as you were running and so will land near your current position.)

            We have an intuitive biology as well, in that we ascribe to something a hidden essence that drives its growth and makes it what it is.  We often distinguish how from why using an intuitive notion of evolution that ascribes purpose to living things, as if they were designed for some goal or role.  (And so we assume a designer, unless we have absorbed the lessons of the Darwinian process, those six essentials that can create very improbable beings after enough generations.)

            We have an intuitive psychology that helps us understand other people, at least if we are old enough to pass that “theory of mind” test.  We treat living beings as if they were animated by desires and beliefs.  For people and pets, this works pretty well, though some people talk to plants too.  And many of us, not just the cartoonists, intuitively ascribe higher intellectual functions to animals without language.

            There is even an intuitive economics based on reciprocity that leads us to mentally keep track of who owes what to whom – and to punish cheaters and freeloaders, even at cost to ourselves.  We have an intuitive notion of probability, though it is easily fooled.  We have an elementary sense of number, though real arithmetic has to be taught.

            This core of intuitions, except for the higher intellectual functions, was likely around even before Homo sapiens evolved.  Add some protostructure such as framing and the closed-class words and you have a considerable advance over ape-level minds.  Add some unstructured protolanguage and it becomes even more interesting, with gossip from well-known sources providing much experience at one remove.  Hearsay was likely accepted without much questioning or reasoning about it (it often still is).  Then structured thought itself finally emerges and we get additional ways of organizing knowledge and discounting the fallacious flotsam.


Adding structured stuff atop the core intuitions took our ancestors into a realm of creativity where we got used to doing novel things.  We got used to deciding quickly without much contemplation – and so we used those core intuitions quite a lot, even though evolution probably didn’t get much of a chance to debug the combination of intuition and structured stuff.

            While some of our core intuitions carry over to help us with modern economics, there are many areas (math, science, technology) in which we are simply unprepared for the modern world.  “It’s not just that we have to go to school or read books to learn these subjects,” Steven Pinker writes. “It’s that we have no mental tools to grasp them intuitively. We depend on analogies that press an old mental faculty into service, or on jerry-built mental contraptions that wire together bits and pieces of other faculties. Understanding in these domains is likely to be uneven, shallow, and contaminated by primitive intuitions.”

            Key concepts of, say, quantum mechanics or neuroscience actually require unlearning a lot of your intuitions.  Neither Aristotelian nor Newtonian physics will help you grasp the wave vs. particle demonstrations.  And always ascribing an actor to every action (as in those mandatory roles for verbs in the argument structure version of syntax) will get you into trouble searching for the seat of the soul or the center of consciousness – when what you need are concepts of distributed, self-organizing systems and how they handle novel inputs on the fly.  (And create new levels of organization with just the right amounts of abstraction and anchoring – more in a minute.)


Perhaps premodern people simply weren’t conscious in our modern sense, lacking most of that speculative “train of consciousness” that William James talked about.

            I am conscious (aware might be the better word) of the chair supporting me as I read.  I notice the sunlight from the window behind me.  It is quickly fading and a blast of wind is rattling the trees near the house; another shower is likely to start pounding on the window.  I am contemplating the cat, and she is contemplating the fire in the fireplace.  She has one ear cocked back, a sure sign of an approach-avoidance conflict.  I try thinking about a feline-based metaphor for a lecture but then become self-conscious, considering what the audience would think of me if I said something that silly.  The music in the other room just switched from Brahms to some aborigine music.  I am reminded of the Australian trip and start speculating about the prospects for a trip to the Galapagos.  Which reminds me that I’d have to get some dental work done before going.

            The here and now, the past and future, worries and delights, self and others – all are conscious aspects of mind.   Sometimes an agenda intrudes, as I remember to check my watch, so that I leave in time for a pending appointment.  There are nagging responsibilities that I push onto the back burner for now.   I contemplate getting up from my comfortable chair to exercise but soon the moment passes.  My mind drifts until consciousness wanes and lapses.  The telephone awakens me and I quickly check my watch before I get up, heart pounding.  A close call.

            Consciousness is, however, more than just the minimum requirements of awake and aware.  Many would emphasize that sensation becomes conscious only when it undergoes some further processing in the brain, as when it encounters past associations or becomes part of a plan for action.

            Some of such consciousness is likely shared with the great apes, but probably not the speculative aspects.  Nor are they likely to experience the pangs of conscience.  That takes foresight, what augments the minor amounts of moral sense that the other apes have.


A central aspect of consciousness is the ability to look ahead, the capability we call “foresight.” It is the ability to plan, and in social terms to outline a scenario of what is likely going to happen, or what might happen, in social interactions that have not yet taken place.... It is a system whereby we improve our chances of doing those things that will represent our own best interests.... I suggest that “free will” is our apparent ability to choose and act upon whichever of those [scenarios] seem most useful or appropriate, and our insistence upon the idea that such choices are our own.
      – Richard D. Alexander, 1979


One of the reasons that paleoanthropologists like to talk about consciousness at this point is that modern humans seem so much more capable of high-end cognitive functions.  An umbrella-coverage term, something like the living-nonliving distinction, is attractive to many people.  Personally, though I concede that we are conscious in ways that great apes are not, I often avoid the C word and other such big, loaded words when I am trying to describe things that I think of in more textured, fine-grain terms.

            There’s a famous quip by Francis Crick, about the border between the living and the nonliving forms of matter, something that used to cause a lot of debate in the first half of the last century.  Well, said Crick, note that this all-important boundary gradually disappeared into just so much molecular biology.  And, he suggested, the same thing was going to happen to consciousness as a concept– that it would disappear into just so much neurobiology.  (I would add:  We’ll still talk about it, just as “alive” has remained a useful concept, but consciousness won’t be a “thing” anymore.)


Medicine now calms the voices and delusions, dampens the obsessions and compulsions, and lifts the depressions.  Besides patching us up, so we aren’t hobbled, might they eventually “improve” us so that we perform in extraordinary ways?

            I’m not a big fan of optimal performance.  It usually sacrifices versatility and creativity, and so optimization often leaves you stranded, high and dry, when the time comes to move on to a job promotion or the next phase of life.  But I can imagine much more useful cocktails of the everyday stimulants that will help students study better, help artists be more creative, help with multitasking.  Espresso stands will specialize in them, customizing the mix for your desired mental set.

            Most of these innovations, of course, will prove to be illusory, mere placebos.  Some will prove dangerous even in mild daily doses, in the manner of nicotine and LSD.  Others will be efficacious but will be overused.  “If some is good, more must be better” is a fallacy recognized even in ancient Greek medicine (almost any medicine becomes a poison in sufficient quantities).  For food and water, we fortunately satiate.  But satiety often doesn’t kick in for more novel substances such as tobacco or alcohol.  We can indulge to the point of significant impairment, with enough softwiring changes in some individuals’ brains so that backing up becomes very difficult (it is called addiction).

            So consumer experimentation (including what adventuresome or ignorant parents try out on their children) will be a rocky road – but eventually, emerging from the serious research track, there will be a science of everyday mind enhancement.  Still, I’d bet on improvements in education as the major source of enhanced functioning, what makes genius more common and brings up the bottom.


Rousseau was not the first, nor even the most naïve.  But he was the most famous in a line of credulous people, stretching as far back as thought and as far forward as our precarious species manages to survive, who believe that what we have left behind is better than what we have, and that the best way to solve our problems is to go backward as quickly as possible. In this view, what is past is natural, what is present, unnatural....

             – Melvin Konner,  2001


The word [Enlightenment] wasn't ill-chosen, for it bespoke illuminating a path ahead – which, in turn, implied the unprecedented notion that “forward” is a direction worth taking, instead of lamenting over a preferred past.  Progress – and boy, did we take to it.  In two or three centuries our levels of education, health, liberation, tolerance and confident diversity have been momentously, utterly transformed.

             – David Brin, 2002


If you read the book on the web (uncomfortable but possible), consider buying a book as a gift for a friend.  (We live and learn and pass it on.) Click on a cover for the link to 

A Brief History of the Mind, 2004
A Brief History of the Mind

A Brain for All Seasons, 2002
A Brain for All Seasons

Lingua ex Machina:  Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (Calvin & Bickerton, 2000)
Lingua ex Machina

The Cerebral Code:  Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996)
The Cerebral Code

How Brains Think:  Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now (1996)
How Brains Think

Conversations with Neil's Brain:  The Neural Nature of Thought and Language (Calvin & Ojemann, 1994)
Conversations with
Neil's Brain

The River That Flows Uphill
The River That
Flows Uphill


The Throwing Madonna:  Essays on the Brain
The Throwing Madonna

Table of Contents    Notes and References for this chapter    On to the NEXT CHAPTER   

copyright ©2003 by William H. Calvin

William H. Calvin
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