posted 1 September 2003


William H. Calvin, A Brief History of the Mind (Oxford University Press 2004), chapter 13. See also

William H. Calvin 
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 University of Washington



The big thinkers in the sciences of human nature have been adamant that mental life has to be understood at several levels of analysis, not just the lowest one.  The linguist Noam Chomsky, the computational neuroscientist David Marr, and the ethologist Niko Tinbergen have independently marked out a set of levels of analysis for understanding a faculty of the mind.  These levels include its function (what it accomplishes in an ultimate, evolutionary sense); its real-time operation (how it works proximately, from moment to moment); how it is implemented in neural tissue; how it develops in the individual; and how it evolved in the species.

               Steven Pinker, 2002



Imagining the House of Cards

Inventing new levels of organization on-the-fly


Level of analysis is an unavoidable concept in biology, where the process of coming into being is so varied.  In his history of biological thought, Ernst Mayr distinguished between proximal causes (physiological stuff, such as the mechanics of brain operation) and ultimate causes (the evolutionary setup phase, what makes the proximate mechanisms what they now are).  Our present distinction of development (what children do) from evolution (what species do) seems natural but, in Darwin’s day, the terms were different.  Indeed, Darwin didn’t much employ the term “evolution” as, back then, it simply implied a pattern unfolding, as in a dance or a coordinated military maneuver (what marching bands now do at halftime.  So evolutionary setup, mechanics, and development are the main levels of analysis (or explanation) in biology.

            A level of organization is a more general concept, seen in all of the sciences.  This kind of level is best defined by certain functional properties, not anatomy.  As an example of four levels, fleece is organized into yarn, which is woven into cloth, which can be arranged into clothing.  Each of these levels of organization is transiently stable, with ratchetlike mechanisms that prevent backsliding: fabrics are woven, to prevent their disorganization into so much yarn; yarn is spun, to keep it from backsliding into fleece.

            Neuroscientists once talked at cross purposes when arguing about learning – is it an alteration at the level of gene expression, ion channels, synapses, neurons or circuits?  All of the above?  Confusion of levels also occurred in evolutionary science in the wake of Darwin when geneticists in the 1900s thought that the newfound genes were an alternative explanation to natural selection.  It is common to initially suppose that complementary causes are, instead, competing explanations.

            A proper organizational level is characterized by “causal decoupling” from adjacent levels; it’s a “study unto itself.”  You can weave without understanding how to spin yarn (or make clothing).  Indeed, Dmitri Mendeleev figured out the periodic table of the elements without knowing any of the underlying quantum mechanics or the overlying structural chemistry.  Most of the natural sciences need only several levels of organization.  There are, however, at least a dozen levels of organization within the neurosciences — all of the way up from genes for ion channels to the emergent properties of cortical neural circuits.  And, if we invent a metaphor, we tack on a new level.  Then there are those developmental and evolutionary levels of explanation.

            The closest approximation to a word, in the animal world, is an emotional utterance such as the chimpanzee’s “What’s that?” or “Get away from that!” equivalents.  Occasionally they can be interpreted as nouns (“snake” or “eagle”).  We humans can combine several utterances for an additional meaning, say “That’s big.”  This opens up a space of thousands of new meanings.  In addition to such relationships, we can compare items, say “This is bigger than that.”  We can even build a new level, that of relationships between relationships, when we say “Bigger is better.”  It is this on-the-fly construction of a new level, as when we find an analogy or use figurative speech, that is what makes human cognition so open ended, totally unlike anything seen elsewhere in evolution.  Nothing in animal communication is in this class.


It is only a Seattle coffee joke, but it nicely illustrates different levels of mental organization.

            The ascent to higher levels of consciousness begins when you first contemplate the toothpaste in the morning, when you can operate only at the level of single words and well-memorized actions.

            Relationships between concepts, like speaking in sentences, may first require priming, with the morning cup of coffee.

            Talking about relations between relationships (better known as analogies or metaphors), as when we say “Bigger is better,” may require a double espresso.

            Poets, of course, invent figurative speech and compound it into blends.  (“The path not taken.”)  Some seem to require a series of stage-setting maneuvers involving many superstitious practices, some of which involve substances even more toxic than coffee.


Mental life can pyramid a number of levels, thereby creating structure.  We see the pyramiding of levels as babies encounter the patterns of the world around them. A baby first picks up the short sound units of speech (phonemes), then the patterns of them called words, then the patterns within strings of words we call syntax, then the patterns of minutes-long strings of sentences called narratives (whereupon she will start expecting a proper ending for her bedtime story).

            By the time she encounters the opening lines of James Joyce’s Ulysses, she will need to imagine several levels at once:  Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.  A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air.  He held the bowl aloft and intoned:  Introibo ad altare Dei.” 

       As always, there is the physical setting (piecing together the top of an old Martello gun tower overlooking Dublin Bay with a full-of-himself medical student about to shave).

But the ceremonial words and deliberate pace prompt you to consider the more abstract level of metaphor.  An ungirdled gown and an offering of lather?  Is this – gasp! – an obscene mockery of the Catholic mass, far more blasphemous than anything that Salman Rushdie might have implied about Islam?  And Joyce is instead celebrated in Ireland?

            So much of our intellectual task, not just in reading Joyce and Rushdie but in interpreting everyday conversation, is to locate appropriate levels of meaning between the concreteness of objects and the various levels of category, relationships, and metaphor.  You usually cannot get the joke without locating the correct level of organization to which it refers, and it is often the alternative interpretations at different possible levels that makes it so funny. 

            “And about how many people work here?” the visitor politely inquires of the boss.

            “About half.”


Our minds can operate on the unreal (“the missing chair” or “zero”) but it is tropes that allow us ways of saying “this is like that.”  They tack on imagery with connotations above and beyond the literal meaning.  We employ spatial metaphors such as “soaring spirits” and “falling GNP.”  It is claimed that much of learning is dominated by analogy (the heart is like a pump) and metaphor (the heart is a pump).  Roland Barthes declared that “no sooner is a form seen than it must resemble something: humanity seems doomed to analogy.”

            Even in science, extended metaphors personify by giving human characteristics to charged particles where those of like charge “hate” one another though those of opposite charge “love” one another.  Metaphor is the first thing we try when working our way into a complex subject, but in doing science you eventually try to replace it with something better (though the metaphor may remain handy for teaching).  In seventeenth-century England, the scientists of the Royal Society sought “to separate knowledge of nature from the colours of rhetoric, the devices of the fancy, the delightful deceit of the fables.”  They saw the “trick of metaphors” as distorting reality.  Yes, but something is better than nothing.


To keep creative constructions from being nonsensical, two tasks are needed.  The first, as mentioned earlier, is to judge new associations for their internal coherence:  do they all hang together in a reasonable, safe way?  (Initially, most associations are surely as incoherent as our dreams, which provide us with a nightly experience of people, places, and occasions that simply do not fit together.)  Awake, it’s an off-line search for coherence, for combinations that “hang together” particularly well.  Sometimes this provides an emergent property: the committee can do something that none of the separate parts could manage.

            Second, to spend more time at the more abstract levels in an intellectual house of cards, the prior ones usually have to be sufficiently shored up to prevent backsliding.  Poets, in order to compare two candidate metaphors, have to build a lot of scaffolding.  Finding the right combination can be like adding a capstone to an arch, which permits the other stones to support themselves – as a committee, they can defy gravity and dispense with the temporary scaffolding, so slowly assembled with the aid of the writer’s superstitious rituals and self-medications.

            The loss of a normal adult ability to locate and hold a level of organization is what the psychiatrists are testing for when they ask you the meaning of a proverb like “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”  Without being able to stabilize your house of cards at an intermediate level, you can’t reason by analogy.  A psychotic patient may be both very concrete and hopelessly abstract, as if flipping from one extreme to the other because unable to settle at the mezzanine for any length of time.

            Finding the appropriate level at which to address a problem – not too concretely, not too abstractly – is an important aspect of intelligence that is probably not seen in the great apes.  Searching the wrong level is a common blunder in all of higher intellectual function – when you don’t “get it,” it is often because you cannot locate the intended level of reference where everything falls into place.

            We can distinguish “John believes there is a Santa Claus” from “There is a Santa Claus” (if apes ever manage this, it will surprise a lot of researchers).  We usually do it so well that a persistent breakdown of this ability raises the question of schizophrenia.  Still, most of us easily confuse concepts that can be approached from different levels of analysis, and sometimes we get stuck rationalizing the results – as when a statement of moral principle (say, equity feminism’s equal opportunity and equal pay) gets confused with demonstrable-but-irrelevant facts about biology (say, when some gender feminists get upset about reports of brain differences between males and females and worry that needed social progress will suffer unless this heresy is vehemently denied).


One of the reasons we so seldom paint ourselves into a corner or saw off the limb we are sitting on is that we have all heard one funny, memorable tale or another about a chap who did just that.  And if we follow the Golden Rule, or the Ten Commandments, we are enhancing our underlying natural instincts with prosthetic devices that tend to encourage framing the situations we confront in one way or another.

             – Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves, 2003


A sense of ethical behavior has some foundations in primate social life, where even a monkey has a sense of what he can get away with and what will cause trouble.  Framing and a “theory of mind” add much more capability.

            We use our theory of another’s mind all the time in conversation when we pitch a sentence in a way that takes account of our listener’s knowledge.  I say “brain cell” if I’m not sure my listener knows the term “neuron.”  When you say “he” instead of John Smith, or “the” instead of “a,” you are implying that what you mention is something that your listener should know already, because of shared knowledge or some antecedent communication.

            This everyday practice of estimating what another knows or believes helps you acquire an ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  I’ve saved the topic for here, late in my brief history of mind, because I suspect that our kind of ethics probably owes a lot to simulating novel social situations in your head before acting.  And you often operate at a second or third remove:  I may jaywalk when there aren’t children around, but I will detour to the crosswalk when I might be serving as a role model.  I may avoid saying something to X because I can estimate that X wouldn’t want Y, nearby, to overhear it because Y would probably tell Z.

            Of course, it cuts both ways: if your competitiveness exceeds your empathy, you may use your mental model to take advantage of the other person rather than help him avoid a problem – as when trying to outthink your chess opponent by projecting what the board might look like, three moves ahead.  Pretense involves treating some things as a harmless game, when competitiveness and deception within the rules can override other considerations.  But they are exceptions carved out of a broad area in which you are expected to tread lightly, to minimize the impact on others of your moves.

            Some of this may have been around long enough to hardwire some intuitions into the brain.  We have some emotional responses such as embarrassment, shame, and guilt that are not shared with the other great apes.  (Nor are the new emotions commonly featured in our dreams in the manner of, say, anxiety.)  As Mark Twain said, man is “the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” And the social setting – as in that chimp patrol – can transform otherwise peaceful, thoughtful individuals into irrational, suggestible, and emotional brutes.

            The new emotions suggest, to me, the role of a good reputation in future social dealings.  That they have become instincts or intuitions makes me suspect that some protostructure and protolanguage might have been present in social life for a long time, well before the last transition.


We have achieved an extraordinary ability to pretend, fantasize, lie, deceive, contrast alternatives, and simulate.  But levels are the real stuff of creativity, so let me give an appreciation of one of the greatest feats of creativity:  the everyday emergence of new levels of organization.

            Here is an example of two input spaces serving to prompt you to construct a third hybrid space in your mind.  It is from a sailing magazine reporting on a “race” between two boats whose journeys were actually 140 years apart:  “As we went to press, Rich Wilson and Bill Biewenga were barely maintaining a 4.5 day lead over the ghost of the clipper Northern Light, whose record run from San Francisco to Boston they’re trying to beat.  In 1853, the clipper made the journey in 76 days, 8 hours.”

            We deal easily with such metaphorical constructions, mapping the old journey onto our trajectory planning for the modern trip to create a “ghost” lagging behind.  Understanding one story by mapping it onto a more familiar story (that’s what constitutes a parable) shows how we can operate mentally, once we have the structure for syntax and can use it again for even more abstract, beyond-the-sentence constructions.  We map actions between the spaces but perhaps substitute new actors.  We do something similar in logical reasoning.

            Blended spaces draw from several source frames that are closer to reality.  The resulting “blend” inherits qualities from each input but often achieves some unique properties of its own.  The blending process lets you suggest to your listener that there are connections between elements, even though their properties may be materially different.  Blending says a lot about our creativity, as in this description by Mark Turner in The Literary Mind:


Certainly there is considerable evidence that blending is a mainstay of early childhood thought.  A two‑year‑old child who is leading a balloon around on a string may say, pointing to the balloon, "This is my imagination dog." When asked how tall it is, she says, "This high," holding her hand slightly higher than the top of the balloon. "These," she says, pointing at two spots just above the balloon, "are its ears." This is a complicated blend of attributes shared by a dog on a leash and a balloon on a string.  It is dynamic, temporary, constructed for local purposes, formed on the basis of image schemas, and extraordinarily impressive. It is also just what two‑year‑old children do all day long. True, we relegate it to the realm of fantasy because it is an impossible blended space, but such spaces seem to be indispensable to thought generally and to be sites of the construction of meanings that bear on what we take to be reality.


            Levels and blending do make you realize that understanding the underlying neural processes has enormous potential for further enhancing our cognitive processes – that the last transition might someday become only the penultimate transition.



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

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copyright ©2003 by William H. Calvin

William H. Calvin
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