Human beings have one of the largest brain to body mass ratios of any animal on the planet. While it could be argued that this is due in part to our sophisticated hand control, just as an octopus requires a large brain to control its eight appendages, our obvious accomplishments as the most successful higher-order species on the planet provides further evidence of our cognitive superiority. Without our higher brain functions allowing us to construct complex social structures, technological extensions of ourselves, and anticipate future events, we would be at a disadvantage in competition with the other more physically adept mammals, even the primates.
When we consider the cognitive advantages human beings have over the rest of the animal kingdom, we must keep in mind that we are only talking about matters of degree. Theory of mind was a concept we though unique to our species, but we now know that even some species of bird grasp this idea and use it to their advantage. It was once believed other animals lacked the capacity for abstract thought, we now have indisputable proof that many primates possess such faculties. Even emotions, which psychologists have argued are a strictly human characteristic, are definitely shared by our fellow mammals.
The uniqueness of human cognition concerns the extent to which we exhibit all of these faculties. Human beings take abstraction, theory of mind, and foresight to heights unrealized elsewhere in Earth’s animal kingdom. Our sophisticated levels of communication between members of the human race have allowed for adaptive cooperation strategies to far outstrip any anthill or beehive. Our tooluse leaves the primates and birds in the metaphorical dust. We abstract ourselves into questioning everything around us while the rest of the animal kingdom simply is.
The status of being the most-successful species of mammal on the planet does not exempt us from continuing to evolve. We still compete for survival, but this now occurs almost exclusively within our own species. We compete against one another in free markets, wars, social conflicts, and disputations. We measure individual success against economic, academic, and social status means. The memes of the most successful humans continue to live after them, carried in the minds of future generations.
Over the next few articles, I will explore some of the specific cognitive adaptations that have made the human race so successful. These are adaptations that are even more relevant today, making them virtues for emulation. These are mental characteristics that make for successful human beings.
Plasticity of Mind
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon
Dr. J. Bronowski makes an interesting observation of the statues of Easter Island, Egyptian Pharohs, Greek and Roman Rulers, Musolinni, Hitler, and others. These great, immovable figures, whose empires and fantastic civilizations must have seemed immortal at the time of their reigns, are all dead and their works swept away by time. It’s like that Percy Shelley poem, Ozymandias, where a barren wasteland with two “trunkless legs of stone” stand on a pedestal where these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandius. king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
The common thread running through all failed civilizations is rigidity. A culture “set in stone” fails to adapt to changes in the environment. The people of Easter Island failed to change their behaviors even as they chopped down their last tree. The Vikings failed to adopt the more successful behaviors of the other cultures that thrived in the northern climates. These examples of failed cultures are the collective failures of individuals who were too rigid in their ways of thinking.
We are brought from the womb in a fetal-state. We are nearly blank slates, unlike other animals (mostly non-mammals) born into the world fully functional, Homo Sapiens must learn through a long childhood how to succeed in our environment. Our experiences wire our minds with cause and effect relationships that we carry throughout our lifetimes, but our minds are never hardwired. We always have the potential to reorganize them.
The length of this childhood has grown significantly in the last 200 years. Marriage at the beginning of puberty was not uncommon in many American cultures merely 50 years ago. Many of today’s offspring will continue to rely on their parents for support through their college years and beyond. As the complexity of our world increases, so too does the length of time needed to adapt to its demands.
Yet, this is the amazing aspect of human cognitive prowess that we do adapt to the increased demands. We rise to an ever-rising bar of mental challenges to succeed in our society. We are cognitively malleable and, as a result, fantastically adaptable.
ECG scans have shown our brain patterns change throughout our life in response to not only our body chemistry, but our experiences as well. Different regions of the brain are activated in response to new stimuli, such as music, math, or reading, and stay activated. Similarly, regions of the brain can go inactive through lack of use.
Our minds are dynamic entities and successful thinking demands that we preserve their malleability.
The Postponement of Gratification
It is the slopping forehead of our ancestors and related species that most distinguishes our various fossilized skulls. Homo Sapiens are egg-heads, our skulls climb straight up from our brows. Within this extra bit of space resides one of the most important components of our neurology: the brain’s frontal lobe.
How exquisitely symbolic that the functions of this portion of our gray matter resemble its placement. The frontal lobe is preoccupied with forward thinking, and this gives Homo Sapiens a knack for strategization and planning other species lack. Our ancestors anticipated the changing seasons, and we modern decedents anticipate countless aspects of our everyday lives.
One significant dimension to taking advantage of forward-thinking is the ability of an individual to put off present rewards for greater rewards in the future. Consider the hungry farmer who eats his corn seeds compared to the farmer who remains hungry in order to plant those seeds, anticipating their multiplication with the next harvest. Psychologists refer to this mastery over immediate desire in favor of a greater cause the “Postponement of Gratification,” and it appears unique to Homo Sapiens.
To my mind the most obvious example of this principle at work and in failing would be credit versus investment. A dollar invested in savings today will earn its worth many times over the course of a lifetime, but a dollar in credit will cost the same. Credit provides the instant gratification and investment provides the future rewards. The amount of one or the other an individual has amassed at any moment in their lifetime is often used as one measure of Emotional Maturity, the measure of desire over self-control.
What does it say about our collective exhibition of this virtue that we Americans amass so much debt as a nation? What does it say that we as a world community take such a short-sighted view of such issues as environmental sustainability, population growth, and poverty?
It says that these issues are beyond the reach of our own lifetimes and are therefore beyond our ability to fully comprehend. The complexity of these issues, their gravity and their immensity are too great to impress them on our psyches. Our minds have yet to rise to these challenges that concern us all.
The simple explanation of this principle is allowing facts to override our preconceptions. Throughout history we have seen an almost chronic pathology of entire civilizations, organizations, and individuals disregarding facts inconvenient to their established modes of thought. Even when the civilization does not die due to its inability to acknowledge reality, the behavior proves severely detrimental to it, preventing the expansion of knowledge and progress.
Johannes Kepler is my favorite example of this virtue at work. According to the established logic of Kepler’s time, the planets had orbits along paths of perfect circles, because this was a universe created by a perfect god. Kepler spent years trying to chart the orbits of the planets within this paradigm, even using platonic solids, which held a divine character for their geometrical elegance, to create his model. The models did not fit the observations, and it was only through Kepler’s adherence to the virtue of empirical thought that he was able to develop his Laws of Planetary Motion, all of which were impossible without accepting the orbits of planets as ellipses.
Facts must trump all else, and anyone who adheres to this principle knows just how difficult it is to live it. Finding the facts in a world of persuasions is an immense challenge, but, like all virtues, we get more apt at it with practice.
Falsify Your Hypothesis
This is a subset of the empirical observation virtue. A common mistake Chess novices make is to emphasize, in their own minds, the positive aspects of their strategies rather than exploring the detractors. Grandmasters tend to think eight moves ahead, focusing on the potential detrimental effects of their strategies. They attempt to prove their logic false rather than seeking validation to reinforce it.
This trait makes for a strong Cognitive Schema, as it is demonstrated in the specialized realm of Chess competitor’s example. Yet the falsification of our hypothesis is a rare virtue in people. It requires a sophisticated level of emotional maturity, the ability to fairly anticipate opponent’s views, and the veracity to disassociate ourselves from our ideas. This is a great deal to ask of anyone.
The peer review process, so crucial to Scientific Knowledge, is an exercise in this virtue. If we are incapable of finding the flaws in our own thoughts, then others certainly will and even if they do not, then the process of being challenged strengthens the existing conceptions.
The stronger exhibition of this virtue is still in proving oneself wrong. Seeing the flaws in our own thoughts is preferable to making the next move on the chessboard and having our opponent demonstrate them for us.
“Curiosity killed the cat.” – an Antiquated Aphorism
Curiosity is another subset of empirical thought. We cannot exercise Empiricism without observations. Just as muscles consume protein, the mind requires a constant influx of new ideas and concepts to fuel it. Each new discovery increases the veracity of our cognitive schema as a whole.
Inquisitiveness takes many forms, such as introspection, academic research, geographical exploration, archeological, experimental, artistic… there are as many types of curiosity as there are dimensions of understanding. Curiosity is proactive. Curiosity involves a genuine concern for various elements of existence. Curiosity is the act of involving ourselves in reality.
For a species evolved to a point such as ours, where material gains, sexual reproduction, or mere survival are no longer universal goals, curiosity provides a motivation for living. It provides a purpose. We are now a race of factoid-gatherers, our minds growing into reality’s every crevice. From our final days in the womb, when our brains are sufficiently developed to receive sensory input, we become information sponges. Our entire existence is observation and experimentation. Curiosity, therefore, is an act of self-improvement. Each factoid we gather increases our capacity to deal with life.
Curiosity becomes an actual virtue when we consider how it contributes to civilization more than anything else. When two human beings meet, they inevitably exchange information, trade factoids, compare notes, exchange memes, what have you. We have a social responsibility to educate ourselves, not just to improve our own success in life, but to strengthen the integrity of civilization’s memepool. Curiosity is the only path to understanding.