The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


The Canadian neuropsychologist Merlin Donald argued that the modern mind of symbolic thought arose from a non-symbolic form of intelligence through gradual absorption of new representational systems.  The human mind developed in four stages (which, incidentally, roughly correspond to stages of cognitive growth in modern humans).

Early hominids were limited to episodic representations of knowledge, which was useful for remembering repeating episodes (the "episodic" mind). The episodic memory was useful to learn stimulus-response associations, but it could not retrieve memories independent of environmental cues. In other words, it could not "think". These "episodic beings" (still more apes than humans) lived their lives entirely in the present.

Homo Erectus developed a "mimetic" (pre-linguistic but roughly symbolic) system of motor-based representations. At this stage the mind was capable of retrieving memories independent of environmental cues, and was capable of "re-describing" experience based on the overall knowledge. This is what the British psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith refers to as "representational re-description" in the stages of child development. The mind has a representation of the world and it is capable of continuously adapting it to new knowledge. The mind has "understanding" of the world.

These representations also enabled the individual to communicate intentions and desires and, on a larger scale, enabled generations to pass on cultural artifacts. At this stage, there existed a sort of collective memory (a "culture") founded on the ability to carry out collective motor-based re-constructions of earlier incidents. By "motor-based", Donald means that early humans were able to use their bodies to learn, remember and teach. Tool-making and games originate at this stage.

In the third stage, Homo Sapiens acquired language and therefore the ability to construct narratives and build myths, and myths represent integrated models of the world by which individuals could generalize and predict (the "mythic" mind). This stage requires new anatomical (and, specifically, neuronal) additions to the human body. These humans were capable of telling stories, a quantum leap in communication. Thus, one of language's fundamental functions is to express myths. "Language is about telling stories in a group".

About 50,000 years ago humans began to store memories in the outside world instead of in their own brain (e.g., cave paintings, figurines, calendars, etc).

Finally, modern humans, helped by written language, achieved higher, symbolic representational capabilities such as logic (the "theoretic" mind).

According to the epistemological theories of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, children follow a similar path to full-fledged thinking, from event to mimetic, from narrative to symbolic.

Donald's fundamental insight is that language and thought are tightly related: some forms of thought require language, and language reflects what forms of thought are possible.  Symbols per se did not cause a major revolution in thinking: the kind of mental models that the mind could build caused the revolution. And language (or symbols) was simply a means to represent those models. The purpose of language was to allow individuals to share a common model of the world.  Narrative was the natural product of language. Narrative led to unified, collective models of reality, in particular those embodied by myths.


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