Remember the hippocampus, so important in memory input and recall? (See posts 5/31/16 & 12/24/15) We know that the hippocampi form and hold maps that code information about spatial locations, experiences and their temporal arrangements, and objects such as food resources, dangers and perhaps most importantly for primates, social objects, i.e., conspecifics. (See posts 5/27/16 & 9/8/14) Thus, we can recognize or recall a great variety of places, times, activities, and associates. Now one of my puzzles has been how human hippocampi changed in response to our symbolic capacities. In rats and dogs, etc., the hippocampi code information pertinent to their umvelt, so each species’ has a different mixture of perceptual data, directions, visual cues, etc. that enable them to move about the material world more effectively. But what about the human umvelt, where so much of it is created symbolically without regard to any material geography? Our umvelt comprises several geographies: earthly terrain, social objects, mental space and mythic cosmology. How and when did that come about? See my puzzle?
Reading Inside the Neolithic Mind by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, I found a curious idea relevant to my thinking here. They see in the transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture a curious and relevant development.
They describe a mental ‘articulation’ (a better term, I think, is ‘dialectic’) between the material and conceptual environments. As Neolithic people developed a culture befitting agriculturalism with its requisite changes in population density and civic organization, they also, as Lewis-Williams and Pearce understand it, developed a different relationship with the land. Specifically they went from wandering around in perhaps a seasonal pattern dictated by land and climate to the notion of a homeland, and this entailed the firming up of religious landscapes and ritual locations and, much later, boundaries to the land thought of as being under their control. Likewise, their conceptual environment developed into a cosmology composed of 3 domains, upper (sky and spiritual realm), middle (the land and mundane activities), and lower (a realm especially important for the dead).
Much of their book focuses on the archeological evidence for these 3 realms as seen in the earliest known structures, buildings and art as well as evidence from anthropological studies of more recent shamanistic societies. The role of a shaman is virtually defined by the ability to traverse these three realms through alterations of consciousness. Lewis-Williams and Pearce also argue that this ‘spiritual’ power was accompanied by changes in social stratification and authority. So big changes here, and I would have to say, one change would have to be the inclusion of symbolically constructed domains that were transmitted culturally and still mapped out mentally using the usual neural resources, e.g., the hippocampus and its mnemonic structures. They assert that the dramatic turn in Neolithic peoples was the coupling of religion and land, and further, that the prehistoric structures in the Middle East, e.g., Ain Ghazal and Jericho, and in western Europe, e.g., Stonehenge and Newgrange, were models of their cosmological realms that enabled them to act within and exert more control on their mythos. A lot there to ponder.
While this implies that hippocampal mapping took on these cultural-mythical realms fully maybe 15,000 years ago, I think it is also to be understood that such a cultural development was a long time in the making and I am sure our hippocampal circuits have been essentially in place and stable for much, much longer—maybe from 500,000 years ago. The salient point remains that our remarkably expansive cultural evolution depended upon our somatic evolution, e.g., the hippocampal circuits.
A final word about this dialectic between the material and conceptual environments. In a way, Piaget documented this in our ontogeny as children developed their cognitive powers through accommodation and assimilation, i.e., sometimes the mind adjusts its conceptions to meet reality, sometimes understanding reality is adjusted to fit ongoing conceptualizations. (A poor rendition, perhaps, but you get the idea, I hope). Susanne Langer also saw this dialectic as integral to human intellect (oh the vision of this lady). Consider these two quotes of hers cited by Innis as he explains her view that our mental life is a symbolic projection:
“This symbolic projection is essentially, as we have seen, bipolar. It is the objectification of feeling, resulting in the ‘building up of a whole objective world of perceptible things’, and the subjectification of nature, which involves ‘the symbolic use of natural forms to envisage feeling, i.e., the endowment of such forms with emotional import, mystical and mythical and moral’” . . . “The dialectic of these two functions is, I think, the process of human experience.”
And later from Langer: “So the theory of art is really a prolegomenon to the greater undertaking of constructing a concept of mind adequate to the living actuality.”
The adoption of some landscape as home to the sacred involves the objectification of feeling and our deepening attachment to such landscapes is the subjectification of nature. The dialectic between the two enables the creation of a cosmology over and above (and below) geographical terrain and our incredible hippocampus and associated structures sustained this cosmological mapping in our minds. With this, the human umvelt and habitus took on its modern form, and since then, we have used art to understand the variegated reality of our total experience and then developed science to control the material realm to fit our conceptualizations. Travel on.