Why Humans are Such Peculiar Animals

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Ameen Hussaini
Staff Writer

“Why are humans such peculiar animals?” This is the question that Doctor Cecilia Heyes of the University of Oxford is trying to answer with her recent research which she presented in her talk “Cognitive Gadgets – The Cultural Evolution of Thinking”. She gave her talk at the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

The talk addressed a question that many people have asked and continue to ask. No extensive knowledge of psychology was needed in order to understand the vast majority of Heyes’ talk, but the research seemed to appeal to experts in the field who were present as well.

Heyes explained that the question is best approached by focusing on bodies, behavior, brains, or minds of human beings. She chose to research the mind, and she first asked what ways of thinking make human beings distinct. The most popular choice is language, but Heyes presented a variety of other options as well.

More obvious candidates included teaching and imitation, but less common facilities like metacognition (thinking about thinking) and what she calls mental time travel (episodic memory and planning) were also mentioned. These mental abilities of humans are often thought of as products of genetic evolution, or “cognitive instincts” that are innate.

However, Heyes’ opinion and the crux of her argument are that these ways of thinking are “cognitive gadgets” which are developed through a cultural evolutionary process rather than a genetic evolutionary process. She compares these gadgets to tools like kayaks, spinning wheels, and bows and arrows. She explained that, like these objects, our unique mental abilities were not designed. Rather, they were developed through a cultural selection process.

For example, the kayak was not an ingenious invention that was built from the ground up. Instead, many different boats were built, and the ones that sank the least were passed down through generations to become what we know today as a kayak. Just like kayaks need wood to be built, our cognitive gadgets need resources to develop. Heyes described a “genetic starter kit” that all people are born with which has temperament, attention, and cognition.

The temperament of human beings is important for the development of our mental facilities because it allows us to be much more tolerant of others, especially juveniles. This is because human beings, specifically males, have much lower testosterone levels than other primates. Lower testosterone is evolutionarily selected as it prevents humans from fighting each other. 

Another aspect of human temperament is response contingent stimulation which enables us to feel good when we have an effect on the world. It explains why we like to make people laugh, smile, and express other emotions.

Heyes also touched briefly on the innate qualities of attention and cognition. Attention is demonstrated by the fact that babies will follow objects that vaguely look like faces when they are only a few hours old. Cognition is showcased by our far superior inhibitory control, which allows us to refrain from acting on impulses that are detrimental to our own or others’ well-being. Cognition is also responsible for our advanced associative learning, which makes functions as complex as heeding advice possible.

Once Heyes thoroughly explored our genetic toolkit, she moved on to expand upon imitation which is another of our cognitive gadgets. Imitation is often thought of as a simple ability, but a number of Heyes’s claims suggest otherwise. Heyes introduced an idea called associative sequence learning that may explain how imitation comes about through cultural evolutionary processes. Essentially, mirror neurons are capable of matching observed actions to performed actions because of links that exist between sensory and motor representations.

These links are first created by watching one’s self perform an action. For example, when a baby looks at their own hand grasping an object, they can see the action that they are performing, so both sensory and motor representations are engaged. This creates a link, and actions can be imitated through mirror neurons when we simply watch others.

This is why we are able to imitate others without having to constantly look at ourselves to make sure we are correctly performing actions. When we see others holding their hands behind their backs, we are able to imitate the action perfectly even though we don’t see our own hands. This is known as the correspondence problem, and Heyes’ ASL could very well explain it.

Overall, the notion that the most complex facilities of the human mind are products of cultural learning is nothing short of groundbreaking. This notion even opens up possibilities to research cognitive gadgets that have been lost to war and epidemics and presents the opportunity to research the emergence of new ones as well. 

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