Our Cognitive Past and Our Cognitive Future – Alex MacGregor

In last week’s journal response I posed some questions regarding the historical timeframe of our symbolic cognitive evolution, as well as the how non-human animals fit into this discussion, so I was glad to see both of these issues addressed in this week’s readings.

In “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture“, Wong uses Neanderthals as a reference point. She brings up “systematic ochre processing” and “manufacturing of body ornaments” (Wong, 95) as evidence of their symbolic capabilities, which I found particularly interesting because we know that biological ornamentation is a feature utilized by many different animals, so is the manufacturing the key distinction that takes us from non-symbolic to symbolic? I was also interested in her point about how both humans and Neanderthals came to exhibit the ability to think symbolically. She raises the possibility of independent evolution, as well as the possibility of a “primeval common ancestor” (Wong, 95). Should it be the latter, I wonder how far back this common ancestor is located?

One thing that really struck me from “The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain” was how interdisciplinary this field of study is. Deacon mentions philosophers, neurologists, biological scientists, psychologists, archaeologists and linguists as all having a role to play in exploring and understanding symbolic cognition. To me, that signifies (heh) just how fundamental this topic is to our existence. I was also interested in the point Deacon made about the human brain being overbuilt for learning symbolic associations (Deacon, 413). The amplification of emergent consequences in other mental domains that results from this overbuilding is something he didn’t go into depth about, so I was wondering about examples of these supramodal adaptations.

In the Donald reading, yet again we come across the “symbolic cognition as network” analogy, which i’m really loving. The way he framed the uniqueness of the human mind as being in the ability to imagine or think about things outside our immediate environment also made a lot of sense to me, especially when analyzing these issues through a semiotic lens, as much of it is based on non-immediate mental processing. Donald also talks about the difference between literary cultures and oral cultures (Donald 220), and while he discusses how those differences manifest in the realm of overt culture, I wonder about any neurological differences between cultures that may have sprung up as a result.

So I suppose my question is where is all of this leading to? The readings this week did the anthropological work of tracing our cognitive history, but what will our cognitive future look like? The “computer as mind, mind as computer” concept seems to be quite important, so perhaps the field of computer science will become an increasingly critical slice of this interdisciplinary pie. Is it possible we will reach a kind of cognitive inflection point once the technology advances enough? In the “Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage ” reading, Renfrew brings up the four transitions of cognitive phases (Renfrew, 4), so is it possible we’re due for a fifth transition?


Wong, Kate. “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” From Scientific American. 292, no. 6: 86-95. 2005.

Deacon, Terrence W. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Donald, Merlin. “Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain,” from Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition, ed. Oscar Vilarroya, et al. Amsterdam: Rodophi, 2007.

Renfrew, Colin. “Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage.” In Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage, edited by Colin Renfrew, 1-6. Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1999.