Our imaginative life today has access to the pre-linguistic, ancestral mind

Stephen T Asma writes: Richard Klein, Maurice Bloch and other prominent paleoanthropologists place the imagination quite late in the history of our species, thousands of years after the emergence of anatomically modern humans. In part, this theory reflects a bias that artistic faculties are a kind of evolutionary cheesecake – sweet desserts that emerge as byproducts of more serious cognitive adaptations such as language and logic. More importantly, it is premised on the relatively late appearance of cave art in the Upper Paleolithic period (c38,000 years ago). It is common for archaeologists to assume that imagination evolves late, after language, and the cave paintings are a sign of modern minds at work, thinking and creating just as we do today.

Contrary to this interpretation, I want to suggest that imagination, properly understood, is one of the earliest human abilities, not a recent arrival. Thinking and communicating are vastly improved by language, it is true. But ‘thinking with imagery’ and even ‘thinking with the body’ must have preceded language by hundreds of thousands of years. It is part of our mammalian inheritance to read, store and retrieve emotionally coded representations of the world, and we do this via conditioned associations, not propositional coding.

Lions on the savanna, for example, learn and make predictions because experience forges strong associations between perception and feeling. Animals appear to use images (visual, auditory, olfactory memories) to navigate novel territories and problems. For early humans, a kind of cognitive gap opened up between stimulus and response – a gap that created the possibility of having multiple responses to a perception, rather than one immediate response. This gap was crucial for the imagination: it created an inner space in our minds. The next step was that early human brains began to generate information, rather than merely record and process it – we began to create representations of things that never were but might be. On this view, imagination extends back into the Pleistocene, at least, and likely emerged slowly in our Homo erectus cousins. [Continue reading…]

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