Sunday, August 24, 2008

Storytelling as an evolutionary engine

From Daniel J. Levitin's review of the book Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga in the August 22, 2008 edition of the New York Times.

Human brains turn out to be less different from other animal brains than you might think. Language and social cognition fall along a continuum across species. Deception, for instance, long thought to be unique to humans, is present in monkeys and crows, which can even hide their attempts to deceive. Counterintuitively, much of what makes us human is not an ability to do more things, Gazzaniga writes, but an ability to inhibit automatic responses in favor of reasoned ones; consequently, we may be the only species that engages in delayed gratification and impulse control (thank you, prefrontal cortex).

Gazzaniga doesn't shy away from hard problems, like why humans, alone among species, have art. The attraction to stories, plays, paintings and music - experiences with no obvious evolutionary payoff - is puzzling. "Why does the brain contain reward systems that make fictional experiences enjoyable?" he asks. Part of the answer, he argues, is that fictional thinking engages innate "play" modules that enhance evolutionary fitness (that is, the ability to propagate one's genes) by allowing us to consider possible alternatives - hypothetical situations - so that we can form plans in advance of dangers or even just unpleasant social situations. "From having read the fictional story about the boy who cried wolf when we were children," he writes, "we can remember what happened to him in the story and not have to learn that lesson the hard way in real life." Art may be more than a leisure activity. Artistic, representational thinking could have been fundamental in making us the way we are. As Gazzaniga concludes, "The arts are not frosting but baking soda."

No comments:

Post a Comment