Third Edition, 2014
The First Cognitive Revolution: Sensorimotor Processing
Because the first animals had the ability to move around in their environment, they needed to sense the environment and, more important, recognize critical patterns, such as predators and prey. These needs were met with the development of nervous systems, which were basically just pattern-recognizing networks of neurons. Nervous systems grew more complex for a while, but then topped out with the dinosaurs.
The Second Cognitive Revolution: Sequential Processing
We know that dinosaurs had small brains; indeed, all reptiles have comparatively small brains. That’s economical: brains require huge amounts of nutrition, so an animal with a small brain doesn’t need to eat as much food. But sometime in the Triassic, mammals branched off from reptiles and began developing along different lines, the most important of which was the development of sequential processing abilities. This was a major development, requiring more than a hundred million years to get functioning well. But those abilities opened up lots of new behavioral vistas. Birds also got in on the sequential processing fun, but for various reasons didn’t go all out for it the way the mammals did.
The Third Cognitive Revolution: Learning
Perhaps the most important behavioral opportunity opened up by sequential processing was learning. Fish, reptiles, and amphibians can’t learn, but birds and mammals can learn. The ability to learn arose, I believe, from the advantages of using multiple gaits, but once the basics were in place, the technology was applied to many other areas of behavior.
The Fourth Cognitive Revolution: the Unification of the Mental Modules
The opportunities opened up by sequential processing, learning, and play took tens of millions of years to explore, and after the demise of the dinosaurs, mammals radiated out into a big new world of ecological niches, applying these new neural technologies in countless ways. The full exploitation of these capabilities required an expansion of brains. But one offshoot of the mammals took a particularly odd evolutionary path that involved doubling back on itself. First, the primates climbed up into the trees, then the hominids climbed back down.
The next step was the development of bipedalism in the Homo Genus.
These new hominids enhanced their success on the ground by adding complex social relationships to their behavioral repertoire, which of course required new social relationship processing. Then one subgroup within this family, the humans, added even more sequential processing power and enjoyed a serendipitous synergy of all these capabilities, became much smarter, and suddenly began expanding rapidly to fill many ecological niches. Along the way it developed a number of “mental modules”. Unfortunately, their technique, now known as the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, created all sorts of new problems involving sex. The upshot of all this was Homo Sapiens, who first developed language, a vastly advanced form of sequential processing. Along with language came a new kind of linguistic thinking, which was so useful that it ended up taking over the overall operation of the brain. Because language penetrated each of the previously independent mental modules, it connected them together, and they began interacting with each other.
At this point, it was just a hop, skip, and jump to agriculture and civilization. The early ancient civilizations didn’t make much progress in thinking. The really big leap came when they started to put language down on paper in the form of writing.
Initially, writing was just a way to create bills of lading, but the Greeks were the first to put all the pieces together and move writing into a central position in society. Writing opened up all sorts of intellectual doorways, and the Greeks eagerly opened every door they could. In the process they founded western civilization.
The biggest contribution the Greeks made was the syllogism, the simplest and most precise expression of sequential thinking. Syllogisms can be combined in long chains, thereby permitting detailed exploration of extremely complex intellectual problems. One might have expected the syllogism to take the world by storm, but it fact it took more than a thousand years for the style of sequential or syllogistic thinking to catch on. But when it did, science was born. Technology followed science like mud follows a flood, and pretty soon we were awash in technology, which we used to create vast amounts of material wealth, and also to conquer the world. By the dawn of the twentieth century, Reason had triumphed.
But pattern-based reasoning hadn’t gone away – it’s still a part of us, and plays an important role in our thought processes. Indeed, pattern thinking is more deeply ingrained into our brains than this new-fangled sequential stuff. Indeed, two of our most logical intellectual endeavors, science and law, pass the buck on their most fundamental questions to pattern-based reasoning. Thus, we tend to rely on pattern thinking most of the time, and we resort to sequential thinking only when we are compelled to do so. This has created a war between the two thinking styles, sometimes described as a war between logic and emotion, but there’s much more going on here than just Mr. Spock’s angst.
It turns out that we have already developed several schemes for coping with the mismatch between sequential thinking and pattern thinking. Stories, for example, are a way of expressing pattern thinking through the sequential medium of language. And we often reduce complex sequential problems to some sort of drawing or picture, which allows our pattern-based visual processing system to take a crack at the problem.
There’s one other form of thinking out there that represents the next step in sequential thinking: subjunctive thinking. This might be called "virtual thinking"; where sequential thinking imagines a line of nodes, subjunctive thinking sees each node as a branchpoint from which a thousand possibilities emerge. The workload of keeping track of all those possibilities is too much for the human brain to handle, but now we have a medium that is ideally suited for subjunctive thinking: the computer. Thus, the computer will permit the full exploitation of subjunctive thinking in the same way that writing permitted the full exploitation of sequential thinking. We are about to enter a new period in the human story every bit as brilliant as that of classical Greece.
After reading all this, you might be tempted to ask, "Where’s the proof?" If so, here’s the answer.