CARTA: Imagination and Human Origins – Lyn Wadley Maurice Bloch Lera Boroditsky

CARTA: Imagination and Human Origins – Lyn Wadley Maurice Bloch Lera Boroditsky


(air whooshes)
(digits beep) (bright piano music) – We are the paradoxical ape. Bipedal, naked, large-brained, long the master of fire,
tools, and language, but still trying to understand ourselves, aware that death is inevitable, yet filled with optimism. We grow up slowly. We hand down knowledge. We empathize and deceive. We shape the future from our shared understanding of the past. CARTA brings together experts
from diverse disciplines to exchange insights on who we are and how we got here, an exploration made possible by the generosity of humans like you. (dramatic synth music) (bright techno music) Thank you, everyone, for coming, and I’ll just take a moment to tell you a little bit about how we decided to make a CARTA meeting
entirely on human imagination. And this is one of those things that it seems to only
happens only in San Diego, where two people, and
I’m talking about myself, who I’m a professor in pediatrics and cellular and molecular medicine, turns out to be in a meeting sitting together with Sheldon Brown, who’s gonna hear as our first speaker. And Sheldon Brown comes from visual art. So, a scientist and an
artist, we start talking, and we realize we have
something in common. We are both fascinated
by human imagination. So, I make a challenge to Sheldon and say, well, can we put this
in a scientific context? And we started planning
about a meeting like that, and we realized that most of the time when we try to understand something, if it’s unique or enhanced in humans, we turn on to compare
to our closest relative, living relatives, such as the chimpanzee. And comparing to other
animals is difficult, especially if you’re talking about cognition and imagination. So, this time I think you’re gonna hear lots of speakers talking about
imagination in modern humans and also extinct in humans
such as the Neanderthals. And we hope that the
combination of those speakers, all this knowledge, will
help us to understand a little bit about ourselves and answer those questions
that Ajit posed to us. – Good afternoon. Imagination makes huge
demands on the brain. And when we use imagination, there’s neural connectivity that occurs between many areas of the brain. But not all brains are equal, so people who have high creativity brains have different networks
from those who don’t. This means that the study of imagination and the study of brains
is not a linear thing. Face recognition in objects requires a certain
proportion of brain power that we call the face recognition area. And when people are thinking about faces, this is what is activated. Now, archeologists, and
I’m an archeologist, can’t access brains. All we can do is to have a look
at items of material culture as proxies for imagination
in the deep past. But how far back can we go? And it’s perhaps important or
relevant in a group like this to say, “Once upon a time.” (audience laughs) Three million years ago,
Makapan in South Africa. This little jaspilite pebble was found. And the question, of course,
is did Australopithecus have a face recognition part of the brain? And about 300,000 years ago, this flint hand ax with
a shell in its center was found in the UK. And here the question is, was the fossil shell
perhaps more important than the tool itself? Did it spark imagination? And about 300,000 in Israel at Berekhat Ram, this little object that some people think was a figurine was found, and the use-wear traces
on it were analyzed by Francesco d’Errico and April Nowell, and they discovered that it had, in fact, been purposely modified. It had been ground, and there were some nick
marks around the neck. What they also found, however, was that red powder tends to
come off when this is ground. So, maybe it wasn’t a symbolic artifact, even though it had been
purposefully modified. Now, the important point about all three of these objects that I’ve shown you is that they represent outliers, not regular, patterned behavior. And if we’re thinking about
imagination and symbolism, we need to know that
this is shared behavior. So, all of these objects
could be accidental, though of course, they
give us a very nice clue as to how early imagination
may have arisen. Proxies for imagination
appear very regularly in the last 100,000 years, so there’s no problem about
recognizing them then. And they tend to multiply
exponentially after that. So, the first ones I’m going to show you are from Diepkloof in South Africa. The oldest of these engraved
eggshells is 100,000 years old. And they were found up ’til
about 60,000 years ago. We know that they’re water bottles because some of the openings
done on the bottom right there have the ground openings
just like the ones in the Kalahari today, where you see a woman pouring
water into this water bottle. You can see that her water bottle is a little decorated there, too, whereas the older ones, in fact, have much greater variety
of decoration on them, and perhaps engaged more imagination. Refitting suggests that
the Diepkloof water bottles were highly decorated. You can see that the patterning
was all over then there. What I think is really important is that the engraved eggshell
occurs at many sites. So, we see it here at Klipdrift and at sites up in Namibia. There you see a pathway
up towards the west that has engraved eggshell, whereas the perforated marine shells that I’m about to show you have a pathway that goes up the eastern
part of Southern Africa. They don’t only occur in the eastern part of Southern Africa. They go right the way up to North Africa, and into Israel, as well. So, let’s have a look at those. These perforated machine
shells that are probably beads are 72,000 years old, and yet the ones further
north are even older. Some experimental work by Marian Vanhaeren has suggested that people imaginatively strung these together in different ways. The oldest ones at the top were strung together in
little pairs like that. The ones in the middle
were strung back to back. And then the younger beads were strung in even a different way. Again, using imagination. I think it’s important that shell beads are also found at Sibudu and
Klasies River in South Africa. So, once again we have an
established behavioral pattern. The Sibudu ones are 72,000 years old. The Klasies are similar age. But there’s much other technology that occurs in the last 100,000 years that demonstrates the imagination
of people at the time. You’ve already seen the
Blombos engraved piece of ocher that is 72,000 years old. There’s other engraved
ocher from Blombos, too. So, once again we see a pattern there. There’s engraved ocher at Klasies River and at several other South African sites. At 100,000 years ago at Blombos, paint was manufactured
in an abalone shell. And this was red ocher mixed
with a number of ingredients, including an unknown liquid. We don’t know what the paint was used for, but we do know that it was
a compound, complex mixture. At Sibudu, there’s also paint. It was found on this flake here, and this paint was made out
of ground red ocher powder mixed with casein, casein
being a milk product. Was this perhaps the first tempera paint that was ever used in the world? I think it may have been. At Sibudu, there are also
many imaginative adhesives made out of things like
red ocher and resin, or red ocher mixed with graphite, mixed with other products, sometimes fat. A whole variety of adhesive recipes. Also at Sibudu, this
time at 77,000 years ago, people imagined how they
could get rid of insects that buzzed around their
bedding annoyingly at night. And so they placed aromatic leaves, in this case Cryptocarya, on top of the sedge bedding. And these aromatic leaves
are slightly poisonous and probably kept the mosquitoes away. Burial, something that has
only briefly been mentioned up until now, allows our
imagination in a different way. Because when we see burial, we know people were imagining ancestors. They were thinking about the after-people, as well was the after-life. The earliest burial that
we know about so far comes from Israel at Skhul and Qafzeh. And here the burials, which are repeated as
many as 10 at a time, have been buried with shell beads, perforated marine shell, and
red ocher as grave goods. Then at Border Cave in
the Lebombo Mountains of South Africa at 74,000 years ago, an infant was buried with this Conus shell that had been perforated,
perhaps as a pendant. The little sketches over on the left were from the excavation in the 1940s. Through time, burials
became much more complex, and here in Russia at 34,000 years ago, we see one of the most beautiful burials that has come to light so far. It’s a young man on the left, that’s the archeological example, covered with 3,000 mammoth ivory beads with fox canines and
bangles made of ivory. And the reconstruction on the right suggests that these decorative items may have been stitched onto the clothing that he was buried in. But when we think of imagination, we can hardly separate it from fantasy. And probably the earliest
secure archeological evidence for fantasy is the Lion-Man
from Germany, 32,000 years ago. This is an ivory figurine, the figurine of a human
figure with a lion head. This kind of therianthrope, because the mixture of
animal and human features defines a therianthrope, it’s a manifestation
of an abstract concept, but it really is the first
evidence that we have of true fantasy. It’s not the only one, though, and at Apollo 11 in
Namibia, 27,000 years ago, the motif of a feline is used again. Here on the painted slab you
see half-human, have feline. The head is a feline and
the back legs are human. And this slab was buried
in the little cave that you see up on the top left there. Now, all the evidence that we have for imagination and
highly-developed technology, some of which I’ve shown you, can be used to imply that
we had complex cognition and modern brains way before any of this
evidence that I’ve shown you, right back to 300,000 years ago when Homo sapiens first arrived in the archeological evidence. But for once, let’s turn this
idea on its head and say, material culture itself is not passive. And so when people manipulate items, when they work on material culture, this is stimulating their
imagination and their cognition. And by doing, we develop
the brains even more. We develop imagination further. And it’s this kind of thing that leads to increased technological
development through time, increased imagination,
increased creativity. And thus we can say that technology and
cognition and imagination engage with each other reflectively and reflexively. And the reflexivity that we see between the technology and
the cognition and imagination gave rise to what I’ve
demonstrated to you, the exponential growth of material culture by 100,000 years ago. So, all of the things I’ve shown you, beads, paint, art, engraved ocher, engraved ostrich eggshell,
adhesive recipes, bow and arrow that I haven’t mentioned, new tool classes, and burial, all of these appear very
rapidly by 100,000 years ago. We may have had the humble beginnings of this earlier than that, but certainly we get definitive evidence by 100,000 years ago. Thank you. (audience applauds) – Thank you very much. What I want to talk about is the organization of human society and the nature of human society. And I believe that if we think of it in general evolutionary terms, we see that the organization
of human society is really quite different to that of our nearest primate cousins, the chimpanzees. I think the results of
the difference are clear, and there are two. One of them is that we are
able to build up societies of far greater size than we find in any other close primates, in greater complexity. And the second one is that we think of
our social organization as lasting far, far longer than the life of the people who might be part of that society. I believe that both these
differences are due to the fact that many aspects of human
society are imaginary, and therefore I’m going to
start to look at imagination in a certain amount of detail. The notion of imagination is very often linked with
creativity, and quite rightly, and it’s often linked
with individual creation. That’s not what I’ll be talking about. I’ll be talking about
something quite different, which is shared imagination. How the same imaginary features are shared within a group. And how that comes about
is due to a number of factors, but I think already, if we remember the slide
we’ve seen about pretend play, we can see that both, there seem to be a general predispositions in humans for pretend play, but that pretend play gets slot in with things which are instituted within the culture and
the society of people who are doing this pretend play. So, I think we have to
think of predispositions enabling us to take on historically created structures, like schools, was obvious
in the last picture in that series about pretend playing. We have to think of this articulation between the two kinds of things. As I was saying, how, so what I’ll be talking about
is not individual imagination, though obviously it’s involved, but the sharing of imagination. And let me go back to
what I started off with, saying that there are many aspects of human social organization
which have to be imaginary. First factor of this
which I want to talk about is the notion of the groups
we often think we belong to. Let me start off with
the examples of clans, which we find in various
forms in many human societies. Now, one of the interesting
things about clans is that they’re thought
about lasting in time far longer than the
lifespan of individuals. That already means that
they have to be imaginary. Because obviously if they were
attached to the individuals, they would sort of end or
have no great continuity. But this would also be true of nations for example, one can think
of Greeks as a nation quite apart from their territory having gone on for very,
very long periods in time. The Greeks continued. They passed on from one
another something called vague Greek-ish-ness.
(audience laughs) It’s very difficult to
define what that might be, and very interesting, it’s very difficult even for the people who think this is extremely
important to define it. So, again, we imagine, and I think we can use the word, that there is a level at which social continues on quite a different timescale than our biological life. That doesn’t mean, and
there is another factor which is even more important. We continually think of as a very important part of our society, is that we have instituted roles. Husband-wife, to use an
example which was used by the philosopher Searle, but policeman and so on. Now, there’s something
rather odd about these roles, because they can’t, they don’t seem to have very little to do with what people actually get up to. People may hate each other, husbands and wives may hate each other, but we think there’s something about them being husband and wife
independently of this. So, we think of our society
as systems of roles, and large numbers of roles. We realize we have to
think on another level, on an imaginary level, other than the interactions, which has been the greatest
focus in psychology when people are thinking of the social. We have to think of how it is
possible that these systems, there are shared systems
of the social which don’t correspond to anything empirical. I should have mentioned when
I was talking about clans is that people can imagine
themselves belonging to clans without anything obvious marking them out from people that belong to other clans. That they usually do not live together, that they’re dispersed. Yet somehow there is a
level, an imaginary level, which people can think
of themselves as one. So, this really presents, this is something which we do not find in any other primates. This is why I would argue that there is, that we should stop
thinking of human society as a sort of incremental business of getting better and better
at knowing other people and knowing the world. There is also a discontinuity, which means that, which I would identify with the presence of that imagination. Having said that, however,
this presents a problem how what I started off with talking about, which is I was saying there’s something very different about human societies, is they seem to able to be expanded to extraordinarily large size in a way that doesn’t
apply to other primates. And there’s also this idea
of them continuing in time. Of course, this is not a problem if by society we mean these
imaginary representations that I was talking about. They can be as large
as you like and indeed, here are systems which are not
tied to particular moments. But I was talking about practical results. How can this imaginary level
have practical results, which are tremendously important if we’re going to understand
the evolution of human society? I think the answer comes from the fact that this imaginary
level is not as imaginary as it might seem at first. There are what I have called emergences, that is, moments when the shared imagination
is actually acted out, where people can live in
the shared imagination as well as they live in the
practical, interactional world which is normal, sort of everyday level. These very large early rituals which involve people
losing many of the aspects of themselves as individuals, and what characterizes a ritual is that they are repetitions of previous. People say the same things
other people have said. They therefore lose their intentionality. They become kind of elements
in an abstract structure, but it is acted out. And at other moments, so, in normal life, or in
normal, traditional life, people step in and out
of the imaginary level to an interactional level, and they’re able to hold
two quite different ways of thinking about society. This is what not found in other primates. And this has practical results. For example, if you imagine yourself living in a Neolithic village, and you want to move to another village, you have to move to this imaginary level in order to be able to build
up kinship relationships with other people in that other village, convince them that somehow
there is something in common, and that is moving to another level, to that imaginary level, and then you can move
to that sort of place. This, I think, explains
how pre-state humans managed to have very far-reaching and distant trading relationships. And also to the other practical level, to the other practical factor, which is imagining that
your society lasts in time. That somehow, we can imagine
that we have a social which lasts in time quite independently of
our biological life. It means that there is some point in, first of all, in passing on and
accumulating either objects, because we are passing them on
to people who we don’t know, who are our continuation,
but only in imagination, and perhaps passing on knowledge, which then becomes the basis of what the evolutionary biologist
Michael Thomas Seller has called the ratchet effect. That is, building up on knowledge which is already there, so it can then be used for
ever more complex systems. This is basically the
ability in human culture to continue, and to accumulate, and to advance. So, the possibility of
stepping in to moments of what is normally shared imagination explains, I think, the most
fundamental differences between our society and the society of, let us say, chimpanzees. Thank you.
(audience applauds) – I like to start with kind of
very self-flattering question of how do we get so smart? How are we humans able to think about all of the complex and
sophisticated things we think about? How do we invent them? And specifically there’s a puzzle, because ultimately we’re
physical creatures, and we get only physical
information from the world, right? So, we get photons in our eyes. We get pressure waves in our ears. We’re subject to gravity
and we bend our toes and flex our knees to try to
defy gravity and stay upright. And we can push on things and
exert pressure in the world. And that somehow, through this
soup of physical interaction, we end up with really fancy ideas, like we think about goals and principles and truth and justice, and we invent ideas like time
travel and imaginary numbers. How do we do that? How does that set of physical interactions and brains that are evolved for these basic physical interactions, how do they create this wonderful, abstract world of ideas? And these abstract ideas are the things that actually make
being human so much fun. Right? So, if you go the a dinner party, and the only things you talk about are physical, concrete things, like all you can say is,
“Boy, this podium is wooden.” (knuckles rap)
(audience laughs) “And solid.” You’re not gonna get invited back to that dinner party, right? (audience laughs) The things that we talk about, the things we obsess about all day long are these abstract things. How do our minds create these? Now, this is a problem that has vexed scholars for centuries. Plato thought about it, so he thought about how
you would teach someone an abstract idea like virtue, and he ends up concluding
that it’s impossible. We can’t learn these things, so we must recollect them from past incarnations from our souls. Darwin also actually ran into this. So, Alfred Wallace, the co-originator of the theory of evolution with Darwin, gave up on the theory of evolution because he got so vexed by this idea of how brains that evolved
for physical interaction, how natural selection
could have created brains that then invent symphonies or play chess or do any of the kinds of
complex things that we do. And Darwin tried to
intervene, writing to Wallace, I hope you’ve not murdered too completely your own and my child. Don’t throw the baby
out with the bath water. We can save this evolution thing. So, how do we actually
create these abstract ideas? I’m gonna give you one specific example, and that is how we think about time. Now, I do a lot of work on time. I’m not the only obsessed with time. The word time is actually the
most frequent noun in English. And that’s kind of interesting, because of course, we can’t see time. We can’t touch time, we can’t smell time, we can’t taste time. It’s abstract. But at the same time, it creates the very basis
of our experience, right? You can’t experience
anything outside of time. So, how do we conceptualize
this abstract entity? And I’ll take it one step further and ask, how do we think of
something like time travel? How do we invent that idea? Of course, it’s not
truth physical experience of your own with time travel. It’s not because you actually traveled to some other time and came back and now you can recollect that idea. So, here’s a story of how we might come up with an idea like time travel. In lots of languages, we talk about time using spacial metaphors. So, we’ll say things like, we’re approaching the holidays, or we’re coming up on Christmas. We’re coming up on the deadline. Well, if we’re coming up on the holidays, time is a path on which I’m traveling. I’m traveling from the past to the future. Well, once you have that
analogy in place, that metaphor, if time is a path that you can travel, well, a path you can travel
in whatever direction you want at whatever speed you want. So, once you set that
analogy, you can now extend it and think about something that
goes beyond what’s possible in your physical experience. You’ve invented the idea of time travel just by extending this little analogy. So, there are a couple of
ingredients to that story. On is, you have to be able to make an analogy between physical experience
and something more abstract. But also, something has to encourage you and invite you to make that analogy. Something has to say, well, why don’t you think
about moving in time like moving in space, and then you can go beyond that, right? How do we know that any part of the story that I just told you is true? That people actually do
these kinds of extensions? Let me give you a couple of examples. In English, we actually have
two kind of opposing ways of talking about time. One talks about ourselves as moving from the past to the future. We call this the ego-moving metaphor, and we say things like, “We’re
approaching the deadline.” The other one goes in
the opposite direction. We’re stationary, and
time is moving past us like a train or a river. We call this the time-moving metaphor. So, you might say something like, “The deadline is approaching.” Now, in a strict physical sense, if I’m approaching the deadline or the deadline is approaching me, those are the same, right? If time is really a uni-directional,
one-dimensional entity, it doesn’t actually matter
which one of us is moving. But in space, it matters. So, if I’m moving towards you
or you’re moving towards me, those two things are different because there’s a fixed ground
against which we’re moving, so we can actually tell the difference, of which one is happening. How do we know if people
really think about I’m approaching the deadline as being different from,
the deadline is approaching? To people really take these
spacial metaphors seriously? Well, here’s one hint. Suppose I ask you, “Next
Wednesday’s meeting “has been moved forward two days. “What day is the meeting now
that it’s been rescheduled?” (audience murmurs) Who thinks Monday? Who thinks Friday? Okay, that’s about normal. So, if you’re thinking of
time moving towards you, than moving the meeting forward is moving the meeting in the
direction of motion of time, from Wednesday to Monday. But if you think of yourself
as moving through time, than moving the meeting forward is moving the meeting in
your direction of motion, from Wednesday to Friday, right? And we can actually get people to imagine motion in space. So, for example, you’d say, “Imagine how you would
maneuver the chair to the X.” And you either have to imagine yourself scooting in a chair somewhere, or you imagine pulling a
rope to bring a chair to you. So, in one case you’re
imagining yourself moving, and the other case something
is coming towards you. And after people have
imagined one or the other, we slip in this seemingly
unrelated question about time. We say, “Next Wednesday’s meeting “has been moved forward two days. “What day is the meeting?” And we find that people who
have been imagining themselves moving forward through space will say the meeting is now on Friday. People who have been imagining
something coming towards them will say the meeting is now on Monday. Of course, they don’t know
that they’re being influenced by this imagination
exercise that we gave them, but what it’s telling us is
people are actively using the spacial image that they created to think about time, right? That actually these two scenarios in time are psychologically different from them. Now, the other thing about
how we think about time is that it differs from
culture to culture. So, humans haven’t invented just one way of thinking about time but we invented many, many different ways. Let me give you just a few examples. So, in English, of course, we read and write from left to right, and it’s natural to then
organize all kinds of things from left to right. So here, I’m showing you pictures of my grandfather at different ages, and if I gave you this set
of cards, shuffled them, and said, “Please lay them
out in the correct order,” chances are you would lay
them out exactly like this, from left to right. We consider this to be the correct order, the correct arrangement. But people who read and
write from right to left, for example, people who
read Arabic or Hebrew, will organize these
cards from right to left. So, for them, the direction of time goes the opposite direction. And just to give you
an intuition for this, here’s a logo for a nutritional
supplement for kids, and you can read this logo very easily and you can see what
it does for your child. When they tried using this
in Arabic speaking countries, they ran into some problems. (audience laughs) Because if you read the
logo from right to left it becomes quite problematic and confusing what it does for you child. (audience laughs) Now, so far I’ve given you examples of how time can travel
with respect to the body, either left to right or right to left. But it can also travel not with
respect to the body at all. So, here’s an example. This is an aboriginal
community in Australia that I had a chance to work with. They live on the edge of Cape York. They are the Kuuk Thaayorre people. And what’s interesting about
languages like Kuuk Thaayorre is they don’t use words
like left and right. Instead, they primarily rely on words like north, south, east, and west. Cardinal direction terms. And when I say they primarily rely on cardinal direction terms, I really mean that at all scales. So, even for body parts, you would say, there’s an ant on your southwest leg, or move your cup to the
north-northeast a little bit. Things like that. Even the way you say
hello in Kuuk Thaayorre is to say, which way are you heading? And the answer should be something like, north-northwest in the far distance. How about you? So, imagine as you walk around your day, everyone you greet, you have to report your heading direction. (audience chuckles) That would get you oriented
really quickly, right, because literally you
could not get past hello without knowing which way is which. And let’s just establish that
we don’t think like this. Everyone close your eyes for a second, and I can see you, so I can tell whether or
not you’ve closed your eyes. Point southeast. (audience murmurs)
(audience members laugh) All right, you can open your eyes. I see points in every possible direction. (audience laughs) At least some of you are right. (audience laughs)
That’s good. So, people who speak
languages like Kuuk Thaayorre actually stay oriented really well. They can point southeast
without hesitation. Even young children can do that. But I also wondered, how
do they think about time? So, if they don’t think
about left and right with respect to space, how do they lay out time? So remember, if I give you this task, I give you a bunch of cards to lay out, what would they do? So here’s an example. This is one participant. They’re sitting facing south, and this is a bunch of different
card sets they’ve laid out, and what they’ve done is go
from left to right in each case. Here’s another participant, I’m sorry, this is the same
participant on a different day sitting facing north. And they’ve laid everything
out now from right to left. Here’s a different person
sitting facing east, and they’ve laid everything
out coming towards the body. What’s the pattern? It’s the sun, from east to west, right? So, for them, time is
locked on the landscape. It doesn’t stay locked on the body. So, for me as an English speaker, if I’m facing this way,
then time goes this way. If I’m facing this way,
then time goes this way. And if I’m facing this way,
then time goes this way. Very egocentric of me to
make the dimension of time chase me around every time I turn my body. Instead for the Kuuk Thaayorre, time always goes in the same direction with respect to the landscape, regardless of which way
their body is facing. And this isn’t the only
way that time can flow according to the landscape. So, for example, work by
Rafael Nunez here at UCSD shows that time doesn’t even
to go in a straight line. So, for example, for the
Yoog-no of Papua New Guinea, time flows into the village at one angle, and once it hits the village, it takes a turn and flows
out at a different angle, and this has to do with the mouth and the source of the Yuba River, which are important
geographical locations. So, people around the world
have imagined all kinds of ways to organize this very
basic dimension, right? Whether it goes left to
right, right to left, there are vertical organizations, organizations that go on the landscape in all kinds of different ways. There’s a really rich variety that humans have invented
around the world. Now, you could ask how deeply rooted is this imagined time
in our idea of space? So, if you were to disable
the part of the brain that processes the
particular part of space, would that also disrupt
our ability to imagine that part of time? And we actually had a
chance to test this idea by looking at patients
who’ve suffered strokes in their right parietal lobe. So, here I’m showing you the
brain of Federico Fellini after he suffered a stroke
in his right parietal lobe, and this kind of stroke
often results in neglect on the opposite side of the stroke. If you have left neglect in everyday life, you might not notice food on
the left side of your plate. You might only eat the food on
the right side of your plate even though you’re still hungry. You might only put makeup
on one side of your face or shave one side of your face. You might only read words
on one side of the page. People with neglect seem to not notice, not pay attention to, things on the left side of space for them. This member of KISS doesn’t
have neglect as far as I know, but this is how he would
do his make-up if he did. (audience laughs) So, we wondered how would patients who neglect the left side
of space think about time? So, we told patients about a guy, David, a fictional guy, David, who likes doing some things 10 years ago and likes doing different
things 10 years from now. So, 10 years ago he liked strawberries, but 10 years from now,
he’ll like cherries. And they just had to remember these facts. And we had a couple of control groups. We had healthy controls, and also patients who’d had a stroke but didn’t show signs of neglect. So, let me show you data from
the two control groups first. So, solid bars here show you the items that people got right, and everything to the right of the center is things to do with the future. Everything to the left of the center is things to do with the past. The shaded areas are where
people made mistakes. Now, of course both
groups made some mistakes, but the mistakes are symmetrical around the past and the future. Here’s what the neglect
patients look like. They were heavily shifted to the right. They weren’t able to recognize correctly things that had to do with the past, with the left side of the mental timeline, and instead, they misattributed a whole lot of things to the right. So, when you damage to part of the brain that’s responsible for representing
the left side of space, you also damage the imagined left, the time that you imagine on
the left side of your body. Now, I’ve been giving a lot of examples about how we imagine time as space and how metaphors and cultural artifacts like reading and writing invite us to make different
kinds of analogies, but of course these ideas go far beyond how we think about time, because metaphor is ubiquitous
in our experience, right? Just about anything that’s
complex or interesting is at least partially imagined, and the way we talk about these
complex, interesting things is suffused with metaphor. So, if you’re talking about
a relationship problem, you might say, “We’re
spinning our wheels,” or, “Our relationship is off track.” If we’re talking about the
economy, you might say, “We need to jump start the economy.” And the idea is a quick stimulus is what the economy
needs to get going again. Or you might say that we
need to prop up the economy, and then you’re using a different
set of physical metaphors to think about what needs to happen. When we talk about theories or ideas, we talk about poking holes
or warming up to ideas. With social issues, we
talk about immigrants as seeping into the country, as if they’re some kind
of nefarious substance, or crime as preying or
infecting our neighborhoods. And these metaphors have
psychological weight. For example, in our lab we’ve looked at how people want to approach
a crime problem in a city, if you tell them that crime is a beast plaguing their city or
preying on their city, as opposed to crime is a virus. If you tell them crime is a beast, they want to do the kinds of things you would normally do to contain a beast, so they want harsher enforcement measures. If you tell them crime is a virus, they want to take a more
epidemiological approach. They want to diagnose the problem, maybe inoculate the population, do things that are more reform-oriented. So, these metaphors have
real psychological weight. So, coming back to this question
of how do we get so smart? My answer would be that our brains are masters at doing dynamic,
opportunistic bricolage. They recycle and reuse machinery that has evolved for simpler,
perceptual motor tasks. They cycle and reuse the
knowledge that we acquire through physical experience. But also, language is a
incredibly powerful tool that invites us to conjure up those ideas and recombine them all
kinds of novel ways, because languages supplies us
with a large stock of units but an infinite ability to recombine them. So, I can right now take a bunch of words, put them in a new configuration, and invite you to imagine something you’ve never imagined before. So, I could say, imagine a circle of
hedgehogs dancing the polka on top of a crepe that
is traveling through time from Paleolithic times to now to puzzle us about how
they are able to make such fine, thin pastry back then. (audience laughs)
Now, if everything has gone relatively
well in your life so far, you haven’t had that
thought before, right? (audience laughs)
And so, you’re welcome. That is through the power of language. We can conjure up all kinds of ideas, an infinite set of new ideas by recombining things from
our physical experience and from other abstract ideas
we’ve built in the past. Thank you very much. (audience applauds) (bright instrumental music)

2 Comments

  • Yvan Guez says:

    Interesting stuff. But you miss to observe the word Imagination itself. Magic is the core of the word iMage. So at least your are a magician , a shaman or a great artist all discourses on imagination are worthless.
    Imagination is imagicAction : Action of the magic. Action of Who or What ?
    Nobody among the scientists knows and will never know, because it is Magic. Imagination can never be an object of sciences because all Human beings are the objects of the Magic of Life.
    But it was a good try.

  • White Night says:

    Imagination is not synchronicity without somebody else! That's Magic !You need A Observer !
    Make a Wish !

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