Map-Makers and Story-Tellers

on November 11, 2012

At the conclusion of the previous entry, I suggested that modern humans have a unique capacity to create mind-maps of their environment out of memory and imagination. I like that idea because it goes a long way towards explaining the nature of the visions — and yet it still doesn’t explain how the visions could have gotten started or the distinctive mixture of ordinary knowledge and higher knowledge that fuels them.

To address these questions, it’s necessary to take a step back and start with the purely anatomical changes that may have first separated us from our archaic ancestors.

When you compare the skeletons of modern humans to those of archaic humans such as Neanderthals, the most obvious difference is that we are significantly leaner and longer-legged, as well as being generally taller.

That change would have offered an evolutionary advantage, because it enabled us to get around faster and further and draw upon the resources of a much larger territory. However, we would have been unprepared to benefit from it without a simultaneous expansion in cognitive skills.

If you’re going to take lengthy excursions away from home, after all, you need to start off with a pretty good idea of where you’re going and why, along with the safest and most direct way to get there and back. You also want to be able to calculate your timing, so that you don’t show up a week before the berries ripen or a month after the annual antelope migration.

In other words, you’ll operate most efficiently if you have a sophisticated map-making ability that enables you to orient yourself in both space and time. And there is a second major difference between archaic humans and ourselves — a change in the architecture of our skulls and brains — that may reflect the development of just such an ability.

The capacity to construct complex mind-maps would have allowed our earliest ancestors to do things that had never been done before and utilize the resources of their environment to the fullest. It’s no wonder that they were able to out-breed, out-compete, and eventually assimilate every other human species.

But they would also have found themselves increasingly dependent on the accuracy and completeness of their mind-maps — much as we now find ourselves depending on the superior map-making capacities of our cellphones. And that would have created problems once they ran up against the limit of how much information can be carried in an individual’s memory.

The most obvious way to get around that limitation would have been through a significant expansion of language. Not only does naming and categorizing everything you encounter make it easier to keep track, it also enables you to share your knowledge with the rest of your band.

That kind of information exchange would have served as a powerful survival mechanism. It spread the knowledge acquired by every individual throughout the group as a whole, so that none of it was lost if one person died or forgot an important detail. It also made the foraging efforts of the group more efficient, because its members weren’t constantly reduplicating each other’s efforts.

And it would have had an even more interesting side-effect, in that the members of the group would have become the possessors of a communal mind-map. They would have been constantly contributing to it, competing to come up with new names for objects and locations, working to maintain it as a single coherent structure, teaching it to the young, and even coming to define their group identity in terms of it.

They would also have begun exchanging information in the form of stories. Because emotion enhances memory, narrating your experiences in dramatic form is the most effective way of getting them to stick in both your own mind and those of your audience. As a result, story-telling would have become a standard feature of everyday life.

As the years and generations went by, the most exciting adventures of the hunters and the most rewarding discoveries of the gatherers would have been remembered and retold over and over. In the process, they would have taken on the familiar shape of a standard plot-line — a worthy goal, dangers and challenges to overcome, a successful conclusion, and a triumphant return to share the boons with one’s fellows.

Inventing all of this for the very first time would have been supremely exciting, entertaining, and rewarding. But even though the earliest mind-maps and the stories that went with them provided the basis for the visions that were to come, they were not yet there — because they included only known things and not intimations of higher possibility. That final step would require the addition of higher knowledge to the mix.

The sudden hunches and intuitive flashes of higher knowledge are a mystery even today, and it is impossible to say for sure just when and how they got started. My best guess, however, is that they might have been a by-product of the same brain reorganization that underlies our map-making ability, appearing initially as an eccentric side-effect that turned out to be surprisingly useful.

The most serious disadvantage of relying on the detailed mind-maps of ordinary knowledge is that they may be highly effective at dealing with familiar things and events and yet fail miserably when confronted with the novel and unexpected. Under exceptional conditions, and particularly at times of crisis, sticking rigidly to an existing map is a real handicap. That’s when the flights of higher knowledge become essential.

But pursuing the dictates of higher knowledge can also be a dangerous business — and never more so than at the start.

A study carried out a few years ago concluded that our sudden intuitive flashes are the result of a temporary mental destabilization during which our brains briefly operate “on the edge of chaos.” At these times, freewheeling cascades of neuronal activity enable the brain to “adapt to new situations, by quickly rearranging which neurons are synchronised to a particular frequency. But they can also get out of control, and the more responsive we are to novel situations, the closer we may come to the ‘fine line between genius and madness.'”

This conclusion goes hand in hand with numerous other studies which have found that highly creative individuals are more likely to suffer from mental disorders — particularly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — or to have a family history of such disorders. And that, in turn, is reminiscent of the observation that traditional shamans regularly begin their career by passing through a “shamanistic crisis,” which to the outsider can appear indistinguishable from madness.

It seems likely that at some very early point in our species’ history, we acquired a capacity for barely-controlled madness, with those in whom this capacity was strongest being inclined to hear voices or hallucinate supernatural figures that offered guidance for the group as a whole.

If that was the case, however, the wild men and women in whom the shamanistic propensity was strongest could never have formed more than a small minority.

There’s no doubt an ideal balance in such things. Too many madmen and prophets and the entire society lurches out of control. Too few and you become a stick-in-the-mud culture and lose all ability to adapt or change. The fact that we’re still here today suggests that we’ve managed to maintain the balance successfully for over 200,000 years.

But there’s a significant challenge in running a two-track society of that sort, which is that the relatively small minority of those with the prophetic gift may encounter serious problems in getting the majority of sober map-makers to pay attention to their warnings and inspirations.

And that’s where the visions come in.

Just like the hunters and gatherers, the first proto-shamans would have gone out on quests and returned with gifts and stories. But instead of boasting of the prey they had killed or the predators they had escaped, they would have described visionary encounters with spirit beings. And instead of bringing back food or practical information, they would have provided wisdom, glimpses of higher possibility, and instruction in being more fully human.

It is no coincidence that the trickster figures of our oldest stories are described not only as incorrigible pranksters but also as culture bringers who taught their fellows how to stop being animals and adopt the ways of humankind. Those tricksters are our own earliest ancestors and, give or take a few fantastic embellishments, the things they are said to have done really did happen.

Unlike more workaday stories, however, those of the proto-shamans could not be duplicated or verified by others, and the strange beings and events which they described could not easily be woven into the communal mind-map. At most, there might be a vague acknowledgement that spirits dwelt in the wilderness and uncanny things might befall those who ventured there.

However, there were other ways for the stuff of higher knowledge to be interwoven with ordinary reality. One was centered on the proto-shamans themselves, who often acquired unusual powers such as healing and rain-making. Another — which was more abstract and may have taken longer to develop — was through an understanding that all anomalous and inexplicable events were the result of either magic or the spirits and as such required the aid of a shaman to resolve.

No doubt the shamans themselves promoted both these beliefs — perhaps even encouraging them with a bit of trickery — for the sake of getting people to pay attention to their more serious messages. And the resulting understanding of existence, which combined hard science, genuine magic, and blatant flimflam, became the foundation of the very first vision.

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