Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Did Meditating Make Us Human? -- by Matt J. Rossano

Matt Rossano’s article provides an interesting contrast to our previous two posts extracting Thomas Metzinger’s article on out of body experiences. Altered states here are seen as a prelude to the evolutionary development via Baldwinian selection of working memory and eventually the ability to symbolize, which characterizes modern humans. Rossano is a professor of Psychology at University of Southeastern Louisiana University. He is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post (Link). His recent book is SUPERNATURAL SELECTION : HOW RELIGION EVOLVED, and a list of his recent publications can be found here. The original article contains more extensive citations.


The thesis of this article is that this commonplace activity, which I will call campfire rituals of focused attention, created an important selective pressure in the evolution of the modern human mind. Ritualized gatherings before an open fire — repeated night after night, generation after generation for thousands of years — contributed significantly, though not necessarily exclusively, to the evolution of the enhanced working memory capacity required for symbolic thinking.

The scenario is grounded in the following five propositions.


1. Convincing evidence of symbolism in the form of ceremonial tools, artwork and grave goods appears late in the archaeological record (largely after 50,000 bp) and post-dates the emergence of anatomically modern humans.

Late emergence of symbolism

In this article, ‘symbolism’ is Peirce’s definition, arbitrary referents based on cultural convention. Peircian symbolism is what appears to have arrived late in the archaeological record and it is this that required enhanced working memory. Genetic and fossil evidence points to the emergence of anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) somewhere between 200,000 and 150,000 years bp in Africa . Some have argued that the relatively sudden appearance of sophisticated tools, burial with grave goods, and image-making in the European Upper Palaeolithic signifies a ‘revolution’ in human thought and behaviour . Peircian symbolism most likely did not occur until the Upper Palaeolithic, when grave goods, sophisticated tools, image making and what appear to be purely ceremonial artifacts arrive on the archaeological scene. For the purposes of the current model, what is pivotal is that the evidence for this‘higher-level’ symbolism emerges late and post-dates the arrival of anatomically modern humans.


2. Recent work combining cognitive science and archaeology has built a compelling case for explaining the late emergence of symbolism as the result of a fortuitous genetic mutation (or combination of mutations) that enhanced human working memory capacity.

Fortuitous Mutation (s)

The ultimate mechanism [responsible for symbolism] must come down to a fortuitous genetic mutation that reorganized brain structure and function, thus giving Homo sapiens a cognitive advantage over other archaic hominin forms . While Klein typically talks in terms of a single genetic mutation (terminology, which for simplicity’s sake, I will retain), this change could have involved a series of mutations that affected the interaction of genes and, or, their manner of expression. Coolidge & Wynn (2001...) have elaborated on Klein’s proposal, arguing that the most likely target of this mutation would have been an enhancement of working memory capacity. In this context, working memory capacity refers to the ability to hold information in mind, especially information about behavioural procedures and intended goals, in spite of interfering stimuli or response competition .

Enhanced working memory capacity, however functionally envisioned, is a prerequisite to the emergence of symbolism. Our ancestors had an enhanced capacity to recall, consciously retain and manipulate information. This enhanced working memory capacity was essential to crossing the threshold to purely arbitrary or convention-based symbolism . To understand this level of purely arbitrary reference, one must be able to hold in mind both what the signifying image is perceptually and what it means conceptually, while at the same time understanding that these two are not the same.

The exact time of emergence is less important than when this change became widespread, which, I would argue, was not until around 50,000 bp, immediately prior to the emergence of symbolism.


3.Evolutionary developmental biology indicates that genetic adaptation can sometimes follow somatic adaptation (the Baldwin effect). Put another way, environmental conditions that require bodily adaptation (such as high-altitude conditions which require the production of more red blood cells) simultaneously create selection pressure for genetic mutations that more permanently establish the adaptive phenotypic state.

The Baldwin effect updated

Environmentally induced somatic modifications (resulting from either learning or physiological adaptation) ... become heritable changes. According to this principle, acquired traits do not directly affect genes but these traits could create or importantly contribute to selective conditions that would, in time, genetically establish them in the population.... In other words, an initially environmentally induced trait eventually became encoded and transmitted genetically. .

This could provide a model for how hominins acquired increasingly complex cognitive skills. These skills may first have appeared as novel acquired traits induced by atypical environmental demands. Then, as those demands persisted, a Baldwinian process could have led to the traits becoming genetically heritable and stabilized. Over the course of hominin evolution, the atypical environmental demands were increasingly products of hominins themselves.

Wright (2004) has recently reviewed a range of studies providing support for the process of ‘stress-directed mutagensis’, where feedback mechanisms within the organism allow environmental stressors to target specific genes that must mutate in order to surmount the stress. Though a great deal is still to be learned about how mutations arise, it is becoming increasingly clear that dismissing them as simply random is too simple.

Modifications are more likely to arise in those systems that are under selection pressure — where the adaptive range of a physiological system is under stress. Any mutation or genetic reassortment that resets the range of a physiological system to a more adaptive level would then be positively selected by environmental conditions. Thus, a population of humans relocated to higher altitudes is biased toward the expression of any mutation that permanently resets their baseline levels of red blood cell production.


4. Neuroscience studies indicate that meditation produces short-term and long-term effects on both the structure and function of those areas of the brain closely associated with working memory and focused attention such as the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex.

Meditation and the brain

Recent brain-imaging and EEG studies have shown that areas in the frontal lobe of the brain associated with working memory and focused attention, especially the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate, are activated during meditation . [For example,] Newberg et al. (2001) found increased activation in the dorsolateral and orbital prefrontal cortices, anterior cingulate cortex, and the sensorimotor cortices of the brains of eight meditating subjects. [Moreover,] Carter et al. (2005) found that Tibetan monks experienced at one-point meditation (a type that involves focused attention on a single object) were able to exert conscious control over a typically automatic phenomenon of attention, binocular rivalry.

This accumulating body of research indicates that meditation produces long-term changes in those areas of the brain involved in attention and working memory. These areas are critical for the enhancement of working memory capacity. This enhancement may have given Homo sapiens a competitive edge over other hominins and produced the emergence of symbolism about 50,000 bp. However, it can rightly be pointed out that it seems quite unlikely that our ancestors of 100,000 years ago or more were engaging in one-point or compassionate meditation. While true, numerous other studies have shown that far more mundane memory and attention tasks also activate the same brain areas.

Numerous other studies with similarly simple cognitive demands have indicated the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to be an important high-level filter of attention, sustaining cognitive energy on relevant information while suppressing the processing of and responding to irrelevant signals.

Campfire rituals practiced by our hominin ancestors need not have been as disciplined as those of Tibetan monks to have activated the brain regions important for attention and memory. However, they were probably more intensive than the tests used in typical neuroscience studies. Those most susceptible to the rituals’ physical and psychological healing effects reaped the greatest survival and reproductive advantage — a Baldwinian process. Finally, there is evidence to suggest that these conditions were unique to Homo sapiens and not a regular part of the social worlds of Neanderthals and other archaic hominins.


5. Hypnotizability, or the ability to achieve a ritually-induced, health-enhancing, suggestibility-prone conscious state, is individually variable and heritable; and would have been fitness-enhancing in our ancestral past.

Shamanistic healing rituals

Strictly speaking, shamanism is a practice confined to cultures of the higher latitudes of Eurasia where the term originated. More broadly, however, the shaman is anyone who uses consciousness-altering ritual as a means of connecting with the spiritual world for the purpose of individual or community healing.

There is considerable evidence that shamanism (broadly defined) is humanity’s oldest form of religion. It is found in nearly all traditional societies. An increasing number of scholars agree that some of the Upper Palaeolithic cave art and artifacts reflect shamanistic rituals and, or, experiences . If so, they also suggest that shamanism pre-dates the Upper Palaeolithic, since the depiction reflects an already present system.

McClenon (1997; 2002) has marshalled considerable evidence indicating that those of our ancestors who were most susceptible to the beneficial physical and psychological effects of shamanistic rituals had a selective advantage over others in surviving illness or injury, overcoming debilitating emotional states and enduring the rigours of childbirth. Ritual healing is often highly effective for a range of maladies where psychological factors are involved, such as chronic pain, burns, bleeding, headaches, skin disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, and the discomforts and complications of childbirth .

Furthermore, only minimal verbal expression is required (if any at all) to add to the persuasive impact of the ritual (‘relax’, ‘heal’ etc.). Indeed, part of the power of spiritual healing is that it is something beyond words and logic. What is required for spiritual healing appears to be well within the behavioural and cognitive repertoire of our hominin ancestors: a belief in a healing spiritual power accessible through conscious-ness-altering ritual.

More than likely, it was the immediate positive psychological (ecstatic emotions/social bonding) and physical (placebo benefits, ‘miracles’) effects of these rituals that provided the motivation for enactment. What is critical is that these rituals required focused attention which activated those areas of the brain associated with attention and working memory.


What made humans different?

These rituals may have been one of the few activities that consistently differentiated Homo sapiens from other contemporary hominins.

When Homo sapiens moved into Europe around 40,000 bp, it was for good. Neither Neanderthals nor cold conditions stopped them from laying claim to the entire continent. Whatever it was that changed them did not similarly affect Neanderthals. So what was the difference?

The evidence suggests that a capacity for symbolism was present in some nascent or measured form in Neanderthals and, under certain environmental conditions (such as close contact with Cro-Magnons), this capacity flowered; but apparently those conditions were not a regular aspect of the Neanderthal world prior to the Upper Palaeolithic. This again emphasizes the fact that something was different about the Homo sapiens world, something generally not present in that of other hominins.


Why Neanderthals did not meditate

If the critical difference between Homo sapiens and other hominins was campfire rituals of focused attention, then why did Neanderthals not engage in this activity? Were they and other archaic hominins not just as likely to have been singing, chanting and encountering healing spirits around their campfires? Odd as it may seem, the answer to this seems to be no. Evidence suggests that Neanderthals had neither the time nor the energy to engage in such activities. They lived hard lives— harder, apparently, than Cro-Magnons’.

They did not invest as much as Cro-Magnons in home bases and the activities associated with them, including (and especially) communal ones involving a central fire.



Intensified or altered states are characterized by increasingly non-rational processing and internally-directed focus ranging from fantasy to hypnagogic imagery to sensory hallucinations.