Is the Human Mind Unique?

Event Date (Pacific Time): 
Friday, Feb 15, 2013 - 1:00pm to 5:30pm
Event Chairs:

Terrence Deacon, University of California, Berkeley
V.S. Ramachandran, University of California, San Diego

Scientists from many different fields gathered to discuss cognitive abilities often regarded as unique to humans including humor, morality, symbolism, creativity, and preoccupation with the minds of others. Emphasis was placed on the functional uniqueness of these attributes, as opposed to the anatomical uniqueness, and whether these attributes are indeed quantitatively or qualitatively unique to humans. 


Event Sessions:

Media for each talk can be played by clicking on icons in the table below, or by clicking on the individual talk titles below and then the attachment file at the bottom of the page.

Speakers Session Media

Fred Gage

V.S. Ramachandran
Welcome and Opening Remarks

Terrence Deacon
Symbolic Communication: Why is Human Thought so Flexible?
Why is human thought so flexible? Although many features of human brains can be attributed to selection for novel cognitive functions (e.g., for symbolic language), relaxation of selection on other attributes has additionally contributed to de-differentiation of certain brain functions. A parallel process will be described involving domestication and birdsong. In humans, this has produced a reduction of innate behavioral tendencies, new possibilities for novel synergistic brain functions, and... read more

Daniel Povinelli
Desperately Seeking Explanation
As early as 600 million years ago, some branches of life on earth evolved what we now consider the first “complex brains”. Since then, a fantastic diversity of animal brains (and hence, minds) have evolved. How do we compare these minds? One way is unabashedly anthropocentric, using the human mind as the gold standard. In principle, there is nothing wrong—and much to recommend—this myopic interest in the origins and uniqueness of our mental abilities. In practice, when we fail to highlight both... read more

Steven Mithen
An Evolved and Creative Mind
The human mind is quite evidently unique when compared against the minds of all other living creatures today. Our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, with whom we shared a common ancestor six million years ago, exhibits some of the foundations for symbolic thought and language, but there is a cognitive gulf separating its cognitive capacities from those of humans. A more challenging question is whether the mind of modern humans, Homo sapiens, is unique when compared to those other members... read more

Daniel Dennett

Colin Renfrew
Archaeological Evidence for Mind
The Sapient Paradox. The emergence of our species Homo sapiens is generally set around 200,000 years ago in Africa, and its out-of-Africa dispersals around 60,000 years ago. Yet early indications of ‘mind’ in Africa, for instance at Blombos (70,000 BP: incised grid on ochre, shell beads) are meagre before the agricultural revolution (after 11,000 BP). Apart from Franco-Cantabrian cave art in Europe and its outliers (35,000-15,000 BP), few radical changes in behaviour seem to take place until... read more

Nicholas Humphrey
Entering the 'Soul Niche'
Human beings are animal-machines with added souls. This was famously Descartes’ view, and it’s the view of a good many people today. I think it’s essentially right. Humans have evolved a kind of consciousness that, when egged on by culture, leads them to have an extraordinary view of their own metaphysical importance. The idea of the soul, considered objectively is absurd. Yet it’s an idea that is nonetheless irresistible to humans. Why should consciousness have evolved to promote it? The clear... read more

Merlin Donald
Skilled Performance and Artistry
The human mind is unique in so many ways that it is necessary to recognize that our species is of a different order, in cognitive terms, than other species. If one crucial adaptation had to be singled out as the signature move that started the human journey, I would nominate “mimesis,” or body artistry, which is the platform on which all complex skilled performance, including language, has evolved. A capacity for refining skill started to evolve very early in the emergence of hominids, as... read more

Patricia Churchland
Moral Sense
Morality is a social behavior seen in mammals and some birds that depends on an interlocking brain organization shaped by four factors: (1) caring (rooted in attachment to kin and kith, and the pain of isolation), (2) recognition of others’ psychological states (goals, feelings, needs); anticipating events painful to me-and-mine is more efficient when brains can represent others as having sensations and intentions, regardless of assorted contingencies in behavior and background conditions, (3)... read more

V.S. Ramachandran
Inter-Modular Interactions, Metaphor, and the 'Great Leap'
The rhetorical (philosophical) answer is that the brain of any species is unique – it’s the definition of a species. So why bother ? There are two answers; first, we are human and are, therefore, more naturally curious about our own uniqueness. Second, some traits may just be quantitatively different on a pre-existing continuum while others represent a quantum leap; which are the latter? In other words, people have an intuitive understanding of the word unique. Technically, a mouse's or pigeon'... read more

Terrence Deacon

V.S. Ramachandran

Ajit Varki
Wrap Up, Question and Answer, and Closing Remarks