The Dance of the Visions

Part II:  The Coming of the Visions

by Cory Panshin


In Part I of this series of essays, I laid out a scenario which carried human history back to the point when ancient geeks began gazing up at the stars and dreaming of a world more perfect and enduring than the familiar earthly round of birth and death, hunger and sex.

At that moment, which was probably close to 200,000 years ago, the original harmony among the transformation, kinship, and spirit visions was broken and history as we know it began.

But what was going on before then?  When and how did those three original visions come into being, and what was life like when they ruled unchallenged?

That's not an easy question to address, since even our most unimaginably ancient stories are more recent than those events.  These stories tell of the first ancestors, of the days when the world was filled with animal-people instead of people-people, and of a fall from grace and the disasters that followed.  But although they probably contain some measure of truth, they give little hint as to what actually happened at the start of all things back in the Dreamtime.

However, there is one human endowment even older than story, and that is language.

Over the last few decades, it's become widely accepted that the use of language predates our own species.  Even the archaic humans of 800,000 years ago must have had some form of language to transmit crucial knowledge from person to person and from generation to generation.  But just how sophisticated might their use of language have been?

If you examine present-day human languages, you find no sign of any evolutionary progression.  Even the simplest hunter-gatherer societies have languages that are subtle, elaborate, and capable of expressing profound thoughts and feelings.  But although there are no "primitive" languages, there are hints of something more ancient within the structure of language itself. 

When my children were little, I was curious enough about their process of language acquisition to keep detailed notes.  These records show that when my older son, Adam, was two years and two months, he had a vocabulary of some 150 words and was adding three to five new ones every day.  These were mostly nouns, plus a few simple action verbs like "jump" and "kick," a handful of adjectives, and the words "up" and "off."  He was also putting together occasional two-word combinations, like "big truck," and "more apple," but he was not yet forming real sentences, and he would often intersperse words with babble in long chants.

Then, quite suddenly, at two years and four months, he began producing complete sentences, like "Dada watch football."  A couple of weeks later, he was demonstrating an ability to compare objects, saying things like, "Almost same.  One big, one small."  He was also showing a new level of self-awareness with demands like "No soup!  Ice cream! Like ice cream."

Toby followed a slightly different path.  He started talking a few months earlier than Adam and wasn't as intent on learning the names of things.  His initial vocabulary seemed more emotion-based, including commands like "Stop!" exclamations like "Oh wow, neat!" and self-descriptions like "I sweet!"  But he went through the same stage of using simple, non-grammatical combinations of words, like "Skywalker rocketship," and of enjoying nonsense chants like "Toodle, toodle, bank, bank" -- after which he would helpfully explain, "Song me."

And with both boys, there was the same abrupt leap in consciousness just around the time they turned two-and-a-half.  This was marked not only by fully grammatical sentences -- like "I love work machines and cows" or "Those two boys ride horses" -- but also by imaginative play, a fear of monsters and the dark, and an ability to recall events from several months earlier.

I would guess that Homo erectus of 1.8 million years ago might have had the incipient language skills of a modern two year old, amounting to a vocabulary of a few hundred words that could be loosely strung together in ad hoc ways but nothing resembling the formal rules of grammar.

I also believe that the archaic humans who appeared roughly 800,000 years ago had made whatever leap in brain organization underlies the analytical and linguistic skills of a two-and-a-half year old -- meaning they were able to construct simple sentences and could remember and describe past events.  They might also have displayed the first stirrings of imagination, whether by dressing up in skins or feathers and pretending to be animals or through a dawning fear of the dark and what might lurk within it.

That level of mental capacity seems sufficient to account for what we know of the material and social culture of Neanderthals.  But what's more interesting to me is that it also provides the raw materials for what would become the three different kinds of visions.

The accumulation of vocabulary -- which grows out of a desire to give everything a name and to group things according to appearance and function -- can be seen as the earliest expression of a scientific approach to the natural world .

The ability to create an abstract system of rules and use them to structure the raw stuff of experience is essential to grammar, but it also serves as the foundation for kinship systems, law-codes, and all the other rule-based systems of human society.

And memory, imagination, and awe in the face of the unknown are the basic components of inner experience.

However, there's a crucial element of self-awareness that is missing even in a bright, alert two-and-a-half year old -- or presumably in an equally bright and alert Neanderthal.  That final step requires the ability to analyze the mental processes of others, put oneself in their shoes, and understand what things look like from their perspective

Suppose, for example, that you, I, and John are standing around the edges of a clearing.  From my point of view, John might appear to be next to a tree -- but from your perspective, he might be behind the tree.  And it takes a kind of mathematical transposition for the two of us to recognize that we are describing the same situation from different angles.

The same principle applies to social relationships.  For a two year old, "Mother" is the name of one particular person, but a slightly older child has learned that everyone has a mother of their own, and that the people someone describes as "my mother," "your mother," and "his mother" may be three completely different individuals.

Language not only provides us with appropriate words to keep track of these relationships of location and possession  but also has a multitude of forms to structure of experience in terms of time and causality.  For example, we can specify that certain events are happening now, happened in the past and then ended, or began in the past but are still continuing.  We can assert that they will definitely occur in the future, might possibly occur, or may or may not occur depending on circumstances.

As speakers of a language, we take these linguistic devices for granted.  They are simply there, and we use them without thinking  -- and without being properly grateful to the long-ago ancestors who invented them.

But the nature of language indicates something very important about us.  It indicates that we have the ability to construct detailed virtual realities in our minds -- multi-dimensional maps of our experience and knowledge that serve as matrices within which we can locate everything we know in terms of space, time, and relationship.

Perhaps even more important, our use of language demonstrates to us that other people have mental maps very similar to our own, and that by exchanging information we can improve our own maps and extend them to include things we have not experienced personally.

I believe this mapping ability was the final piece of the puzzle that made us fully human.  It also underlies the successive visions of existence we have created to reconcile ordinary knowledge and higher knowledge.
The archaic humans who preceded us undoubtedly had an extensive store of ordinary knowledge.  They may also have had the first glimmerings of higher knowledge in the form of imaginative play and make-believe.  But what is unique to modern humans is the capacity and the desire to put all the pieces together and create mental maps that incorporate everything we know, both the stuff of fact and the stuff of imagination.

For we are not merely map-makers.  We also dream of wonders that may lie in the gaps within our maps or beyond their edges -- and our maps, our dreams, and our knowledge evolve together in a powerful feedback loop.

The further we extend our maps, the more they nourish our dreams.  The more we dream and the more we explore beyond the boundaries of our knowledge, the more we learn.  And the more we learn, the further we are compelled to extend our maps.

Our maps and our dreams work together.  Energy flows between them, and the intensity of that energy flow grows ever greater.  We are passionate about constructing precise formulations of our knowledge, and we are equally passionate about pursuing experiences that rip those formulations to shreds.  Human culture has been driven at every step by the rhythm of this push and pull, and the process is only accelerating.


The idea that we modern humans have a unique capacity to create multi-dimensional mind-maps of the world goes a long way towards explaining the nature of the visions.  However, it doesn't answer the question of how maps that were originally designed for the practical purpose of cataloging our everyday experiences might have come to include the far stranger stuff of higher knowledge.

Even today, most members of the human community pride themselves on knowing what they know and look with suspicion on anything more speculative.  Only a relatively small numbers of freaks and geeks are actively drawn to the stuff of imagination, innovation, and rebellion -- and an even tinier minority are fully in tune with higher knowledge.

So under what circumstances might the practical map-makers and the wild-eyed dreamers have made common cause?

To address this question, it may be useful to start at the very beginning -- with the anatomical changes that first distinguished us from our pre-modern forebears.

When skeletons of modern humans are compared to those of earlier members of our species, such as Neanderthals, the most obvious difference is that we moderns are leaner and longer-legged, as well as being generally taller.

These changes must have provided a significant evolutionary advantage by enabling us to get around faster and further and draw upon the resources of a much larger territory.  However, they would have been fairly useless without a simultaneous expansion in our cognitive skills.

If you're going to take lengthy day trips away from home, after all, you need to start off with a pretty good idea of where you're going and for what purpose, as well as the safest and most direct way to get there and back.  You also have 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 effectively if you have a sophisticated map-making ability that enables you to orient yourself in both space and time.  And the emergence of just such an ability may be indicated by the second major difference between archaic humans and ourselves -- a change in the architecture of our skulls and brains.

The capacity to construct elaborate mind-maps would have enabled the first true humans to do things that had never been done before and utilize the resources of their environment to the fullest.  No wonder they were able to out-breed, out-compete, and eventually assimilate every other human species.

But once they had committed themselves to this way of life, their very survival would have depended on the accuracy and completeness of their mental maps.  And that was a vulnerability, because there are limits to how much information can be stored in a single individual's memory.

The simplest way to get around those limitations was through a significant expansion of language. Not only does naming and categorizing everything you encounter make it easier to keep track, it also makes it easier to share your knowledge with family and friends.

That kind of information exchange would have quickly become an essential everyday activity.  Not only did it spread the knowledge of every individual throughout the group, so that nothing was lost if one person died or forgot an important detail, but it also allowed for more effective coordination of group activities.

However, it also had an extraordinary side effect.  It turned the entire group into a coherent information network, with a common mind-map that embodied greater knowledge and more accumulated wisdom than any of its members possessed separately.  Even more amazing, this group map was  both immortal and capable of continuing to grow and evolve without depending on the uncertain mechanisms of biological evolution.

Indeed, that original map is still alive and still evolving today.

The construction of this communal mind-map was the first creative act of our species -- and it was also the act that created our species.  But that initial map did not spring into being all at once.  Our earliest ancestors must have spent many lifetimes expanding upon it, coming up with new names for things and actions, and working together to make sure it remained unified and self-consistent.

It's easy for people today to dismiss the remote past as boring, because it shows no signs of rapid technological or cultural change.  But the fact is that our ancestors were embarked on a vast intellectual adventure -- so vast that we ourselves cannot even perceive it, because we live completely within its parameters.  They had the great privilege of making everything up for the first time, and there has been nothing more interesting or rewarding since.

Much of this project of world-building would have been carried out in the form of story.  Because emotion enhances memory, narrating an experiences in dramatic form is the most effective way of getting its lessons to stick in both your own mind and the minds of your audience.  As a result, story-telling would have been a central feature of everyday life.  

When the hunters and foragers returned to camp at night, they would have recounted the day's adventures and discoveries in the form of story.  The most exciting and instructive stories were long remembered and often retold, until they were refined down to what we still recognize as the basic plotline of every tale -- a worthy goal, dangers and challenges to overcome, a successful conclusion, and a triumphant return to share the boons with one's fellows.

But as challenging and engrossing as this activity was, the earliest mind-maps would not have amounted to what I have been describing as "visions" as long as they remained within the boundaries of the known.  That final step required the addition of higher knowledge.

The sudden hunches and intuitive flashes of higher knowledge are a mystery even today, and it's impossible to say for sure just when and how they got started.  However, they must go back at least as far as the brain reorganization that underlies our map-making ability, since the two have always been complementary.

The greatest danger in relying too heavily on ordinary knowledge is that no matter how useful it is for dealing with familiar situations, it can fail miserably when confronted with unusual events and unforeseen crises.  That's where the wild flights of higher knowledge prove their value.

But pursuing the dictates of higher knowledge can be a risky business.

A study carried out a few years ago concluded that our intuitive flashes are the result of a temporary mental destabilization during which our brains briefly operate "on the edge of chaos."  At such moments, the scientists explain, wild 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.'"

The warning about madness reflects other studies which have found that highly creative people are more likely to suffer from mental disorders -- particularly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder -- or to have family members with such disorders.  And that connection also brings to mind the observation that traditional shamans frequently begin their career by passing through a "shamanistic crisis," which to the outsider can appear indistinguishable from madness.

It would seem that at an early point in our history, we must have acquired a tendency towards barely restrained madness, with those in whom the capacity was strongest being given to hearing voices or hallucinating supernatural presences.

These proto-shamans could not have been more than a small minority, because an excess of madmen and prophets can send an entire society off the rails.  But on the other hand, a society dominated entirely by sober conservatives loses its ability to adapt or change.  There's a fine balance to be maintained -- and the fact that we're here today suggests that we've been successful at managing the trick.

But there's a further challenge in balancing the demands of two such radically personality types, which is that those with the prophetic gift may find it hard to get the rational map-makers to pay attention, even when their warnings and inspirations are most needed.

And that's where the visions come in.

Just like the hunters and gatherers, the 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 hallucinatory encounters with spirit beings.  And instead of bringing back food or practical information, they would have offered wisdom, glimpses of higher possibility, and instruction in becoming more fully human.

It's 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 to give up being animal-people and adopt the ways of humankind.  The embellishments of these stories may be fanciful, but the tricksters really existed and really did the things for which they are credited.

Unlike more mundane accounts, however, the stories of the proto-shamans  could not readily be duplicated or verified.  Spirit beings were very different from berry bushes or animal migration routes.  They had no fixed location and could not be found simply by going out and looking.  That made them hard to fit into the communal mind-map, except perhaps as a doubtful presence around the edges.

However, there were other ways in which the stuff of higher knowledge could be interwoven with ordinary experience.  One involved the seemingly supernatural talent of the proto-shamans for healing and rain-making.  Another depended on the claim that all inexplicable events were the doing of either the spirits or hostile magic and required the intervention of a shaman to resolve.  

No doubt the shamans themselves encouraged these beliefs to embellish their image as wonder-workers.  They may have even enhanced them with the odd bit of trickery.  However, the concepts were sufficiently in tune with the scientific knowledge of the time to be accepted as sound and fitted into the existing world-map.

The outcome was a model of the natural world that had been modified to incorporate magic and claims of extraordinary knowledge.   This revised model was simultaneously practical and mystical, and it mixed rigorous observation of nature with tall tales and blatant flimflam.

In short, it was the first vision, and it set the pattern for every vision since.


The immeasurably long-ago era when all of this happened was the authentic Dreamtime.

In those days, our ancestors possessed a single, unified picture of existence, which they believed to be an exact representation of the world around them.  For them the map truly was the territory, and even the world of their dreams was tightly interwoven with the world of everyday.

This original world-vision was not fixed or static but was constantly being amended and enlarged.  Much like the internet today, it was subject to a constant, ongoing process of discovery, collaboration, and mutual reinforcement.  But because the changes were carried out collectively, it remained the same for everyone -- until the time came when it was shattered beyond repair.

The source of the problem was the very success of this new experiment in being human, which inevitably led to population growth and an expansion into unfamiliar territories.  What was once a tiny, isolated group of perhaps a few hundred close relatives now consisted of thousands of people spread out across a wide area.

At that point, maintaining social order and group cohesion became a serious challenge.  On the practical level, people were having to deal with casual acquaintances and even complete strangers and not knowing quite how to go about it.  On the philosophical level, the original sense of perfect oneness -- of being a single people with a single vision of existence -- was becoming difficult to maintain.

For a while, the expanding human community might have been held together by their shared vision of the world.  We can imagine them meeting together at intervals to swap gifts and stories, arrange marriages, and synchronize their world-map.  But eventually they grew too dispersed for that to be possible.  And without constant reinforcement, the map itself started to fragment.  

People who had settled in new locations would have encountered novel experiences and acquired new kinds of knowledge.  As they did, the stories they told, the world-map they wove out of them, and the very words in their language would have altered, making it increasingly difficult for them to reengage with their distant relatives.

Modern humans apparently started out with a certain capacity to deal with outsiders -- at least compared with their more parochial forebears.  According to an article that appeared some months ago in New Scientist, "The size and distribution of archaeological sites shows that Neanderthals spent their lives mostly in small groups of five to 10 individuals. Several such groups would come together briefly after especially successful hunts, suggesting that Neanderthals also belonged to larger communities but that they seldom made contact with people outside those groupings."

The piece goes on to say that Neanderthals "almost certainly lacked the cognitive abilities for dealing with strangers that evolved in modern humans, who lived in larger groups numbering in the scores and belonged to larger communities in the hundreds or more. They also established and maintained contacts with distant groups."

This description is suggestive but it seems misguided to speak of "cognitive abilities for dealing with strangers [having] evolved in modern humans."  When our present set of cognitive abilities was evolving, after all, we were not yet coming into contact with strangers of our own kind.  And by the time we were, our period of active biological evolution was long past.  Even today, our capacity for dealing with foreigners and people who do not share our belief system is highly imperfect, suggesting that is is a learned talent and not something innate.

Another recent article offers what may be a truer picture.  It emphasizes that "the superiority of Homo sapiens was in their social organization, which developed during the Middle Paleolithic period between 200,000 and 35,000 years ago. This 'modern' social organization is characterized by the maintenance of personal relations despite the absence of the persons involved, and over long distances."

This description of "modern" social organization as having developed gradually over an extended period comes closer to the mark.  However, it still seems to imply that the process was somehow inevitable and automatic, rather than being a conscious enterprise on the part of people who had a good grasp of both the tools at hand and the desired goal.

Their goal was nothing less than the reunification of the human community.  Their chief tool was the map-making ability that had already enabled us to master our physical surroundings.  And the ultimate  solution was the application of an equivalent map to our social relationships.

There were, of course, certain impediments to perceiving human society as functionally identical to the natural world.  For one thing, we normally deal with other people very differently than we deal with nature.

We know our friends and relatives on a first-name basis, and we engage with them in terms of our unique history of shared experiences.  But with rare exceptions, we don't interact that way with plants and animals.  Instead, we group them into categories and treat the members of each category as interchangeable objects to be handled with standardized rules.

No one would have conceived of treating other people as interchangeable until we had started encountering strangers on a regular basis.  But under those conditions, the idea of subordinating our social interactions to a fixed system of categories must have come as a brilliant revelation.  You could, for example, lay it down as a general rule that every elderly man must be addressed as "grandfather" and shown the same respect one would show one's own grandparents.

This kind of objectification is not without its disadvantages, and it has often been used to dehumanize others and treat them as less than human.  But it was the best solution available at the time, and it was applied enthusiastically even to close family and friends.  The example of present-day kinship systems suggests that it would have helped reduce social tensions and establish a solid basis for mutual support, and that it may have been seen as one more step in making people less animal and more human.

The ultimate outcome of embracing this new form of mind-map and applying it wholesale was a universal family tree that defined precisely where everyone was located in relationship to everyone else.  And the  universality of the kinship map made it ideally suited to serve as the basis for a new vision of existence.

In the Dreamtime, everyone had shared a single map of the physical world which could be taken as an image of True Reality.  But once people spread out and had many different maps, it was no longer possible to say which was the perfect original and which the imperfect copies.

That wouldn't have bothered the practical-minded majority, but it would have presented the smaller number who lived by higher knowledge with an excruciating philosophical dilemma.  If the world around them wasn't the higher reality of their mystical intimations, then what was?  And if the human community was no longer united by its adherence to a common vision of the world, then what was to keep it from flying to pieces?

The new map of human kinship was the answer to both these puzzles.  Unlike maps of the physical world, it was not subject to alteration in response to local conditions.  It included everyone, no matter where they lived, and it was understood by everyone in the same way.  It was thus able to bind the entire human community together in a way that purely physical world-maps could no longer accomplish.

When that realization fell into place, the entire kinship system was raised to a higher level.  It became the basis of the first socially-based vision, and it took on the function of providing every individual with a sense of participating in a larger whole that was vast and enduring beyond the limitations of any single human life.

However, the new vision did not simply displace the earlier one.  It also restored it to a greater degree of  transcendence.

As compared with the original vision of the physical world, the new kinship vision was far more given to an elaboration of formal rules and categories, all of which began with the basic dichotomy between male and female:  Father and mother.  Brother and sister.  Grandfather and grandmother.  Uncle and aunt.  And so forth.

This same male-female duality is also used all over the world to divide the great forces of nature into reciprocal pairs:  Fire and water.  Drought and rain.  Sun and moon.  Death and life.  However, such dualities are by no means obvious or instinctual.  They had to be worked out intellectually, and they constitute the most ancient of all philosophical systems.  

Despite its simplicity, this system performs the essential function of any philosophy, which is to transform reality from a world of things into a realm of abstract principles.  And once that is achieved, the existence of a diversity of local maps no longer matters, because they can now be taken as the many local reflections of a more complete and perfect original.

The process that led to the birth of the second vision set the pattern for every other new vision.  Each one of them arises in response to the perceived inadequacies of the one before it.  Each one crystallizes around a novel solution that works on both a practical and a mystical level.  And each one does its best to heal the wounds of the one before it -- but in a way that leaves the previous vision less mystical and more theoretical than before.  

The desire to reclaim True Reality was there at the start, and it has continued to power the cycle of visions.  They have followed on one another's heels ever since, each one aiming to restore the lost perfection of the Dreamtime and each succeeding for a time before fragmenting in its turn.


The story I've been telling so far is as simple and straightforward as I know how to make it.

It relies on just a few basic assumptions: That the first modern humans possessed a map-making ability which enabled them to construct structured visualizations of the world around them.  That as the population expanded, this same ability was applied to devising kinship systems that regulated the interactions among individuals and groups.  And that higher knowledge played a crucial role both in driving the process and in transforming practical blueprints of reality into visions of higher possibility.

The first two visions were the prototypes of all the scientifically-based and socially-based visions to come.  But there are also visions of a third type -- those based on inner experience -- and these operate very differently and can't be explained as simply another form of map-making.

Inner experience is quicksilver and elusive.  It shifts and fluctuates and may differ radically from one person to another.  It can't be pinned down like our experience of the physical world or reduced to categories and rules like the stuff of our social relationships.  And yet it does display consistent themes and patterns, which makes it possible for shamans and wizards to swap stories and arrive at mutual understandings.

There were proto-shamans among us from the start, and without their deeply ingrained sense of the oneness of all things the two initial visions would not have been possible.  But their knowledge was expressed metaphorically through the physical world and human society, and they did not yet have a vision of their own.

With the passage of time, however, a vision derived directly from inner experience became necessary.  The population had continued to increase and become more securely established, and as it did the first two visions grew less strange and magical and started to be taken for granted.

For those of us who are not natural shamans, the intuitive flashes of higher knowledge are triggered most strongly at moments of crisis, when we are faced with unprecedented challenges and life-and-death decisions.  During the earliest period of human history, when we were few in number and subject to many external threats, we would have frequently been confronted by crises that forced us to improvise wildly -- or at least to heed the shamans' guidance.

But once the human community was in no immediate danger of being wiped out by famine, disease, or sharp-toothed predators, those spontaneous responses would have become less common.  Our unparalleled knowledge of the natural world, together with the capacity for unified action built into our kinship systems, would have appeared sufficient to carry us through any kind of peril. 

As a result, the shamans, instead of being essential for survival, may have become something of an embarrassment -- the crazy aunts and uncles who lacked all sense of social propriety, did things that no normal person would think of doing, and seemed to live in a world of their own.

This marginalization was probably as trying for them as it is for those who suffer similar treatment today, but it also had certain benefits.  It forced them to become aware of their own special nature and encouraged them to assume a distinct social identity. 

In a world where the human community had always perceived itself as an undivided whole, a few individuals would have started to recognize that they were different.  And they would also have realized that what made them different was they they had their heads full of the damnedest stuff -- dreams and visions and unexplored possibilities -- that nobody else seemed to share.

People like that have been the originators of every new inner experience vision in historical times, and they were surely the source of the first one, as well.  If anything, that initial awakening to self would have been the most powerful, because it was so unprecedented and unexpected.

Once the shamans started to become self-aware, a couple of other factors might have expedited the process.  For example, the same population growth which had made society in general more ordinary and complacent would have meant there were finally enough weirdos around to find each other, hang out together, and start exchanging notes.

It's also likely that the use of hallucinogenic plants was mastered around this time, enabling those who experimented with them to regularize the visionary experience, clarify its nature, and start establishing common terminology.

But whatever the exact sequence of events, the results were dramatic.  Instead of proto-shamans who might occasionally encounter spirit beings in the wilderness and take them for a part of the natural landscape, there were now true shamans -- people who identified their experiences as occurring within themselves and were ready to study them and understand their meaning. 

As one aspect of the change, instead of the shamans simply trying to convince their less perceptive fellows of the truth of their hallucinatory narratives, they would have begun to develop ways of leading others to share their mythic perceptions of reality by way of story, song, and dramatic performance.

Over the last few years, a number of fascinating studies have been done on the subject of brain synchronization.  In one experiment carried out at Princeton, a woman was recorded telling the same story both in English and in Russian while an MRI scanner recorded her brain activity.  These recordings were then played to listeners who knew only English -- and though the Russian version had no effect on them, brain scans showed that "when the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized.  When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too.  When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs.   By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners' brains."

In a related study done in Berlin, pairs of guitar players were wired up and given a piece of music to play in harmony.  The investigators found that "when the musicians had to actively coordinate their playing, that is especially at the beginning of a sequence, the signals from frontal and central electrodes were clearly associated -- not only within the head of one player, but also between the heads of the duet partners."

"When people coordinate actions with one another," the scientists concluded, "small networks within the brain and, remarkably, between the brains are formed, especially when the activities need to be precisely aligned in time."

This human capacity for "neural coupling" is clearly very ancient.  It may have been part of the suite of changes in brain functioning that marked the appearance of our own species.  Or it might have had its roots among our more archaic ancestors -- but if so, it would have been greatly intensified by the flowering of language and story-telling among the first modern humans.

A capacity for synchronization of thought and action would have played a vital role in enabling us to live in larger groups than our pre-modern forebears and explore wider territories, while still maintaining a high degree of social and intellectual coordination.  However, it might have also had the negative effect of enforcing rigid adherence to a narrowly-drawn consensus reality.

I suspect our species fell into just such a trap at a certain point -- and that the only thing which saved us was a small group of people who were both strange enough and strong-minded enough to stand outside the reigning consensus and move it in a new direction.

People of that sort can exercise an extraordinary power over their fellows.  They tell stories so bizarre, and yet so strangely compelling, that the audience hangs on every word.  They act out their narratives in dramatic form, until their listeners feel as though they have experienced them in their own persons.  They get the entire group singing and dancing in unison.  And as they do all this, they quite literally "plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners' brains."

As I noted in Part I of this series, archaeologists are constantly seeking the Holy Grail of "behavioral modernity," that elusive moment when our ancestors started acting just like us and doing all the same things we do.  They've recently moved the goalposts back a bit -- as far as 75,000 years ago, when the first examples of visual art appeared in South Africa, along with a number of striking technological innovations.  But they're unwilling to concede that people who lacked those things could have been fully human.

Since the late 19th century, it's been standard practice to interpret every cultural advance in prehistory as marking the attainment of a new level of mental capacity.  But what if that isn't true?  What if our capacities have been the same from the start, and the dreamers and visionaries among us only invent new customs and symbolic forms when existing ones have become insufficient to keep us moving along the path?

In that case, everything we lump together as "culture" and consider the highest form of human achievement might amount to nothing more than a collection of devices for keeping the herd in motion.  And it was the first true shamans of perhaps 250,000 years ago who initiated this process -- and did so quite deliberately and with a fair inkling of the desired result.


Return to Trogholm

Return to The Abyss of Wonder

The sequence of visions that have served to order experience:
  • Scientific visions - derived from observation of nature and the physical world
    • Social visions - derived from the structures and rules of human societies
      • Inner experience visions - derived from trance, dream, and inspiration
  • Transformation (rhythms of growth and decay) - peak in Paleolithic
    • Kinship - peak in late Paleolithic and Neolithic
      • Spirit - peak in Neolithic and Bronze Age
  • Cosmic Order (cyclical movements of the heavens) - peak from Bronze Age to ancient Rome 
    • Aristocracy - peak from Iron Age to Dark Ages
      • Revelation - peak in Dark Ages and Middle Ages
  • Emanation (philosophical causality) - peak in Middle Ages and Renaissance
    • Hierarchy - peak from Renaissance to 18th century
      • Reason - peak in 18th and 19th centuries
  • Scientific Materialism (laws of nature) - peak in 19th and early 20th centuries
    • Democracy - peak from early to late 20th century
      • Chaos - peak in late 20th and early 21st centuries
  • Holism (feedback and emergent systems) - about to reach its peak
    • Horizontalism
      • Creative Imagination

Border courtesy of Eos Development