Consciousness and the Symbolic Universe

Although a developed aesthetic sense and good manipulative skills are necessary for the production of art, they are not sufficient in and of themselves. What sets true artistic expression apart from the behavior of an animal, such as a bowerbird that decorates its’ nest in order to attract a mate, is that artistic expression requires higher-order consciousness. Higher-order consciousness means that the artist is not only aware of aesthetic differences, but they are also aware of their own awareness and hence the possibility that others share this awareness or experiential world. One way to get a handle on the evolution of higher-order consciousness is through a phylogenetic comparison.

The German scientist, Jacob Von Uexkull, used the term Umwelt to describe the perceptional world that is experienced by different species. The perceptual world of a bloodhound for example, would be much more dominated by information relating to olfaction than information from other sensory modalities including vision. Uexkull believed that as organisms evolved more sense organs and greater neurological complexity, their overall awareness increased. Thus, the Umwelt of an earthworm would be of a very rudimentary nature consisting of simple somatosensory information. Just increasing the number of sense organs necessitated an increase in neurological complexity to some degree. However, once the senses that we are familiar with had evolved in vertebrates, there was a great deal of brain evolution still to take place. A system of cross-referencing across the different sense modalities was a critical aspect of this neurological evolution. For example, the sound of a snapping twig could be localized for visual scanning and then the olfactory senses could be brought to bear to determine if indeed an intruder was in the general vicinity. There is evidence that certain cross-modal associations have become hardwired possibly to improve perceptual efficiency and to lower response times. English children were compared to children from Kenya in a task that required them to match a nonsense word with a pictoral display (Davis, 1961). Children from both groups matched the word “malume” with a curved shape and the word “takete” with a pointed shape.

As was pointed out in the chapters on brain development and language, the exigencies of functioning in a social environment greatly accelerated brain evolution and consequently the general level of consciousness or awareness. It was speculated that the development of a theory of mind, i.e., possessing the idea that others have a mind similar to one’s own and using this concept to try to manipulate the behavior of the others, was a key factor in the evolution of higher primates. Unfortunately, it has been difficult to demonstrate the existence of theory of mind in non-human primate species to date. If theory of mind exists in other primate species, it may be in an incipient form, which is to say it may be a completely non-conscious process. Since theory of mind is currently conceptualized as being a fully conscious process, we may need another term to describe what various species of monkeys and apes are actually doing when they try to manipulate the behavior of others.

The first requisite in having a bonafide theory of mind, i.e., a conscious theory of mind, is self-awareness. By self-awareness we mean that an individual has a mental construct of oneself as a distinct entity, separate from everyone and everything else. In 1970, Gordon Gallup reported an experiment which he claimed to demonstrate self-awareness in chimpanzees. His experiment was a variation of the rouge test, which had been used by developmental psychologists for many years to demonstrate the point in human development when very young children first demonstrate self-awareness. In the developmental test, a mark of rouge, or some other distinctive coloring, is clandestinely placed on the forehead of the young child. The child is then placed in front of a mirror. Very young children, around one year in age, will typically look at the mirror image and react to it as if they were looking at another child. They will attempt to play with this other child they see in the mirror. Most human children around 18 months of age show a different response. They look in the mirror, note there is a mark of coloring upon their foreheads, and then they try to wipe it away. This response is seen as being indicative of a concept of self. More conservative critics say it does not really demonstrate self-concept but only mirror recognition, which may be a different quality.

Gallop (1970) used this same procedure when a chimpanzee was anesthetized for its’ periodical medical checkup; an odorless red dye was applied to the chimps forehead while it lay unconscious. When the animal regained consciousness a mirror was placed next to its’ cage, and the chimpanzee showed all the behaviors indicative of mirror self-recognition. The animal tried to wipe the dye from its’ forehead and it also positioned its’ body at various angles in front of the mirror in order to see places it could not ordinarily see on its’ own body. Since Gallop’s early experiment, numerous other chimpanzees have passed the mirror test as well as other species of great apes including the orangutan and some gorillas that had been reared by humans (Gallup & Suarez, 1986; Patterson, & Cohn, 1994; Patterson, 1984; Povinelli, 1993). Because of the inherent adaptive differences in intelligent marine species such as the bottlenose dolphin, procedures used to demonstrate self-awareness in primates are highly problematic with cetacean species (Marino, Reiss & Gallup, 1994). Nevertheless, studies using mirrors and TV monitors in mirror mode make a compelling case for the existence of self-recognition in the bottlenose dolphin (Marten & Psarakos, 1994). Not all great apes immediately pass the mirror test and often they require prolonged exposure to mirrors before they understand what they are looking at. However, regardless of the length of time that the individuals are exposed to mirrors, no member of any other species, outside of the humans, great apes, and possibly bottlenose dolphins have ever passed this mirror recognition test (Gallup, 1994). Monkeys can be in the presence of a mirror for thousand of hours without ever acquiring this level of awareness (Gallup, 1977). At first they react to it as an intruding member of their own species, but eventually they habituate and ignore the mirror all together. Based on these findings, it would seem that the best place to look for theory of mind in non-human species would be in our close relatives the chimpanzees.

In 1978, David Premack and Guy Woodruff reported the results of a study on an adult chimpanzee named Sarah. The investigators showed Sarah a series of videotapes with human actors portraying various problems. For example, the videotape might show a human actor jumping up and down trying to reach a bunch of bananas hanging from the ceiling that were just out of reach. Following this videotape, Sarah would be given a set of photographs, one of which showed a solution to the problem, in this case, several boxes stacked on top of each other just below the bunch of bananas. Sarah would consistently choose the photograph that represented a viable solution to the problem shown in the videotape. Interestingly, Sarah’s was much more likely to choose a “good”, i.e., correct, outcome if the actor in the videotape was a trainer that she liked. If the videotape depicted an individual whom Sarah was suspected of disliking she would typically choose an outcome that displayed the actor in some mishap such as lying under cement blocks. Based on these findings, the investigators concluded that Sarah recognized the videotape as representing a problem, understood the actor’s purpose, and chose solutions compatible with that purpose except in those instances that involved a particular individual that she disliked. This, Premack and Woodrup argued, demonstrated theory of mind in chimpanzees. Unfortunately, additional, corroborating evidence for theory of mind in chimpanzees has not been forthcoming.

David Povinelli has worked extensively on the problem of demonstrating theory of mind in chimpanzees but generally his results have been nil (Povinelli and Preuss, 1995). Although he has time and time again confirmed Gallop’s original findings of self-awareness, or at least mirror self-recognition in chimpanzees (Povinelli, Gallup, Eddy, & Bierschwale, 1997) the outcomes of the theory of mind studies have not corroborated Premack’s earlier (1978) findings. Povinelli and Eddy (1996) investigated theory of mind in chimpanzees by having their chimp subjects observe two human trainers who were present when food was cashed in a certain secret location. The chimps could see the trainers but not the location of the food. In one human trainer, the cloth covered the eyes like a blindfold, while in the other, the cloth was placed lower on the face acting as a gag. All of the chimpanzees tested showed no discrimination between the two trainers and were just as likely to beg for food from the blindfolded individual, who had no knowledge of the food’s location, as from the sighted individual. On the other hand, human children as young as two years of age easily discriminated between the two experimenters and preferentially choose the experimenter whose vision was unimpeded for the reinforcer, in this case, stickers.

By age four, the theory of mind concept is well developed in human children. For example, a child is given a crayon box only to find the box is full of candles instead of crayons. When the experimenter asks the child what another child would expect to find in the same box, a child who is over four years of age will answer “crayons,” and a younger child, will answer “candles.” Based on these findings, it is assumed children under four years of age do not have a fully developed theory of mind concept. Autistic individuals typically fail this sort of false belief test and an absence of theory of mind has been proposed to explain many of the symptoms of autism.

Autism is characterized by extreme deficits in social behavior and understanding. Children with autism display an emotional indifference to others and treat close family members exactly the same way they treat complete strangers. Verbal and non-verbal communication is extremely impaired. These individuals also display no imagination or creativity. They prefer a sameness of routine and are very disturbed by any slight changes. Autistic individuals interpret speech very literally, for example, if one asks “Can you pass the salt?” a child with autism might reply “Yes” as though they were being queried about their ability to do this rather than being requested to actually pass the salt to the individual (Mitchell, 1997). Certain high-functioning autistic individuals show great abilities in making mathematical calculations or in memorizing a great amount of seemingly irrelevant information, such as the contents of phone books. There is a very mechanical, machine-like quality in these abilities. For example, two young autistic artists, Steven Wiltshire and Nadia, produce extremely realistic and detailed line drawings. These drawing have an extreme photographic quality about them, as if they were produced by a camera rather than a thinking, feeling being. Many of these deficits seem to be directly linked to a lack of theory of mind in autistic individuals. A failure to understand other peoples beliefs would restrict a child to excessive literal interpretations of the speech of others. Their problems of relating socially to others and understanding the emotions of others could also be directly linked to their failure to understand theory of mind.

Although some of the symptoms of autism can be directly causally linked to a poorly developed theory of mind, it is probably more accurate to view the deficits in theory of mind and the other deficits as part of a global impairment. These global deficits are due to neurological abnormalities, particularly in a region of the brain known as the cerebellum. As was pointed out in chapter 2, the cerebellum is involved in the precise sequencing of motor movements, particularly ballistic movements. This was the basis of Calvin’s so-called, ballistic hypothesis, namely that the development of the cerebellum due to the selection for more accurate throwing movements provided the requisite neurological substrates for language evolution. The cerebellar abnormalities that result in autism suggest the cerebellum plays a critical role, not only in ballistic motor sequencing, but also in the sequencing of language, social intelligence, imagination and creativity, theory of mind and intentionally. It would seem that there has been a long history of co-evolutionary development between all of these traits.

The efforts of a few autistic artists not withstanding, the key features of the creativity that have characterized our species since the late Pleistocene are higher order consciousness, theory of mind, and intentionally. A developed aesthetic sense and symbolic reasoning are, of course, also necessary elements in producing art but they are not sufficient in and of themselves. As we have seen, an aesthetic sense evolves directly from adaptive preferences, which are exhibited in other animal species. Our phylogenetic cousins, the great apes, are quite adept at manipulating and understanding symbols and although there are examples of chimpanzee paintings, such endeavors are not a part of the normal repertoire of the species. Only in our species is a effort made to creatively manipulate elements of the outer world such that they can express something of our inner subjective state as individuals, or collectively, as groups of individuals.

As we noted earlier, there is an intimate link between art and play and ritual. These elements of art and play and ritual come full circle when we ritualize play into athletic competitions and these competitions are appreciated as expressions of art in a very real sense. When a football fan delights in watching a receiver stretch out to catch a pass over the middle before being pummeled violently by a pair of linebackers, this is just as much a form of artistic appreciation as that experienced by thousands of painting enthusiasts who visit the Louvre each day in Paris. The essence of art is its ability to captivate. Modern sports do just that by displaying grace and elegance often juxtaposed with violence. The innate preferences that maintain the complex cultural traditions that manifest as sporting events probably arose through the adaptive advantage accrued from having a very active interest in intertribal skirmishes. The central function of sporting contests, in terms of evolved adaptations, is not to produce aesthetic responses but these responses are certainly a common phenomenon.

The same is true of entertainment. Despite the label of “entertainment arts” the primary function of entertainment is not to produce art, although this is often an outcome incidental and sometimes integral to the production of entertainment. Entertainment taps into our innate interest in the social behavior of our fellow humans. In particular, we are interested in sex, courtship, competition, and danger. Narrative, the telling of stories, is probably as old as language itself. A keen interest in attending to stories would have been essential for assimilating the cultural database. A powerful adaptive advantage would belong to individuals possessing such an interest in narrative, while, conversely, individuals who lacked such an interest would have been at severe disadvantage. The existence of thousands of myths, legends, folk-tales, novels, plays, and movies is the result of our having descended from ancestors who had a definite preference for attending to stories. As to what percentage of “entertainment” represents art is open to debate. If we use Dissanayake's definition of art, as something made special, then the sheer banality of most works of entertainment excludes them from the category, art.

Art enriches virtually every aspect of human existence. It can exist as something in and of itself. More often it is embedded in other features of human life. Entertainment, religion, body adornment, architecture, transportation, play, are all enhanced by art. Even science is enhanced by elegant creativity. Art is made possible by a combination of inner aesthetic values (a feature we share with other species) and higher order consciousness (a feature known to exist only in humans) that gives us the capacity to act intentionally. The highly developed human brain is capable of generating complex mental representations including elaborate visual images. Higher order consciousness gives us the capacity to be aware of our own mental representations and also, to be aware that consciousness and mental attributes can exist in others. This provides the impetus to shape matter in such a way that it can convey something of our inner experience to others. The ways in which matter can be shaped for this purpose are myriad. Painting, sculpture, music, and narrative, are categories for artistic expression with a very ancient history. As our technological sophistication increases, more and more categories for artistic expression are added. But regardless of whether the medium is paint, photographic film, or electronic digital information the basic motivation for creative expression lies in our evolved psychology.