posted 6 June 2003


William H. Calvin, "The evolution of structured thought:  The anthropology and the neurophysiology."  Parmenides Foundation workshop on Elba (1 June 2003). See also

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William H. Calvin 
it's an image, you need to type it, not copy it (spam...)       
 University of Washington



“The evolution of structured thought”
Our brain may have a common way of handling structured stuff, one of the reasons why that some functions might come (and go, in strokes or senility) as a package deal.  The ability to order our thoughts (“I think I saw him leave to go home” is three sentences nested inside a fourth, like Russian dolls) was probably a package deal.  This structured thought package likely brought us not only syntax and contingent planning but also games with rules, gambling, chains of logic, our fascination with discovering hidden patterns in the world around us, and even our ability to appreciate structured music.
     In evolutionary time, package deals most commonly arise via multiple function structures (a concrete example is the curb cut, paid for by wheelchair considerations but used 99% of the time for “free” uses).  Like the use of curb cuts by skateboarders, most of our secondary uses of structured thought circuitry are still full of bugs, just out of beta.  Take logic:  as merchants know all too well, our decision making is easily swayed by the last thing we happen to hear, which often overrides our more rational consideration of the alternatives.  Trying to impose order on chaos, we find patterns where none exist, sometimes imagining voices when it is only the sounds of the wind.  Like Windows, we still hang up (or even crash from seizures).  Lacking a reset button, we seek mind-clearing retreats into a here-and-now mental state when the future prospects start to loop endlessly.
     There is a tendency to view evolution as producing well-tested, efficient processes and structures.  For higher intellectual functions, we might best view them as potentially highly inefficient and buggy, capable of great mischief and mistakes as their technologically-assisted power increases.

the second talk:

Cerebral Circuits for Creativity:
Bootstrapping Coherence using a Darwin Machine

The problem with creativity is not in putting together novel mixtures – a little confusion may suffice – but in managing the incoherence. Things often don’t hang together properly – as in our night­time dreams, full of people, places, and occasions that don’t fit together very well. What sort of on-the-fly process does it take to convert such an incoherent mix into a coherent compound, whether it be an on-target movement program or a novel sentence to speak aloud? The bootstrapping of new ideas works much like the immune response or the evolution of a new animal species — except that the neocortical brain circuitry can turn the Darwinian crank a lot faster, on the time scale of thought and action. Few proposals achieve a Perfect Ten when judged against our memories, but we can subconsciously try out variations, using this Darwin Machine for copying competitions among cerebral codes. Eventually, as quality improves, we become conscious of our new invention.
To order a copy of one of my more recent books, click on a cover for the link to 

A Brain for All Seasons, 2002
A Brain for All Seasons

Lingua ex Machina:  Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (Calvin & Bickerton, 2000)
Lingua ex Machina

The Cerebral Code:  Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996)
The Cerebral Code

How Brains Think:  Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now (1996)
How Brains Think

Conversations with Neil's Brain:  The Neural Nature of Thought and Language (Calvin & Ojemann, 1994)
Conversations with
Neil's Brain

The River That Flows Uphill
The River That
Flows Uphill


The Throwing Madonna:  Essays on the Brain
The Throwing Madonna

copyright ©2003 by William H. Calvin

William H. Calvin
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