IDEAS, INTUITION AND THINKING

 

Ideas and innovations

start with questions that challenge existing practices and beliefs

  

This website studies how people think and develop ideas. The ideas in this website might change your ideas on how people think.

  

The human brain did not evolve to think or to innovate.

  

It evolved to do the opposite.

  

The Basic Mechanism of the Brain

The human brain evolved to have things worked out in advance. It evolved to recognise situations and produce automatic responses. It evolved to produce behaviours that were necessary for survival. There was no evolutionary pressure to evolve conscious, speculative thought.
To do its job the human brain evolved to use the same Basic Mechanism that all brains and nervous systems use:
the scenario - a pre-existing memory record of a set of conditions which, when recognised, produces an automatic response.
The first nervous systems evolved in multi-celled organisms billions of years ago to pass signals from one part of the organism to another part. Scenarios embedded in the nervous system recognised the signals and initiated the matching response, producing consistent behaviours of the species and the individual. 
The first major function of scenarios was internal co-ordination of all parts of a complex organism to produce an action or behaviour. 
The second major function was co-ordination of external interactions between the organism and its environment.

  

Why did brains evolve?

As species evolved more complex behaviours, brains evolved as the means of expanding the capacity to store more scenarios and as a “control centre” that improved the co-ordination of the body.
A critical step in the evolution of complex organisms was the evolution of limbs. Limbs expanded the range of behaviours. Species with limbs have brains and conversely, species with brains have limbs, indicating that as organisms and their lifestyles became more complex, brains became necessary to store more information and better co-ordinate the body’s actions.

  

From instinct to intuition – the origins of conscious short term memory

The first species with brains acquired their scenarios as instinctive responses hard wired at birth. Instinctive behaviours have to evolve through the same slow evolutionary processes as physical characteristics. When conditions changed, instinctive behaviours that no longer suited the conditions made those species vulnerable to extinction.
Elimination of individuals lacking the ability to adapt behaviours to changing conditions evolved species with brains that had the ability to modify and learn behaviours.
Every animal species with a brain has some degree of ability to modify an automatic response produced by a scenario to specific conditions, or to learn new behaviours. The behaviours of some species are mainly instinctive, some mainly learned. The human brain evolved perhaps the greatest capacity for modifying and learning behaviours. Because modification and development of behaviours was a non-conscious process, individuals were not aware where their solutions came from – I call them intuitions.
In this shift from instinctive to intuitive behaviours there was no change in how the brain delivered behaviours. They were still delivered without the need for conscious thought as fast, automatic responses produced from a scenario that had been activated by the situation. Conscious processes intervened only to monitor whether the automatic response suited the specific circumstances and modify it to make it a better fit.
The main change was in how brains acquired their scenarios. Instead of inheriting instinctive behaviours at birth, humans learned behaviours by observing the practices of the group in which they grew up. Their brains absorbed them without conscious thought as scenarios ready to be activated when similar situations recurred and to produce automatic responses.
The human brain did not evolve to work out more effective solutions by applying logic and conscious thought. The scenarios that human ancestors absorbed were traditions passed down through generations that had proved their effectiveness by the survival of those from whom they were learned. Behaviours that did not work were eliminated with the demise of those who used them.

  

Why did humans evolve a large brain?

The hunter gatherer lifestyle that human ancestors developed over millions of years required a greater range of behaviours than any other lifestyle. The use of external objects as tools and weapons also expanded the range of behaviours, as well as requiring a high degree of precision in their use.
The pressure on human ancestors was for a larger brain to store a greater range of scenarios to give fast, automatic reactions precisely pitched to specific circumstances that made them more effective hunters and gatherers.

  

There was no pressure to consciously think of innovations

The lack of evidence of innovation in the archaeological record has long puzzled scientists. For millions of years prior to the domestication of plants and animals 10,000 years ago, the main innovation of the large brain was to chip pieces of stone to shape them for use as tools or weapons.
Modern humans with the modern brain and the shape of chin and throat that indicates they were able to speak were walking around in Africa at least 170,000 years ago. Their main innovations were better stone tools. Modern humans continued to live as hunter gatherers in the Stone Age for the next 160,000 years.

  

The central issues of this website

The change in lifestyle 10,000 years ago forced humans to relinquish their traditional hunter gatherer practices. For the first time in millions of years they had to consciously think up completely new practices for new lifestyles. 
To do that, humans had to change how they used the brain, the second of three major changes in the use of the brain that defined the shift from apes 6 million years ago to modern, complex human societies.
Conscious short term memory had evolved as a tiny peripheral function of the human brain that enabled humans to modify their behaviours by:
  • modifying automatic responses of existing scenarios to improve the precision of their fit with the specific circumstances and
  • working out new ways of handling situations when existing scenarios did not fit.

  

When humans began to use short term memory to consciously think up new behaviours, 
  • they began to use the brain in ways the brain did not evolve to be used.
  • different human groups have used the brain in different ways to produce different kinds of societies and cultures that produce different political and economic outcomes in the modern world.

  

When humans domesticated plants and animals 10,000 years ago they domesticated themselves. Settling on land to farm crops produced settlements, which became towns, then the first cities 6,000 years ago. That was when the development of complex societies began in earnest. If we accept Descartes definition of Being – I think, therefore I am – that was the time that humans came into Being.
Not only were humans using their brains in unnatural ways, the societies they were creating were also unnatural. For the first time in human history they created:
  • clusters of population that were many times larger than the bands in which humans had evolved for millions of years
  • wealth and a range of possessions
  • economies in which humans traded a range of goods that had never previously existed

  

The development of complex human societies over the past 6,000 years raises many questions:
Why did political power in almost all complex societies gravitate to a few people?  
In every economic system developed by humans, why have a few people accumulated a disproportionate percentage of the wealth generated by the economy?    
Why has religion been universal in those complex societies?
In the modern world, why are a few countries far more economically successful and politically stable than the majority of countries?  
Why do distinctive cultures persist through centuries, even if they demonstrably fail to provide satisfactory lifestyles for the majority of their populations?  

  

The Basic Mechanism still shows up

The Basic Mechanism of the brain evolved to preserve automatic, expert hunter gatherer behaviours from generation to generation. 
The conservative nature of the Basic Mechanism of the brain kept humans in the Stone Age for millions of years. 
It continued to inhibit innovation for most of the 6,000 years during which humans have been experimenting with complex societies, until the effects of the third major change in the use of the brain began to show up in recent centuries in the innovations that led to the modern world.
In the modern world it preserves cultural behaviours and attitudes from generation to generation. It is the source of intuitions, hunches and "gut feelings" that are based on observations accumulated in the brain, absorbed with little or no conscious thought or awareness that we call “experience”.

  

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Neuroscientists have found that people with damage to their short term memory can still learn. It takes them longer and they can only learn behaviours, not facts. Because it is not a conscious process, they cannot explain how they do it –

  

This points to a natural process that enables the brain to non-consciously observe and absorb how things are done that evolved long before there were facts, when there were only behaviours to observe.

In the C17th Descartes questioned how his mind had obtained its beliefs.

When he described them as “opinions that had crept into my belief without having been introduced by Reason”, he also described the Basic Mechanism of the brain.