Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It

Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It

by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

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"A stimulating history of how the imagination interacted with its sibling psychological faculties—emotion, perception and reason—to shape the history of human mental life."—The Wall Street Journal

To imagine—to see what is not there—is the startling ability that has fueled human development and innovation through the centuries. As a species we stand alone in our remarkable capacity to refashion the world after the picture in our minds.
Traversing the realms of science, politics, religion, culture, philosophy, and history, Felipe Fernández-Armesto reveals the thrilling and disquieting tales of our imaginative leaps—from the first Homo sapiens to the present day. Through groundbreaking insights in cognitive science, Fernández-Armesto explores how and why we have ideas in the first place, providing a tantalizing glimpse into who we are and what we might yet accomplish. Unearthing historical evidence, he begins by reconstructing the thoughts of our Paleolithic ancestors to reveal the subtlety and profundity of the thinking of early humans. A masterful paean to the human imagination from a wonderfully elegant thinker, Out of Our Minds shows that bad ideas are often more influential than good ones; that the oldest recoverable thoughts include some of the best; that ideas of Western origin often issued from exchanges with the wider world; and that the pace of innovative thinking is under threat. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520377509
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/06/2020
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 615,523
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is an award-winning historian and the author of several bestselling books, including 1492Ideas that Changed the World, and The Americas. He lives in Indiana and is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

Read an Excerpt


Mind Out of Matter

The Mainspring of Ideas

I feel guilty, now that he is dead, because I could never bring myself to like him. Edgar was a senior colleague, to whom, when I was young, I had to defer. He had become a professor when universities were expanding unrestrainedly and jobs multiplied faster than the talent to fill them: competence rather than excellence and indifference rather than vocation were enough. Edgar concealed his inferiority behind complacency and self-congratulation. He bullied his students and patronized his peers. One of the ways in which he enjoyed annoying me was by deprecating my beloved dog. 'Imagine', he would say, 'how little goes on in that pea-sized brain – incapable of thought, just responding to nasty little stimuli from the scent of mouldering scraps and whiffs of other dogs' urine.'

'You can see how unintelligent he is', Edgar added, whenever the dog disobliged him by ignoring his commands.

Secretly and silently, I suspected that Edgar comforted himself by comparison with the dog only because his own mind would be wanting by any other standard. Gradually, however, I came to realize that his attitude reflected common prejudices and fallacies about the way we think. We humans tend to class ourselves as more intelligent than other species, even though the intelligences in question are of such different orders as to make any comparison largely meaningless: it would be no more intelligent, in a dog, to waste time devising an algorithm than for a human to sniff for a mate. We mistake for dumbness what is really dissent from or incomprehension of our priorities. My disappointment atmy dog's unresponsiveness to my efforts to make him fetch for me, for instance, is, from his perspective, no more puzzling than my neglect of old bones or my inability to detect an interesting spoor. We call animals intelligent when they do our bidding, whereas if we encountered the same subservience in fellow humans we should despise it as evidence of lack of initiative or critical thought.

The matter is beyond proof, but a lifetime's observation of my own family's dogs has convinced me that they discriminate between commands on rational calculations of interest. Ivan Pavlov thought canine behaviour was conditioned – which, like rare instances of human behaviour, it sometimes is; but dogs defy expectations when they try to solve doggy problems, rather than humanly designed puzzles: problems, that is, conceived not to interest us but to involve them. I once saw my dog, for instance, devise a new squirrel-catching strategy, after many unsuccessful experiments, by stationing himself at right angles to the path between two trees at a point equidistant from both. The plan did not yield a squirrel, but it was, by any standards, intelligently thought out. In his own way, for his own purposes, as two of the most dedicated researchers on canine intelligence say, 'Your dog is a genius.' René Descartes decided that his dog had no more thought or feeling than a machine (and supposedly concluded that he could punish him without moral qualms); the dog, I suspect, recognized Descartes, by contrast, as a sentient, ratiocinative fellow-being. If so, which of the two showed more common sense or practical wisdom?

As with intelligence, most other ways of trying to measure humans' distance from other animals in capacities we share with them are doomed to failure. The claim that we have a special property of consciousness remains just a claim, because there is no satisfactory way of seeing that deeply into other creatures' minds. To know that humans are uniquely sensitive or empathetic, or existentially intuitive, or aware of time, or gifted by God or nature with a peculiar, privileged faculty – such as a 'language acquisition device', or an aesthetic tic, or a moral sense, or a discriminating power of judgement, or an eternally redeemable rational soul, or a meta-mental level of thinking about thinking, or an unparalleled skill in inference capable of deducing universals from instances, or any of the other supposed possessions that humans congratulate themselves on collectively monopolizing – we would need to be able to talk it over with fellow-creatures in other species, or else craft objective tests that have so far eluded our efforts.

All that observation and experiment can guarantee, so far, is that humans' endowment of creative and imaginative mental properties that we share with other animals is palpably, visibly, stunningly enormous. It is proper to ask why and how the divergences in quantity arise, whether or not one suspects differences in quality, too.

This book is about what I think is the most conspicuous such divergence. Humans do exceed dogs and, as far as we know, all other animals, in ability of a peculiar and, to us, exciting and rewarding kind: the power to grasp (and even in some abnormally ingenious humans to generate) the imagined acts (or products of such acts) that we call ideas. The creativity gap between human animals and the rest is vastly greater than that in, say, tool use or self-awareness or theory of mind or effectiveness in communication. Only a human – I want to say – can imagine a canine Bach or a simian Poe or a 'literally' reptilian Plato or a cetacean Dostoevsky who insists that two times two might be five. I am not fully authorized to say so, because a chimp or a dog or a bacillus may secretly harbour such imaginings; but if so, he or it does nothing about it, whereas humans declare their fantasies and project them onto the world, sometimes with revolutionary effects. With peculiar frequency and intensity, we can picture the world to ourselves differently from the way it looks, or responds to our senses. When that happens, we have an idea, as I understand the word.

The results of this capacity are startling, because we often go on to refashion the world in whatever way we have pictured it. Therefore we innovate more than any other species; we devise more ways of life, more diversity of culture, more tools and techniques, more arts and crafts, and more outright lies than other animals. A human can hear a note and compose a symphony; see a stick and turn it mentally into a missile; survey a landscape and envision a city; taste bread and wine and sense the presence of God; count and leap to infinity and eternity; endure frustration and conceive perfection; look at his chains and fancy himself free. We do not see similar outcomes from fancies other animals may have.

Anyone who wants to apply the words 'intelligence' or 'reason' to the faculty that enables ideas can, of course, do so. But the word that best denotes it is surely 'imagination' or perhaps 'creativity'. The degree to which humans are, as far as we know, uniquely creative seems vast by comparison with any of the other ways in which we have traditionally been said to excel other animals. So the first questions for a history of ideas are, 'Where does active, powerful, teeming imagination come from?' and, 'Why are humans peculiarly imaginative animals?'

The questions have been strangely neglected, perhaps in part because of an unsatisfactory assumption: that imagination is just a cumulative product of intensive thinking and needs no special explanation (see p. 10). The nearest thing in the available literature to an evolutionary account of the origins of imagination credits sexual selection: imaginative behaviour, so goes the theory, is conspicuous exhibitionism, likely to attract mates – the human equivalent of unfolding a peacock's tail. At most, the theory locates imagination in a class of evolved faculties, but fails to account for it: if imagination belongs among the results of sexual selection it occupies a pretty lowly place, compared with physical attractions and practical considerations. If only mental musculature were sexier than a six-pack, or a poet more recommendable as a mate than a plumber! I recall a story about one of Henry Kissinger's mistresses who reportedly said, when her sexual taste was questioned, 'Why have a body that can stop a tank when you can have a brain that can stop a war?' I make no comment on her judgement, her sincerity, or her representative value.

Neuroscientists, who like to make their own peacock-displays of brain scans, associating thoughts of every kind with neuronal activity, have not been able to trap a creature at a moment of especially imaginative thinking. In any case, brain scanning has limited powers of explanation: electrical and chemical changes in the brain show that mental events are happening, but are at least as likely to be effects as causes. I do not mean that neurological evidence is contemptible: it helps us know when memory, for instance, is active, and helps us track constituents or ingredients of imagination at work. At present, however, no scientific narrative recounts satisfactorily how humans became imaginatively supercharged.

If we want to understand how humans generate the ideas that are the subject of this book, one good way of starting is by comparing our relevant resources with those of other animals: it can be no more than a starting point because humans are at least as different from all other animals as every nonhuman species is from all the others. But, in the absence of angels and extraterrestrials, the creatures with whom we share the planet are our obvious subjects. Our usual assumptions about the relative excellence of humans' equipment are not entirely false, but the comparison, as we shall see, is less to our advantage than we commonly suppose. For present purposes I focus on the brain, not because I think mind and brain are synonymous or coterminous but because the brain is the organ in which our bodies register thoughts. Ideas may exist outside the material universe, but we have to look at the brain for evidence that we have them. As we study the evidence, a paradox will emerge: some of our relative deficiencies of brainpower contribute to making us richly imaginative, and therefore abundantly productive of ideas.

Evolution is an inescapable part of the background. Ideas, as far as we can tell at present, are probably psychic, not organic or material. Except for people who believe in 'memes' (the 'units of culture' Richard Dawkins dreamed up to behave like genes) ideas are not themselves subject to evolutionary laws. But they work with our bodies: our brains process and manage them, our limbs and digits and muscles and speech organs apply and communicate them. Everything we do with our thoughts, and a fortiori with ideas, which are thoughts of a special kind or special order, has to deploy the equipment that evolution has given us.

In the pages that follow I intend to argue that evolution has endowed us with superabundant powers of anticipation, and relatively feeble memories; that imagination issues from the collision of those two faculties; that our fertility in producing ideas is a consequence; and that our ideas, in turn, are the sources of our mutable, volatile history as a species.


One of Edgar's widely shared fallacies was his conviction that the bigger your brain, the better you think. I once read that Turgenev had an almost uniquely big brain, whereas Anatole France had an almost uniquely small one. I no longer recall where I learned this and have no means of verifying it, but se non è vero è ben trovato: both writers were great geniuses. Women have bigger brains, on average and relative to body size, than men; Neanderthals had bigger brains than Homo sapiens; Palaeolithic people exceeded moderns in the dimensions of their brains. Will anyone aver that these differences correspond to differences in power of thought? A few years ago, on the island of Flores in Indonesia, archaeologists discovered the remains of a creature with a brain smaller than a chimpanzee's, but with a toolkit comparable to what one might expect to find in excavations of our own ancestors of about forty thousand years ago, whose brains were, on average, bigger than ours.

Big brains are not necessary to big thoughts: a microchip is big enough to do most of what most people's brains can achieve. Human brains are almost as much of an encumbrance as an amenity: to emulate the microchip they need more nourishment, process more blood, and use up a lot more energy than is necessary. As far as we know, most brain cells are dormant for most of the time. Neuroscientists have speculated about the purpose of the apparently inert astrocytes that vastly outnumber the measurably functional neurons – but no consensus has emerged on what most brain-volume is for or whether it is for anything at all.

The size of human brains is not, therefore, a necessary condition for human-style thinking, but is probably what evolutionary jargon calls a 'spandrel' – a by-product of the evolution of the faculties that equip us to think. Most of the human brain, to put it bluntly, is probably functionless junk, like tonsils and appendixes. To say that it would not be there unless it were useful – only we do not know how – is obviously fallacious or else an expression of over-confidence in the efficiency of evolution, which, as Darwin acknowledged, perhaps in an unguarded moment, is no more consistently targeted than the wind.

It is not hard to see how humans' brains might have become bigger than they would be if a conscious and competent designer were at work. Diet conditions brain growth: fruit is more nourishing and more demanding for foragers than leaves, and meat more so than fruit. As the most omnivorous of apes, our ancestors needed and nourished the biggest brains. Or they may have added brain cells in order to live in larger groups than most other creatures. The bigger your group, the more data you have to handle; rather than starting over and designing a brain fit for purpose, nature grows the brain you already have, stuffing your skull with cortex, multiplying folds and caruncles, extruding lobules. That is perhaps why brain size among apes (though not primates generally) is roughly proportionate to group size. Advantages accrue: in consequence, more neurons can interact in our brains than in those of other species; but more efficient compression could contrive the same effect. By other animals' standards, we have brains with a lot more room for thought; but all the functions we can identify – by seeing, for instance, what people can no longer do if parts of their brains fail or are excised – are part of the equipment of various species. Brain size, in short, helps explain why we do more thinking than other apes, but not why we do thinking of a different order.

The Galactic Overview

Instead, therefore, of complimenting ourselves for our big brains, or congratulating ourselves on the superiority of human intelligence, it may be helpful to focus on the exact cerebral functions or instances of intelligent behaviour in which our species seems peculiarly well endowed or most adept.

We have to face an immediate difficulty: most humans do not do much thinking. 'Oh', they implicitly echo Keats, 'for a life of sensation, not of thought!' Usually, humans' brains are seriously under-employed. Most of us leave others to do our thinking for us and never have thoughts beyond those that outsiders have put into our heads: hence the success of advertising and propaganda. Imitation, repetition, and follow-the-leader may, by some standards, be classed as intelligent behaviour. Why not obey the tyrant who feeds you? Why not ape those apparently wiser or stronger than yourself? For limited purposes, such as survival in a hostile environment, or ease in more amenable circumstances, these may be well-chosen strategies. But domesticated non-humans show plenty of intelligence of that kind – the fawning hound, the submissive sheep. If we want to identify uniquely human thinking we have to focus on the large minority of humans who do a lot of it: those who are responsible for the big, conspicuous differences between our lives and those of other creatures.

To understand what those differences are, we need to shift perspective. Difference-spotting is almost entirely a matter of perspective. If, for example, I ask members of one of my classes at the University of Notre Dame to identify the differences between classmates, they will point to small and often trivial details: Maura has more freckles than Elizabeth; Billy always wears long sleeves, whereas Armand is always in a T-shirt. Xiaoxing is a year younger than everyone else. An outsider, looking at the class with a degree of objectivity unattainable from the inside, will see the big picture and approach the question impersonally, looking for classifiable differences. 'Forty per cent are male', he or she will say, 'and the rest female. Most of your students are white, but three have features that look East Asian, two look as if they have South Asian origin, and two are black. The roster seems to have a surprisingly large number of names of Irish origin', and so on. Both perspectives yield true observations, but for present purposes we want data of the kind more easily visible to the outsider. To spot the big peculiarities of human thinking, compared with that of other animals, we have to try for a similar degree of objectivity.


Excerpted from "Out of Our Minds"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Felipe Fernández-Armesto.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface and Acknowledgments

1. Introduction
2. Travel, Exploration, and Occupation
3. Living and Dying
4. Drives, Emotions, and Moods
5. Things, Sounds, and Spectacles
6. Communicating and Commanding
7. Charisma,Cannabis, and Crossing Africa:
Explorers in the Land of Friendship
8. Making Knowledge: The Senses and Cognition
9. Making Sense: Knowledge and Understanding
10. Presence and Representation
11. Epilogue

Appendix: Expeditions

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