The cerebral cortex is the repository of reason and intellect. It is the last area to develop in the growing child, with many higher cortical functions only beginning to appear late in childhood. Comprising the outer portion of the brain, it is also the last area of the brain to have developed throughout the evolution of species. In this sense, human intellectual functions reflect a “higher” state of development. Rational processes include executive function, planning, mental flexibility, working memory, response inhibition, recognition of memory and sustained attention, as well as the more specific thought processes of honesty, curiosity, imagination, skepticism, inquisitiveness, introspection, counterfactual thinking, critical thinking, creative thinking, abstract thinking and symbolic thinking.
Many people say that the human capacity for thought is what most distinguishes us from other species. The rational mind allowed us to develop a complex symbolic language and as humans acquired the skills of science, radio, television and computer technology emerged. Our marvelous cerebral cortex helped us create the machinery to produce a plethora of manufactured products and a complex system to transport them all over the planet. It is the foundation for our various systems of government, by which people seek to gain purposeful and rational control over vast networks of business, industry and finance, whose complexity challenges our ability to govern them. It allows us to see order amid complexity, while creatures of other species cannot begin to appreciate either the order or the complexity. Our architecture, our science, our arts and our histories are products of our human intellect.
Still, the intellect alone cannot give meaning to our lives. It can tell us how to achieve our goals — how to move from one state of affairs to another — by assessing the probable consequences of various courses of action, but alone it cannot tell us what those goals should be. It can tell us the direction we can, may or must travel to realize our ends, but without the emotional mind to value those ends, and process experience, it is lost, and without our activity the rational mind has no empirical basis for evaluating its beliefs, which would only remain hypotheses; not to mention that without the ability to act, mere knowledge would be a comparatively sterile tool. The intellectual mind can rationally assess competing values based on a more-or-less fixed scheme of value comparisons. Yet no matter how many layers of rational analysis we fold back, the question of meaning — the province of the limbic system and midbrain, mainly — will always raise a more fundamental question, a question nearer to the core of our Being and the divine.
We can find a particularly fascinating part of the story of human cognition in art work that is still visible in ancient caves. Without a word, primitive peoples told us how they thought and expressed their ideas.
- David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (Thames & Hudson, 2002).
- Randall White, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind (Henry N. Abrams, 2003).
- David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods (Thames & Hudson, 2005).
- Jean Clottes, Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times (University of Utah Press, 2003).
- Jean Clottes, Return to Chauvet Cave (Thames & Hudson, 2003).
- Ian Hodder, The Leopard's Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Catalhoyuk (Thames & Hudson, 2006).
- Pedro A. Saura Ramos, The Cave of Altamira (Henry N. Abrams, 1999).
- Jean Clottes and Jean Courtin, Cave Beneath the Sea (Henry N. Abrams, 1996).
- Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire, Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave (Henry N. Abrams, 1996
- Paul G. Bahn, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
- Paul G. Bahn, Journey Through the Ice Age (University of California Press, 1997).
- Paul Bahn, Cave Art: A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe (Frances Lincoln, 2007).
- Kirkpatrick Sale, After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination (Duke University Press, 2006).
Reviewing White's book, Ian Tattersall, curator of physical anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York city, concludes: "Deep down, human beings haven't changed one whit since prehistoric times." We have always been thinkers. What has changed most in the past several millennia is that we now have the resources to think in more sophisticated ways.
Documentary and Educational Films
- Cave of Forgotten Dreams, documenting Chauvet Cave, where a primitive people gave the world some of its earliest known art
Technical and Analytical Readings
In the "modern" world, people have been inclined to pit the intellect against the emotions. This way of looking at ourselves will never produce a fully realized way of looking at ourselves or a fully integrated spirituality, but on the contrary will interfere with them both. Only by seeing the intellect, like the emotions, as an indispensable role player in human development can we see it in its proper light. A comparative reading of the following works also tells the story of the ongoing debate over the nature of human cognition.
- Merlin Donald, A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness (W. W. Norton & Co., 2001).
- Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Harvard University Press, 1991).
- Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Viking Adult, 2002).
- Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1998).
- Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness (Oxford University Press, 1994).
- Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (Random House, 1977).
- John Skoyles and Dorian Sagan, Up from Dragons: The Evolution of Human Intelligence (McGraw-Hill, 2002).
God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. [The Bible, Genesis 1:27.]
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Like many composers of his time, François Couperin (1668-1733) wrote cerebral music: pre-Enlightenment, pre-classical (Baroque) compositions with an emphasis on structure and form. His intent was to perfect music by combining the French and Italian styles. [See David Tunley, François Couperin and 'the Perfection of Music' (Ashgate Publishing, 2004).] His Pièces de Clavecin illustrate this effort and are among his pre-eminent works.
Brian Eno, “Neroli” album
- Rembrandt van Rijn, The Philosopher (1600s)