A new theory to explain how the spirit borns according to cognitive antropology

Fernando Schwarz (Director Internacional Instituto Hermes)

Culture as engine of evolution.

Since the 80`s theories about the coevolution of nature/culture have borned.

These models assume that the emergence of human skills (language, social intelligence, technique) arise from a dynamic interaction between the brain and its cultural environment. In other words, it is not natural selection and adaptation to the difficulties of the environment that favor the increase of brain capacities, but a progressive evolution of the brain based on an increasingly complex social environment that human beings contribute to create. Based on this model, one can conceive the existence of a social selection, or cultural selection, which adds up or contradicts the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection.

In these coevolution models, the species evolve not to adapt to the natural environment but to do it accordingly to the artificial environment created by the species itself. Since the 2000s, these new explanations about the origin of the human spirit are synthesized in two theories that we can consider adverse or complementary: the social brain and the imaginative brain.

The social brain

According to the English primatologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar, intelligence stems from the number and richness of social interactions. But this theory presents several objections; in the animal world, the size of the groups is not always proportional to the richness of relationships that are established (as is the case with chimpanzees and men). Wolves and jackals form herds of small stature but with very rich and complex social relationships, superior to those of chimpanzees.

Michael Tomasello proposes a variant to the social brain theory. His research is based on the communicative abilities of babies and great apes. Up to the ten months, chimpanzees and humans do not differ in their cognitive development. But a year later, babies begin to actively communicate with others seeking to attract their attention, pointing for example with a finger what interests them. Tomasello describes this ability as “joint attention.” This would be a key element that allows humans to communicate, but also to cooperate, work together, for this we have to have a common purpose. This distinguishes humans from chimpanzees.

The second factor that plays an essential role in the emergence of human cultures is imitation.

Joint attention and imitation are, according to Tomasello, the two pillars of a cumulative culture that is the basis of human culture.

Other primatologists like Christophe Boech think that chimps also have shared attention. But in any case, the two pillars seem important for the conformation of a human culture.

The imaginative brain theory

It arises as an alternative to social brain theory. If human beings have been able to display their cultural capacities in so many domains – language, techniques, art and all creative works – it would be because they all arise from a common capability/power: imagination.

Imagination must be broadly understood: she has the general capacity to produce mental images, that is, deferred representations of reality. Memories, anticipations, inner thoughts are mental images.

It is the Australian psychologist Thomas Suddendorf who launched this theory. He made himself known for his work with Michael Corballis on mental travel. The mental journey in time is a properly human capacity to project oneself mentally in the past or in the future. This is what we usually do during a day when we leave an action to think about the future in order to organize or project ourselves or when we remember a memory. They showed that memory and anticipation are linked. We use blocks of memories to build future scenarios. Conversely, we happen to see the “previous future”: it is the case of regrets and apologies.

Studies confirm that the activation of memories and future projections use the same brain regions. Fundamentally the prefrontal cortex, known for its role in mental planning activities.

The gap that separates humans from animals is observed in six particular domains: language, anticipation (mental time travel), intelligence, culture, morals and the theory of spirit (the ability to read in the thoughts of the other). Imagination would be the common point that links these possibilities between them. It is by relating these capabilities to each other that human cultures would be built.

The imagination and the world of ideas

According to Peter Gardenfors, professor of cognitive sciences, the human line separated from the other primate lines displaying a unique ability: to produce “separate representations” based on the emergence of the imagination as an “idea machine.”

The thesis of the imaginative brain can be summarized as follows: the root of multiple human aptitudes would come from a single cognitive mechanism, the ability to forge “separate representations” that are commonly called mental images that we could simply designate as “ideas.”

Certain animals, such as the elephant, possess this ability to temporarily represent an object in

their absence, but this capacity is confined to narrow limits where appropriate. Nothing indicates during the daily activities of intelligent upper vertebrates, from birds to primates, the existence in them of producing varied and long-term projects. On the other hand, humans since childhood express an extraordinary creativity that is expressed in the language and true or false stories that they love to hear or invent, without talking about the drawings, etc.

Virtual projects born of imagination are not meant to be abstracted from reality. On the contrary they contribute to act on reality, innovate and solve problems.

The appeal of this theory that is not yet fully grounded, is that it can be applied to a series of phenomena of the human spirit: language, art, technique, religion, morals, anticipations that are all based on mental images. And it can also be compatible with the latest research in neurobiology, such as the role of the frontal lobe as a pilot center of complex mental operations, with archaeological discoveries about the combined evolution of techniques, language and new forms of social organization.

The world of images

The word “image” is falsely evident. At first glance, the image is a drawing, a painting, a photo, a film, etc. That is, the graphic representation of a real or fictional being on a flat surface: wall, paper or screen.

But undoubtedly it must integrate into the world of images, representations in three dimensions, such as that of a sculpture for example or that of a dummy in a stained glass window that is also an image.

We should not exclude from this world the plans, geographical charts, schemes such as those used to assemble a piece of furniture.

The word “image” also serves to designate the “self image” or the “brand image”, which corresponds to our visual appearance (clothing) and that integrates the accessories (jewelry, tattoos, car…) that are used to put on stage and participate in our reputation. In this broad sense of the “public image”, written information such as a curriculum vitae or oral information such as a rumor can be integrated.

The word “image” is used with respect to certain linguistic expressions, to designate metaphors: “my treasure”, “my sunbeam”…

Finally the word “image” forwards us to mental images, these internal representations where dreams, memories, ghosts, hallucinations and all forms of mental projection that make up our “inner film” are mixed.

The four possible fields of the power of imagination (Godelier)

1- It allows us to represent “realities” that no longer exist, or that do not exist, or exist elsewhere, or that perhaps exist, or never exist…

2- It allows us to represent facts, situations, characters of which we were never witnesses and that others have reported to us: neighbors, relatives, journalists, teachers, etc. And we do the same with others. So what is the credit we can give to these stories? What part of truth?

3- It takes us towards “what is / is behind”. The facts, the words, the acts lead us to suspect that behind appearances, there would be “something else” that would be the unknown reason and the explanation of what is apparent, visible, known.

4 – It allows, when circumstances demand it or the context makes it possible, to think or act differently, to look for other alternative ways to reach a certain objective.

Reality or all that really exists is a product of the indissoluble union of the material and “devised” components (in French a neologism an “ideel”: the real intellectual, mental; concepts, ideas, intellectual realities, moral faculties, laws) that in different degrees produce relations between men and men and nature.

A broad definition of the imagination

Imagination can be defined as the ability to build images but that they also make sense. It is at the heart of the representation process that leads to the knowledge of things.

In this process the association of images plays an essential role: it is the power to connect things without any apparent relationship between them, which allows the construction of meaning.

It is a creative faculty that allows you to anticipate, foreshadow, see without seeing.

Without anticipation, therefore without imagination that allows to rise above the real, there is no possible knowledge. Imagination verticalizes consciousness and elevates the soul.

In the beginning was the mental image

From the Bible it was thought that in the beginning the Verb was the origin of creation and what makes man human.

Since the 2000s, cognitive anthropology affirms that imagination would be the key factor of humanization by proposing the theory of “imaginative animal” and affirming that mental images are the common source of language, of technical abilities, of art, but also of the new ways of living in society based on common projects. Which leads us to think that in the beginning was the mental image.

Jean Paul Sartre in the 1930s demonstrates that our “mental images” are not within thought but from one side to another of thought. After having demonstrated that imagining is a function that can be described as a constitutive structure of the essence of consciousness, it concludes that imagination is consciousness in its entirety since it is it that realizes its own freedom and reveals itself as constitution and destruction of the world.

We have all experienced this theory intuitively. Let us represent for a moment the image of the Eiffel tower or a favorite character or monument. Nothing simpler, we will quickly be visualizing the image convened in thought. However, none of the objects or characters were present to serve as a model, it was enough to summon them with the thought. These separate representations of all direct perception are what we call “mental images.”

The imagination in a broad sense can be defined as “the ability to create images in the brain independently (separate) from all perceptual stimuli.”

Mental images are the support of conscious memories, they can also be requested to anticipate and also express scenarios, hypotheses and virtual actions that help us plan activities or solve theoretical or practical problems.

In Western tradition, creative imagination was considered a pole opposite to reason. Today this separation does not take place; the philosophers of science rehabilitate the imagination as a tool of knowledge, necessary to the creation of scientific theories. Childhood psychologists show that imagination is also a way to explore reality and not run away from it. Imagination and thinking experiences (reason), serve to conceive action plans and solve problems.

Relationship between thought and language

If, as it was believed, language was the foundation of thought, aphasic people should suffer a decrease in their intellectual abilities. However, the observations show the opposite: most aphasic people are able to anticipate reason and undertake complex cognitive activities such as playing chess. These cognitive abilities rest on the mobilization of mental images, dissociated (unlinked) from language. Everything seems to indicate that the mental image precedes the verb.

Technical intelligence cannot do without mental images. All the objects that surround us have been mentally conceived before they exist specifically. It was already the case at the time of Homo erectus: the manufacture of the bifaces presupposes acting taking into account the shape of the object before carrying it out. The idea preexists the object.

Artistic creation also presupposes the mobilization of mental images. The representations of animals in the walls of the caverns are not apparent copies of reality. The artists who painted them at the bottom of a cave made them from their memories, composing a scene that is not a picture of reality but a mental reconstruction. The prehistoric artist did not paint what he saw but what he knew.

Human cultures assume the existence of mental representations such as the great collective ideals, to which other mental images are added, such as group work that involves setting goals, intentions, common goals and shared knowledge; Exchanges and transactions involve promises and threats; Every community life needs rules and norms, prescriptions and prohibitions that rest on imaginary scenarios (“you will not steal”, “you will not make adultery”). Individuals regulate their behaviors through social roles and identities (male or female model, professional model, etc.) that are stereotyped images. To legitimize a power, what better than to invoke invisible spirits: divinities, ancestors, promises or threats.

Another argument, of a neurobiological nature, confirms the “imaginative animal” theory. It rests on the existence in the human brain of a brain area especially dedicated to the creative imagination: the pre frontal cortex. It is this area, located just behind the forehead that differentiates the human brain from the other primates. The pre frontal cortex is in connection with all other brain areas: the occipital area specialized in vision, the parietal area, responsible for motor skills, the limbic system, seat of emotions, the hippocampus, memory headquarters, etc. The pre frontal cortex acts as a general coordinator, responsible for the most complex and creative activities.

The formation of the noosphere

The noosphere according to the thought of Vladimir Vernadsky and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, designates the “sphere of human thought”. The word derives from the Greek “noüs”, spirit and “sphaira” sphere. It is the set of living beings endowed with intelligence. The dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy defines it as the “set of intelligent beings in relation to the environment in which they live.”

Imagination, in the most general sense of creating mental images, is therefore the basis of a multitude of derived, specifically human, aptitudes: language, art, techniques and collective representations. Imagination provides either the mental images that make possible the formation of a world of ideas, or the “noosphere” that includes religions, with their invisible spirits, ideologies and their values, science with its abstract models.

The production of mental images is the source of our intimate thoughts. This mental production that William James called the “flow of consciousness” is that inner film/movie that works permanently from day to night, in the form of inner thoughts, dreams or dreams.

You cannot oppose the real to the imaginary, to the symbolic. Everything that is thought, manufactured and acted by human beings cannot be thought without symbolic support. The symbolic is found in everything that is thought, produced and acted.

Everything that is thought is imagined, but everything imagined is not imaginary. The imagined can be a virtual or unreal reality, like games, or real transformed into social, material or symbolic realities.

The imagination has metamorphosed the human species. Although we do not know scientifically how it has been produced, it is she who launched an unprecedented trajectory regarding the other primate species. Thanks to the imaginative power, human beings began to anticipate, to create, to speak and invent new ways of life in society.

Graphic images, drawings, paintings, sculptures, are only one of the manifestations among other mental images: they gave birth to words, tools, shared knowledge, divinities and invisible beings, ideals and projects common.


Jean-François Dortier, L’homme cet étrange animal. Aux origines du langage, de la culture et de la pensée, 2004, Ed. Sciences Humanes, 2012
Peter Gärdenfors, Comment Homo est devenu sapiens. Sur l’évolution de la pensée, Ed. Sciences Humaines, 2007
Maurice Godelier, L’imaginé, l’imaginaire et le symbolique, Ed. CNRS Paris, 2015
Jean Paul Sartre, Dans l’imagination, Ed. Poche, PUF, 2012
Mark Turner, The Literary Mind, Oxford, University Press, 1996