Workshop on the origins of the symbolic mind

Please see information about this week’s workshop below:

Workshop on the origins of the symbolic mind

Wednesday 16th November 2016
Northfield’s Campus, University of Wollongong
14:00-18:00, Research Hub (19.2072), Building 19

Dates for the first appearances of crucial technological innovations and symbolic material culture are continually being pushed back in time. This trend contradicts the theory that a mutation related to brain function caused a sudden and relatively recent cognitive revolution in our lineage. However, the alternative theory of gradual biological evolution may not fit the archaeological record, either. Traditions within populations are discontinuous in time and space, while independent populations can converge on common practices. Accordingly, there is a growing consensus that changes in the archaeological record of human behavior are better explained by changes in local conditions, such as ecology, demography, and culture.

What does this consensus tell us about the origins of symbolic cognition? Given increasingly older dates for key innovations and the shift in explanatory focus from internal biology to external factors, the mainstream argument is that cognitive modernity must be much older than previously thought. The workshop will critically evaluate the assumed identification of biological continuity with cognitive continuity. It will also consider to what extent cognitive capacities are innate and context independent, and will explore the tensions between such a nativist theory of cognition and recent developments in cognitive science, which emphasize that cognition is scaffolded, extended, and even constituted by behavioral practices. Contributions to this workshop will consider possible explanations of distinctive features of symbolic minds – explanations that may depend not only or mainly on having the right kind of biological capacities but more pivotally on transforming them via interaction with the appropriate culturally created local conditions.

This workshop brings together archaeologists and philosophers working at the University of Wollongong (UOW) to explore the implications of these developments for cognitive archaeology and for cognitive science more generally.


Alex Mackay, Senior Lecturer, ARC DECRA Fellow, Centre for Archaeological Science, UOW
Sam Lin, Lecturer, Centre for Archaeological Science, UOW
Zenobia Jacobs, Professor, ARC QEII Research Fellow, Centre for Archaeological Science, UOW
Tom Froese, Vice Chancellor’s International Scholar, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, UOW
Daniel D. Hutto, Professor of Philosophical Psychology, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, UOW

All welcome.

Seminar: The role of ritualized mind alteration in the origins of the symbolic mind

I have been invited to give a seminar as part of the Biweekly Colloquium of the Graduate School “Human Development in Landscapes” at the University of Kiel, Germany. The seminar will take place this afternoon, 16:00 – 18:00 Uhr; Building and room LS1 – R.204, Leibnizstrasse 1.

The role of ritualized mind alteration in the origins of the symbolic mind: A new perspective from cognitive science

Tom Froese

The potential roles of altered states of consciousness and hallucinations for the early stages of human prehistory have been hotly debated. Recently, this debate has become caught up in disputes about how such altered states could have been induced and what kind of hallucinations might have been experienced. In this article I first sidestep these issues in order to return to the big question of why we might expect such states and experiences to have been important in the first place. I draw on ongoing developments in the cognitive sciences to provide several interdependent reasons for hypothesizing that they played an essential role in the origins and evolution of the symbolic human mind. Finally, I show that this hypothesis is unaffected by current disputes about the potential availability of certain psychoactive substances in prehistoric Africa and Europe.

Selected reading material:

Froese, T. (2013). Altered states and the prehistoric ritualization of the modern human mind. In C. Adams et al. (Eds.), Breaking Convention: Essays on Psychedelic Consciousness (pp. 10-21). London: Strange Attractor Press

Froese, T. (2015). The ritualised mind alteration hypothesis of the origins and evolution of the symbolic human mind. Rock Art Research, 32(1), 90-97

Froese, T., Woodward, A., & Ikegami, T. (2013). Turing instabilities in biology, culture, and consciousness? On the enactive origins of symbolic material culture. Adaptive Behavior, 21(3), 199-214

New commentary on the origins of the symbolic mind

Since the publication of the Turing patterns paper in 2013 I have been involved in several exchanges in order to clarify and expand my ideas. The latest exchange of commentaries has just been published in the Rock Art Research, the official organ of the Australian Rock Art Research Association and the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations.

Helvenston, P. A. (2015a). Psilocybin-containing mushrooms, Upper Palaeolithic rock art and the neuropsychological model. Rock Art Research, 32(1): 84-89

Froese, T. (2015). The ritualised mind alteration hypothesis of the origins and evolution of the symbolic human mind. Rock Art Research, 32(1): 90-97

Helvenston, P. A. (2015b). Suppositions of psilocybin-mushroom incorporation as the main driver of human cognitive and symbolic evolution. Rock Art Research, 32(1): 98-109

At the core of this debate is the question over whether rituals involving altered states of consciousness could have played a role in human prehistory, and whether these states necessarily would have required the presence of certain psychoactive substances, and if these substances would have even been available at the time. In essence, my answers are yes, no, but yes.

In this post I previously remarked about my disagreements with the way in which the commentaries about my work had been presented. But I prefer to advance the scientific debate itself, so I will highlight one aspect of Helvenston’s last response that I find intriguing. She notes how it is difficult to explain the presence of extreme rituals, especially those involving partially disabling substances, from an evolutionary perspective.

This ties in with current debates in the science of religion, which tries to explain costly rituals in a variety of ways such as honest signaling and pro-social psychological effects. I’ve been thinking for a while that it is likely that such rituals would have had to have biologically adaptive advantages from the start, perhaps related to a form of neural self-optimization similar to the model presented in Woodward, Froese and Ikegami (in press). This could be a topic of future work.