Write-Brained: The Origin of Language & the Ancestral Need for Stories

Write Brained: The Neuroscience of Writing

Part 2: The Origin of Language and the Ancestral Need for Stories

In the upcoming entries of my Write-Brained series, I’m going to dive into the question of how the different parts of our brain interact with language. To get there, though, I’m going to take you back into the origin of language itself—and search, briefly, for the purpose of storytelling.

Growth-Spurts of the Human Brain

I specified in my tour of the writer’s mind that we write from our neo-mammalian brain. The neo-mammalian brain is a fairly recent acquisition in the grand scheme of evolutionary history, having come into its own only in the last three or so million years.

The image below looks at some of the fossil record of proto-humans as it relates to brain size.

Image courtesy of Le Journal du Net

Image courtesy of Le Journal du Net

The first “brains” came into existence about 500 million years ago. It was 430 million years later that they evolved into the brains of early primates, and 70 million years after that when the first proto-humans emerged. But the development of the neo-mammalian brain, and especially the frontal lobe, happened within the last 3 million years.  Over the last three million years, cranial capacity in our genetic line has roughly tripled.

To put that into perspective, imagine the history of brains on our planet as a magic tomato plant that you traded your cow for. You plant the seeds at midnight on Monday—which we’ll have correspond to the first life on our planet, 3.5 billion years ago. For six days, you don’t see anything. Then, on Sunday morning at a minute past midnight, the plant sprouts up. That plant continues to grow until, finally, at 8:30pm, the plant bears a fruit the size of a healthy beefsteak tomato. Call it 33 cubic inches in volume; a juicy size, to be sure.

Your magic tomato-brain stays about that size until 11:45, when it vibrates intensely and swells—over the course of just seven minutes—to 100 cubic inches. You now have a prize-winning giant of a tomato that nearly breaks the vines as gravity tugs it earthward. It’s at this “11:52pm” that protohumans utter their first words. Now, the clock is striking midnight again.

So we saw a wild surge of brain growth. But why?

Dimensions of Thought

To understand the purpose of language, we first have to pierce a common misconception. Despite what you may believe, language isn’t about complex thought. Rather, language allows us to think in more simplified ways, translating the world around us into the symbolic medium of words.

208 shades of redEverything in language must boil down to an ultimate yes/no answer; “It was a red butterfly” is possible only if we divide red from other colors and butterflies from other creatures, and thus give a definitive answer (note the root of the word: define) to the questions of “Is it red?” and “Is it a butterfly?”

In truth, red is not a “thing.” It’s an idea that can express a variety of qualities which are part of a flexible range of visual stimuli. In the end, red gains its meaning through similarity to and differences from other color ranges.

This “flattening” of experience also requires thinking expansively, transforming the two-dimensional words into three-dimensional images in our minds. Expanding concepts into images is the act of imagining.

Collapsing and expanding, simplifying and imagining: All this happens in the neo-mammalian brain. Neurologist Paul MacLean describes the neo-mammalian brain as “the mother of invention and father of abstract thought.” That explains why language would require an expansion of this portion of our mental territories, and goes a long way toward explaining our most recent neural growth spurt.

But why would language develop at all? It’s a neat trick for a mammal to learn, but …

Why Bother Talking?

Darwin’s work in The Origin of Species, not to mention countless studies since Darwin, tell us that species develop in ways that aid their survival—and in an immediate sense, the ability to use language (even in thought) does not aid the survival of a mammal. Actually, it sometimes interferes. You don’t get much benefit from saying, “Oh, neat! That looks like a rare breed of tiger coming at me.”

If language lets us simplify concepts, then yes, you can name a butterfly a butterfly. You can even picture a butterfly when someone says the word. But how does that help you live and reproduce? When you’re on your own, it really doesn’t. But humans aren’t on their own. And the reason for that can likely be found in our hips and skulls.

As a caveat, there are numerous theories on the subject of human brain evolution and the reasons for it. This is just the theory that makes the most sense to me. It goes like this:

At some point, our brains saw a slight but notable increase in size, probably due to an increase in nutrients—such as the one we received when we learned how to cook meat, or the one that happened when we left Africa for the greener grasses on the other side of the Mediterranean. When our brains grew, however, so did our skulls (go figure), and it was therefore harder to give birth to a fully developed human child.

There were two simple evolutionary options: Increase the hip width of human females and accommodate giant baby skulls or allow humans to be born before they’re fully developed. We opted for the second, and now humans are born half made.

The Half-Made Species

Unlike most animals, who can survive without assistance from roughly the moment of birth, humans rely on their parents. Human parents must look after the survival of their young as those young continue their cognitive development outside of the womb. Survival is no longer a game of reproducing repeatedly and indiscriminately. It becomes a social game of raising your young, or finding others in your species who can help keep your young protected. Reproductive success must then be balanced with social success.

Baby and Mother

Call this the beginning of society. Within the confines of society, where reproductive success depends on team effort, the ability to simplify ideas—”good,” “bad,” “tasty,” “poison,” “danger”—and even define social roles—”father,” “mother,” “tribal leader,” “self”—becomes an evolutionary advantage.

And then our dilemma spiraled. We needed more neo-mammalian brain and frontal lobe to allow us to protect our half-made children, which in turn increased skull size even more, which in turn led to children being born in even less developed states. Today, the human brain is, at birth, only 27% of the total mass it will be when fully developed (compared with the ~90% of end mass at birth seen in most other mammals). The human mind doesn’t reach full maturity until roughly age 26.

This stage in our evolutionary development led to many of our human peculiarities, including the complex interweaving of sex and love, many of our powerful social urges (such as the need for recognition and affection), and even the fact that we wear clothes.

So why did we bother to talk? Because talking let us work in group-based systems that aided the reproductive success of each member of that group.

The Emergence of Self

Simple ideas (“red fruit bad, make dead”) could be communicated directly, but more complex ideas required more complex constructions of language. When you’re discussing inter-relation, you can’t just say, “Wood go on wood, make building.” It’s more than the relationship of wood and wood. It’s a complex system of relationships that requires precision in craftsmanship.

Language developed in ways that allowed us to talk about abstract concepts—things that didn’t exist in the real world but that were extraordinarily useful in communicating other ideas.

Perhaps the most difficult of all abstractions was a recent addition: the “self.”

Man looking in mirror.

Self, as a removed entity—not merely the seeing but the see-er—may well have been the product of the previously discussed stage of social/societal development. “Self” was useful, because it gave the opportunity for identity, which in turn allowed for social roles. But in the process, we became witness to our own witnessing, and in that reflection became aware of being.

As we named this part of our experience, we gave it weight. Helen Keller talks about the day she first came to an awareness of language. She had, earlier that day, destroyed a doll. As the meaning of words—as the concretes that were bound to the abstract—suddenly gained force in her mind, she felt guilt for the first time. She realized that what she had destroyed was more than a packet of sensations. It was a doll. In breaking it, she had utterly destroyed its doll-ness. In the same way that this understanding of doll-ness gave it weight by giving it boundaries, an understanding of self-ness imbues our own existence with weight.

If the self had no weight, it could function without the need for additional mechanisms. But with self-awareness came the meaning, and the need for meaning, of self. This is where stories play their vital social role.

The Need for Stories

We needed stories that told us what being meant. That told us how we connected to everyone else. That told us how that “self” fit in to the larger picture of the world. All the identifying markers—human, father, mother, teacher, carpenter, hunter, lover—needed stories that integrated them into the larger whole.

Cavemen telling stories.

Image courtesy of Animator Island

In reality, these labels were expansive. They were abstractions that gained meaning through their relation with other ideas, both in what these roles were similar to and how they were different. Stories could help provide those definitions. Stories allowed us to identify ourselves by who we were and who we weren’t. It allowed us to identify and identify with specific social roles. It defined what a “good” self was and what a “bad” self was. From religion to science to ethics to art, much of our modern experience is based on finding stories—factual or fictional—that tell us who we are.

In this scenario, then, the drive to tell stories is an evolutionary adaptation. It is part of what it means, in the most concrete ways, to be human. It’s also part of how we relate to, and even create, the world around us. This is your role as a writer. Whenever someone asks you what you hope to accomplish by being a storyteller—whenever they tell you to consider a career with computers or accounting instead—just let them know that you care more about fulfilling your ancestral destiny: It’s your duty to build the world and help people find their way within it.

The next part of this series will look at how different parts of the brain relate to language and how certain evolutionary functions can make the writer’s job more difficult. Stay tuned and, if you haven’t already, subscribe to the weekly newsletter by joining the Creative Writing Collective.