Concept combination and the origins of complex cognition
- Publication Type:
- Origins of Mind, 2013, pp. 361 - 381
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At the core of our uniquely human cognitive abilities is the capacity to see things from different perspectives or to place them in a new context. We propose that this was made possible by two cognitive transitions. First, the large brain of Homo erectus facilitated the onset of recursive recall: the ability to string thoughts together into a stream of potentially abstract or imaginative thought. This hypothesis is supported by a set of computational models where an artificial society of agents evolved to generate more diverse and valuable cultural outputs under conditions of recursive recall. We propose that the capacity to see things in context arose much later, following the appearance of anatomically modern humans. This second transition was brought about by the onset of contextual focus: the capacity to shift between a minimally contextual analytic mode of thought and a highly contextual associative mode of thought conducive to combining concepts in new ways and “breaking out of a rut.” When contextual focus is implemented in an art-generating computer program, the resulting artworks are seen as more creative and appealing. We summarize how both transitions can be modeled using a theory of concepts which highlights how different contexts shift the interpretation of a single concept.
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