Why Playing “House” as a Kid Is What Separates Us From the Animals

The state of the universe.
March 3 2014 11:38 AM

What Separates Us From the Animals?

Our imaginations. And having friends with imaginations.

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Our ancestors discovered that they could dramatically improve the accuracy of their mental scenarios by increasingly connecting their minds to others. We give each other advice—for instance, by posting signs about the possible presence of crocodiles. We can broadcast our imaginary play not only throughout our own system but to others around us. We exchange our ideas and give feedback. We ask others, and we inform them—for instance, by recounting what it was like when we were in a similar situation. We take an interest even without knowing whether anything important or useful comes of it. There are individual differences in how much an interest people display in what certain others have to say, but we are generally driven to wire our minds to those around us. Our expectations and plans are subsequently a lot better than they could have been if we didn’t listen. It is generally good advice to consider advice—preferably from a variety of sources before making up your own mind.

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Nested scenario builders can benefit from cooperating with other scenario builders in many other ways. For instance, our audience can be recruited for common goals. We can hatch complex plans, divide labor, and pledge cooperation. We can accumulate our achievements and pass them on to the next generation. To ensure all this happens, we appear to be hardwired with an insatiable urge to connect our minds.

Primates are social creatures, and evidence that social pressures have driven the evolution of primate intelligence is mounting. Humans have taken this sociality to another level. Unlike other primates, children sob to attract attention and sympathy. We ask what’s wrong and try to make things better. We look each other in the eye, share what’s on our minds, and absorb what is on the other’s. This urge to connect must have been crucial to the establishment of signs and words that allow us to effectively read others’ minds and express our own.

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As Michael Tomasello and colleagues have demonstrated, we make and pursue shared goals where our closest animal relatives do not. Even 2-year-old children outperform great apes on tasks of social learning, communication, and intention reading. Other animals may give alarm calls and food calls but otherwise do not show many signs of a drive to share their experience and knowledge with others. Again, in all six domains this cooperative drive is evident and plays a significant role. Language is the primary means by which we exchange our minds. We talk to each other about the past and make plans about the future. We read and tell each other what is on our minds. We reason and solve problems collectively. We build social narratives that explain the world around us. We teach, and we learn from each other. And we argue about what is right and what is wrong. These examples serve to remind us how pervasive the urge to connect is. Those who lack this drive have severe social difficulties (and may be diagnosed as autistic). Our urge to connect was essential for the creation of cumulative cultures that shape our minds and endow us with our awesome powers.

Our capacity for nested scenario building even allows us, drawing on past experiences, to imagine others’ advice internally. (Hearing voices is quite normal. Relax. The trouble starts when you attribute these internal voices to external sources.) So you might ask yourself what your mother would have said about the situation you find yourself in. We care about whether our parents, friends, heroes, or gods would be proud of what we do, even if they no longer exist (or never did). We can consider what others might remember us for. These thoughts can be important drivers motivating us to go beyond satisfying immediate personal self-interests in pursuit of “higher” notions of honor, valor, and glory.

We might aspire to nobility in character and virtue in action. We can invest heavily in unselfish actions, such as fighting oppression or pollution or helping a club, a person, or an animal. When we take on a cause, we seem to become part of something bigger and from such endeavors may derive some of the deepest feeling of meaning. One of the most remarkable things about humans is that we can strive to make some kind of difference. We may deliberately practice random acts of kindness, spread the word, fight injustice, teach the next generation, or start a revolution. Without the urge to connect our minds, such traits could not exist.

In sum, nested scenario building and the drive to link our scenario-building minds turned ape qualities into human qualities. They created powerful feedback loops that dynamically changed much of the human condition. They carried us where other animals could not go.

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Adapted from The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us From Other Animals by Thomas Suddendorf, out now from Basic Books.

Thomas Suddendorf is a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland and the author of The Gap.

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