In this paper, we examine the role of materiality in human cognition. We address issues such as the ways in which brain functions may change in response to interactions with material forms, the attributes of material forms that may cause change in brain functions, and the spans of time required for brain functions to reorganize when interacting with material forms. We then contrast thinking through materiality with thinking about it. We discuss these in terms of their evolutionary significance and history as attested by stone tools and writing, material forms whose interaction endowed our lineage with conceptual thought and meta-awareness of conceptual domains.
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A similar analysis of the other writing systems thought to represent independent invention—those of Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica—has not been performed. Thus, they cannot presently be quantified in terms of the length of time needed to realize literacy. However, all four independent origins (the three mentioned plus Mesopotamia) were similar in being bureaucratic states, implying a similar production demand, i.e., repetition of conventionalized, simple, non-numerical signs by hand at a volume and over a duration of time sufficient to train the fusiform gyrus, garner handwriting effects, adapt the material form, and realize literacy; Overmann 2016a).
Beyond common sense, there are few criteria for determining when an object functions as part of the cognitive system. For example, if reading does not exist as a cognitive activity without interacting with the material form of writing, it implies that a book is part of the cognitive system whenever someone is reading it. Its cognitive status while unused but recalled is less certain, its cognitive status unpurchased at a distant bookstore or unfinished by its author even more so. All these connections (and more) can conceivably mean that books are part of the cognitive system, and as concepts, they are certainly anchored by our experience of interacting with books.
Embodied engagement with material objects involves neural activity (e.g., motor planning and execution), and motor planning in the absence of motor execution has been found in mentally manipulating concepts like numbers. It may be implicit to literacy as well, since Exner’s area for controlling the movements of handwriting is active in recognizing characters (i.e., reading), as distinct from their manual production (handwriting). We have proposed the term “neural muscle” for this phenomenon. Specific neural activity continues to be elicited by interactions with specific material forms, even as the original motor movements become obsolete and are discarded (e.g., as typing on computer keyboards obviates writing by hand). This suggests that neural activity associated with higher-level cognitive functions may relate to productive behavior with past cultural forms and behaviors (e.g., prehistoric stone tools and their production and use), with descendent interactions with cultural forms and behaviors perpetuating the associated neural responses. Elsewhere, we have proposed the term “neural fossil” for the persistence of “neural muscles” beyond the material forms that occasioned them (though “fossil” has an inapt connotation of formerly and hence no longer living). We propose that humans have developed a generalized neurological response to material culture that is perpetuated by interacting with descendent material forms and behaviors. None of this discussion should be understood as proposing that the neural activity in question is necessarily representational in nature.
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Overmann, K.A., Wynn, T. Materiality and Human Cognition. J Archaeol Method Theory 26, 457–478 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-018-9378-y
- Stone tools
- Cognitive evolution
- Material engagement theory