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Psychiatry and the Evolution of Human Language

May 2nd, 2016 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 22 views | Print this Article

by Robert DePaolo


This article discusses the therapeutic effect of language in an evolutionary context. The point is made that while the evolution of human language served a number of social/interactive, analytical and action planning purposes a parallel benefit accrued as well, which enhanced the capacities for self control as insulation against environmental dangers and setbacks and the ability to use internal deception to provide psychic endurance past the point of apparent helplessness.


The origin of human language is a very complicated topic. It is one reason why some insist that man in some ways transcends the rest of the animal kingdom, (Ptolemy 2009). Indeed a creationist might refer to human language development as proof of a higher power or at the very least a super-organizational entity.

A glance at the language development of a young child provides grist for the mill. The infant begins with a vast number of loosely connected neurons in its brain which are barely able to coordinate basic motor skills for the first several years In that same time frame the child acquires exponentially a capacity to think and speak in terms of past present and future.

This is particularly interesting because the child’s brain is developing on several fronts during the first few years. Perceptual circuits, motor circuits, emotional (mid brain) wiring, the arrangement of vertical and horizontal pathways in the cerebral cortex are also developing, and must in order for cognition (which depends on such experiential content) to expand. Yet while the child does not go from taking his first steps to running a 9.5 hundred meter dash in three years his language skills broaden at an astonishingly rapid pace. His brain development is skewed in the direction of language acquisition. One can speculate about how this ties in to human evolution.

The Anatomy of Pleasure

Some aspects of human language evolution were predictable due to emergence of opportunistic human anatomy. For example, the lowering of the hyoid bone in the throat enabled our ancestors to extend vowel sounds. This would have enhanced their phonetic variety and provided several advantages. One would have been esthetic.

Due to enhanced breath control the capacity to sustain and vary vowel sounds could have produced an auditory end product (including song) attractive not only to members of the opposite sex but to all members of the social group. The reason for this assertion derives from a common theory of esthetics, stated at various times by St. Augustine, Descartes, and in more recent times by Berlyne (1960), (1975) and Zeki (2009). The theory states that any stimulus that includes both familiarity and novelty will be perceived as pleasurable and that the pleasure could take any form or serve any purpose, including music, inspiration, seduction, even humor.

The underlying reason has to do with the two aspects of the pleasure response – search and closure. Pleasure is not a free experience. It requires some degree of perceptual work Freud (1928). One must earn it by converting irresolution into resolution. Faced with a totally unfamiliar stimulus complex the perceiver will tend to withdraw from it because he cannot to “wrap his brain” around the input. By the same token encountering a completely familiar stimulus complex will also lead to avoidance because no perceptual work is required. Any experience that precludes a successful search cannot result in resolution, i.e. closure. In that context, the ideal “pleasure proportion” featuring a workable, resolvable combination of sameness and novelty would have accompanied human expression from the outset.

The First Crooners

Many believe descent of the hyoid bone first appeared with Neanderthal., though it seems rather unlikely that while Homo erectus’ hyoid position might have precluded extended breath control and vowelization his cognitive abilities could have developed without some sort of linguistic impetus (bearing in mind that it is also possible to speak without vowels; as exemplified by the click language of the !Kung people in Africa).

Whether or not hyoid descent was confined to Neanderthal and Sapiens is not certain but considering the Darwinian concept of a conversion, whereby a trait initially favoring one skill is eventually used for others, it seems likely that early versions of both species quickly learned to profit from this newfound oral capability. It is also likely that this capacity was refined over time alongside its physiological correlate, upright walking (bipedalism allows for such changes in bodily structures, including the spinal cord, digestive tract and voice box). This trait obviously passed on to our own species.

The Expansive Song List

As his phonetic breadth increased early homo sapiens’ expressive skills were more finely orchestrated. That would have enabled him to learn search and closure expressive sound patterns that were attractive to listeners. Considering man’s primate-consonant penchant for mimicry this pleasurable communicative trick would have caught on. Early man would have created a new, dual aspect of experience combining pleasure with object, action and descriptive labels that could be applied to experiences and people.

At that point the stage was set for a new version of “alpha” who gained his or her influence not by the typical primate criteria of physical prowess and dominance but by esthetic expression. Over time, as human society expanded and roles proliferated the expressive alpha tactic filtered down through the ranks. Musicians, prophets, healers, ministers, writers, poets, minstrels, actors, politicians mind healers and eventually psychotherapists were included in the neo paradigm, each able to establish themselves in the hierarchy by word as well as deed.

In terms of that scenario one could argue that the benefits derived from being an “esthetic communicator” would have been enough to set human speech on its developmental path. Unfortunately, the analytic complexity of human language makes that doubtful. Running parallel to the esthetic factor is the element of meaning. In order for the listener to respond to the esthetic value of language he must understand the concepts and vocabulary of the statements. In terms of our own sociobiological evolution that required an additional capacity within the brain to gauge the level of intelligence and overall cognitive demeanor of the listener as well as an ability to process his facial expressions, body posture and movement trends in distinguishing approval/comprehension from confusion/ frustration and adjust the message accordingly.

The Evolution of Empathy

With regard to how, in the course of evolution homo sapiens developed a capacity to read the reactions of others, one possibility comes to mind. The brain of a primate is large relative to body size but while that allows for a variety of perceptual, motor and emotionally induced behavior patterns the most basic function of the primate brain might lie in a capacity to imitate.

Contrary to the oft-stated notion that the “brain is too complex for humans to understand” (Doglas 2006) one can reasonably view the brain as a kind of copy machine. If not for that foundation long term memory would be a pipe dream and our emotional depth would be restricted to momentary fight/flight experiences. When inputs impinge on the brain it appears the brain’s neuronal patterns replicate the energy signature patterns of the outside source in isomorphic fashion (Lehar, 1999). For example the visual energy signals of a tiger are replicated as if the color and dimension of the tiger are housed in the perceiver’s brain. Over time various associations can be developed around that neural process but in the first instance the brain copies what it sees, hears and feels.

Since imitation is conceivably neuro-primal one can assume that one person interacting with another is in some sense incorporating that person into a neural scheme via a representation process, e.g “The other person, place or thing becomes me.” This notion is supported by studies showing a tendency for people to mimic unconsciously the patterns of others. For example the menstrual cycle between females living together tends toward temporal synchrony as per the so-called McClintock effect (Arden, Dye 1999). Also the emotional arousal levels of one person will tend to rise and fall in sync with those of the person with whom he is interacting (Kovalinka, Xyglatas et. al. 2011). This is one reason why social interaction can be so stressful to therapists, or for that matter anyone involved in a commiserative exchange.

However another question arises; specifically what can be inferred about how internal mental processes such as imitation, empathy and communicative esthetics play out in evolutionary terms?

The Ice Age

The climate was in an extreme cooling phase during the first human occupation of Europe and what is now called the Middle East. Living on frozen tundra had enormous ramifications for survival. In order to understand this, one must look beyond traditional paleo-anthropological concepts toward one more psycho-anthropological. This is not to minimize the challenges of the physical environment. For example with a scarcity of plants the Neanderthals and Cromagnons had to rely more on a diet of meat. That altered their behavior patterns in a quite natural way. Also, most of the game animals at the time were massive and with only Achulean axes and perhaps spears, early man had to refine his hunting and planning skills.

There was a problem inherent in that. Early man had to work extremely hard and long to carry on these and other arduous, lengthy tasks yet cold weather has a dampening affect on hormones, activation level, metabolism, mood and motivation, especially if a species migrates from the African savanna to western Europe without sufficient time for physiological adaptation (Leppauoto, Hassi 1991). In modern times we recognize that seasonal shifts from fall to winter are often accompanied by psychopathologies. While naturalists typically distinguish mammals from reptiles based on our constant body temperature and their lack thereof, mammals also experience downward physiological shifts in cold weather. Indeed the fact that human metabolism slows down considerably in winter and speeds up in spring is one reason why suicides tend to be more frequent in the cross over between the two seasons. The transition from a dormant season to an active season can be physiologically as well as emotionally overwhelming for depression-prone individuals.

In order for early humans to carry out the strenuous activities needed for survival in a cold climate (bearing in mind that there was no techno-culture to offer support) required a reliable, internally driven mechanism by which to summon and sustain activity levels when nature created an opposite effect. In simple terms it required the development and implementation of an energy regulating mechanism – the psyche.

The emergence… hesitate to say ‘evolution’… of such an ergonomic aspect of mind was probably less than completely adaptive because, as both Freud and Maxwell suggested, energy is a neutral phenomenon that can create or destroy. The new aspect of mind was more complex and vagarious than, say, upright walking or tool use and had to be channeled properly to advance the cause of survival.

An Adaptive Paradox

It is generally assumed that Neanderthal had a sense of his own mortality, as per his habit of burying the dead (Than 2013). That speaks to his psychological sophistication Yet in some ways mourning is an irrational behavior. The deceased is no longer functional in the group since his absence has no subsequent influence on survival and adaptation. Moreover since man was/is quite familiar with his own mortality there is no logical reason to feel emotionally “robbed” by the death of a family member or colleague. Yet death is a devastating experience, largely because we internalize it beyond mere logic. “How can I bring him back – through memory and legend?”…”What if I’m next to go?”…

Such contemplative, emotional largesse, combined with a cold climate could have led to feelings of helplessness, futility and depression and issued a double whammy if not for an adaptive conversion that modern clinicians will undoubtedly recognize.

The Self and the Artist

The adaptive mechanisms enabling early man to overcome these obstacles were likely in the language domain; not just regarding communication but three other forms that create a capacity for self deception, specifically; art, self-talk and self regulation. With respect to art; having an internal language capacity would have led to an ability to imitate and represent the outside world. In his cave paintings early man could depict the various animals around him, and create symbols of people within his social group. He might even come up with the idea of an alpha even higher in rank than those in his tribe, who could not only rescue him from his obscurity within the group but orchestrate all of nature – a god.

The artistic depictions at Lascaux and Altamira might have recaptured life but perhaps only due to a prior skill set. In order to find his inspiration the artist had to preplan as to subject, background, color scheme etc. In so doing he would have begun with a self talk exercise (not necessarily overt but perhaps covert) whereby his expanding frontal lobes vacuumed associations from Broca’s site in the fronto-parietal lobe so that the vast inhibitory circuits of the former could whittle down language into an inhibitory, fractional version of speech resulting in inner contemplation.

Through that guiding process size, angulation and action depictions could be altered. All aspects of life could be restructured so that victories could be imagined, dangers avoided, animals spirits created from scratch, joyful outcomes conjured up in the absence of direct experience or concrete possibilities.

The benefits of this new, internal capacity would have proliferated as a result of social influence and mimicry. It would have facilitated both artistic expression and, through its capacity to re-shape experience, also enabled our ancestors to summon and sustain arousal, motivational and behavioral activity levels in a sparse and hostile terrain.

Up to that point cruel nature had decided which creatures could carry on and which would fade into oblivion. Then man came along and was able to outwork and to an extent circumvent its whim.

From the Cave to the Couch

Any psychotherapist can see the connection of the above elements to the present day use of defense mechanisms in providing emotional equanimity during difficult times. Homo sapiens appears to have embarked on a somewhat ironic evolutionary path. In taking a ramp off the road of natural selection we developed a secondary, alternative and internal world which we can distort experience at will in accord with our needs and frailties. Darwin’s theory of natural selection holds that organisms survive through random mutations that over time are selected or rejected, based on their juxtaposition with the outside world. That rule was overturned to an extent with the emergence of homo sapiens. Indeed one could argue that we have actually been able to separate ourselves from the outside world and that human evolution offers a partial exception to the Darwinian rule. Does this mean we are transcendent, or as Darwin and Huxley surmised, merely a biological after-effect arising from the initiative of mindless nature? Such a question is highly philosophical, maybe even moot. Yet it is difficult to refute the notion that the rise of mankind was marked by an ongoing competition between nature and the imagination.


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