One Strange Rock: A Must Watch

One Strange Rock 2018

One Strange Rock is a 10 part, 8 hour documentary produced in 2018 by Darren Aronofsky and hosted by Will Smith and 8 space station astronauts.

I’ve watched a lot of nature/science documentaries in my life, and I’ve probably seen most of the good ones, but I say without hesitation that One Strange Rock is the best.

The producers and writers found a magical blend of spectacular settings on and off the planet, fabulous photography, inspirational multi-cultural stories, solid yet easy to understand science, and an important ecological message that is neither depressing nor ignorant of our peril.

With regard to the history and science of Earth’s life, they hit most of the important points everyone should know, got none of them wrong, and missed only a few key points (not least of which the significance of reality denial 🙂 ).

The only segment I did not like was the bit on why we must and will colonize other planets. That’s wishful thinking (aka denial) and is not going to happen, but understandable because that’s their gig. Otherwise very well done!

With regard to beauty and inspiration, they hit a home run, without being sickly sweet. If you don’t feel some joyous emotion watching this, you’re not alive.

This should be mandatory viewing for every student on the planet.

If I ever meet someone in the future who doesn’t understand why they should care, I will point them to One Strange Rock.

If anyone would like to view this documentary but can’t find it, send me a message on Facebook and I will help you.


From award-winning filmmaker Darren Aronofsky comes a mind-bending, thrilling journey that explores the fragility and wonder of planet Earth—one of the most peculiar, unique places in the universe.

One Strange Rock is the extraordinary story of Earth – our curiously calibrated, interconnected planet – and why it is special and uniquely brimming with life among a largely unknown but harsh cosmic arena. Anchoring the series is an elite group of astronauts who see Earth’s bigger picture; they provide unique perspectives and relate personal memoirs of our planet seen from space.

Hosted by Will Smith, One Strange Rock reveals the twists of fate that allow life to thrive on Earth.

Part 1: Gasp

For those privileged few who have seen Earth from space, the very first thing they notice is the thin blue line of atmosphere that clings to our planet and sustains life. How our planet creates and regulates that oxygen is a mind-blowing story involving a flying river, a global dust storm, collapsing glaciers and the most important creature you’ve never heard of. It’s an incredible chain of connections that reveal just how truly wondrous our home is. Everything connects, so life and planet breathe together. Astronaut host – Chris Hadfield

Part 2: Storm

Ever wonder how our planet got here? It was born in a cosmic storm and shaped by violence. Earth is a very lucky planet. We’re only here because of random collisions in a dangerous cosmos. They could have destroyed us, but instead, that violence constructed a planet from the rubble of the early solar system; gave us oceans in a bombardment from the heavens; and brought order to our world. Astronaut host – Nicole Stott.

Part 3: Shield

It’s a David and Goliath story — Earth’s relationship with its greatest threat: our seemingly benign sun. Hurling devastating particles and deadly radiation at us, the sun is the big violent boss of the solar system. Without several shields, one generated by our unique planetary core, another by our atmosphere, and a third by our interconnected weather systems, life on Earth never would have survived. Astronaut host – Jeff Hoffman.

Part 4: Genesis

Our rock is special; it’s alive. Though the building blocks of life are common across the universe, life is rare. What is it about Earth that sets it apart? This is the story of dynamic forces and crazy coincidences that took a bunch of dead ingredients and transformed them into something as wondrously intricate as life. And if it happened here, could it happen elsewhere? Astronaut host – Mae Jemison.

Part 5: Survival

Without the cycle of death and sacrifice, from cellular to planetary, life would not be here. From the deaths of stars to planetary scale mass extinctions and the sacrifice of individuals for a greater genetic good, this is the story of how life evolved hand in hand with death. Death drives evolution. It’s hardwired; from our cells to our landscapes, our colorful living planet is only possible thanks to it. Death leads to opportunity and biodiversity, which ironically ensures life on the planet is never wiped out. It’s not enough for our planet to be habitable; it also has to be lethal. Astronaut host – Jerry Linenger.

Part 6: Escape

Is it possible for intelligent life to escape destruction either from the planet or ourselves? Or are we destined for extinction like 99.9 percent of all species before us? Our best chance of survival may be to escape Earth and build another colony somewhere else. But there are real barriers: space radiation, microgravity and the bacteria inside us. And our DNA is coded for the conditions here on Earth, so if we ever manage to colonize another planet, those who are born there might evolve into another species. Astronaut host – Chris Hadfield.

Part 7: Terraform

Ever since life emerged, microbes, plants and animals have all sculpted the planet’s surface and atmosphere in the strangest of ways: fish poop creates islands; dead animals create mountains; and plants help create continents. From rocks to rivers, life has crafted everything that makes our planet so special. But this power of change brings with it profound dangers. Life doesn’t just create. It can also destroy. Astronaut host – Mike Massimino.

Part 8: Alien

All life on Earth started as single-cell bacteria and stayed like that for two billion years. So even if we do find alien life out there, what are the chances of that life being complex like us? On our strange rock, it’s all down to a freak event, which accidentally happened when one cell ate another to create a kind of power pack for life. This almost miraculous event transforms Earth into a complex interconnected web based on a competition for food. And at the top of the pyramid sit we humans. Astronaut host – Mae Jemison.

Part 9: Awakening

Of all life on Earth, how come we’re the only ones with the smarts to leave our planet? For three billion years, nothing had a brain. Even today, over 90 percent of life doesn’t need a brain to survive. So, what happened? How did our planet set in motion the chain of nearly impossible events that gave us our unique intelligence? The greatest mystery of all may be right between your ears. Astronaut host – Leland Melvin.

Part 10: Home

After 665 weightless days in space, NASA’s most experienced astronaut, Peggy Whitson, smashes through the atmosphere on her last journey home to planet Earth. With unprecedented filming on board the ISS during Peggy’s final mission and with the support of our other featured astronauts, we reveal how their time in space transforms their understanding of our planet’s wonders, insights that will change our perspective, too. There is no place like home. Or is there? Just how strange is our rock, and is it really unique in the universe? Astronaut host – Peggy Whitson.


By Michael Mills: How to Avoid Population Overshoot and Collapse

Dr. Michael Mills

Thanks to James at Megacancer for bringing my attention to this 2011 essay by Dr. Michael Mills, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles California. The interests of Dr. Mills include the evolutionary psychology of peak oil.

In this essay Mills demonstrates an excellent understanding of human overshoot, and uses his expertise in evolutionary psychology to offer strategies for shifting human behavior in a more sustainable direction.


As shown in the graph below, this is an example of a general phenomenon.  All species suffer population collapse or species extinction if they overshoot and degrade the carrying capacity of their ecology.

Carrying Capacity & Overshoot

This is also the fate that awaits bacteria growing in a Petri dish, as you might remember from your high school biology course.  Imagine a Petri dish with enough nutrients to support a growing bacteria culture until the dish is completely full of them.  One bacterium is placed inside the dish at 11:00am, and the population of bacteria doubles every minute — such that the Petri dish will be full by noon.

At what time will the Petri dish be half full of bacteria?

Most people reply incorrectly that the Petri dish will be half full at 11:30am, because we are more familiar with linear, rather  than with exponential, rates of growth.  The correct answer is 11:59am — which seems rather unintuitive. However, because the rate of growth is exponential (doubling every minute)  the time at which the Petri dish is half full is 11:59am.   With just one more doubling, in the next minute, the Petri dish is completely full, at noon.

Anyone who perceives a linear rate of growth, but who is actually up against an exponential rate of growth, is likely to be very surprised at how the end comes very quickly and seemingly out of nowhere. They will be completely blindsided.


Generally it is healthy to be optimistic, but optimism can be deadly if it produces a Pollyannaish denial of real problems. We should not ignore ecological problems by assuming “someone else” will take care of it, or that “the free market” or “technological breakthroughs” will always come to the rescue in time. Solutions may not come in time, and we may get quite a rude Malthusian smack down later.


One example of resource depletion is the gradual depletion of fossil fuels, especially oil.  The amount of oil produced by a particular oil field, or a region, shows a regular pattern: first oil production increases, then it reaches a peak, and, finally, as the oil field begins to dry up, oil production starts to  decline.   World “peak oil” is when world oil production peaks, and then starts an inexorable decline as oil fields start to dry up.  Many experts believe that world oil production has already peaked, or that it will occur within the next few years. This presents us with a problem:  as of now, no combination of renewable energy sources can scale up quickly enough, or provide anywhere near the energy equivalent of oil.   We can anticipate that the world is about to enter a severe, worldwide energy shortage. Since food production is so dependent on energy production, following an energy famine will be a food famine.  Many poor people, especially in developing countries, will literally starve to death as oil energy depletes.


Optimists will be quick to rebut that shale oil has pushed oil production to record highs since Mills wrote this. I would remind those optimists that it took unprecedented zero percent interest rates, many trillions of unrepayable debt to force growth equal to only 25% of the debt, investors willing to pour money into unprofitable fracking companies, and a socially destabilizing increase in the wealth gap to achieve this increase in oil production.


The 1972 book Limits to Growth  also made some pretty frightening predictions back in 1972, as did the follow-up book in 2004  Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update.  Using computer simulations, they predicted a world peak population around mid-century, followed by population decline.

Given that these predictions are now approaching 40 years old, how accurate were they?  Are they still on track today?

The analysis shows that 30 years of historical data compares favorably with key features… [of the Limits to Growth] ‘standard run’ scenario, which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st Century.”  To prevent this scenario, the Limits to Growth authors suggested that we must achieve ecological sustainability by 2022 to avoid serious ecological overshoot and population collapse.

Limits to Growth Predictions


Mills then gets to the meat of his essay:

Can evolutionary psychology provide insights to aid in our survival?

Can humans be “smarter than yeast?” Can we be the only species that can successfully anticipate and avoid ecological overshoot and collapse?  Issues of sustainability are psychological problems.  Are we sufficiently psychologically sophisticated to manage our own collective behavior to achieve sustainability on a finite planet?

One sobering answer provided by evolutionary psychology is that we, like all other species,  have no evolved psychological adaptations designed specifically to perceive, anticipate and avoid ecological overshoot. In fact, we have just the opposite.

One problem is that inclusive fitness, the “designer” of psychological adaptations, is always relative to others; it is not absolute.  That is, nature doesn’t “say,” “Have two kids (or help 4 full sibs), and then you can stop. Good job! You did your genetic duty, you avoided contributing to ecological overshoot, and you may pass along now…” Instead, nature “says” (relative inclusive fitness): “Out-reproduce your competitors. Your competitors are all of the genes in your species’ gene pool that you do not share. If the average inclusive fitness score is four, then you go for five… “In other words, our psychological adaptations are designed to not just “keep up with the Joneses” but to “do better than the Joneses.” This is in whatever means that may have generally helped to increase inclusive fitness, such as status, conspicuous consumption, and resource acquisition and control.

If we are to have a fighting chance to be “smarter than yeast,” we have to out-smart our own psychological adaptations; we have to “fool Mother Nature.” Garrett Harden recognized that the problem of ecological overshoot is the tragedy of the commons writ large.  He suggested that the way to solve the tragedy of the commons was “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.”  That is, we must consent, collectively, to use our knowledge of our psychological adaptations to tweak them in the service of sustainability.

For example, we can use such knowledge to manipulate our own perceptions of status so that we actually compete to reduce our consumption of finite resources, such that we compete to “keep down with the Joneses.”


Mills thinks we can hack our behavior with psychological tricks if the majority of citizens understand our overshoot predicament and consent to being manipulated.

He then provides some examples of psychological techniques that have been, or could be, successful at changing human behaviors:

  • Foster competition (and status) for being more sustainable than your neighbors.
  • Manipulate women to prefer men with more sustainable lifestyles.
  • Use virtual reality to trick ourselves into treating all humans as if they belonged to our tribe.
  • Create psychological illusions that cause us to treat ecological issues as personal issues, and the entire planet as our tribal territory.
  • Use Public Service Announcements (PSAs) to change behaviors, like the successful campaign to promote seat belt use.


Mills concludes by saying we need a new sustainability movement that makes being a “consumerist” as toxic as being a “racist” or “sexist”.

A new social movement is needed – a sustainability movement.  This is particularly important for anyone who plans to live in the future. A grass-roots movement of the magnitude of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and the women’s rights movement of the 1970s, is needed. Today no one wants to be called a racist or a sexist (but being called a “consumerist” does not yet sting). Those movements had clearly defined out-groups to vilify as the “enemy” — and that may have helped to mobilize and motivate activists.

But who is the enemy now?  There is no out-group. The enemy is us. We are fighting against ourselves — our base psychological adaptations to compete for relative status, mates and resources.  Evolutionary psychology can help by identifying which of our “psychological buttons” might be manipulated to promote sustainability.  But we must collectively agree to manipulate our psychological adaptations to attempt to “transcend” our self-ecocidal nature.  If we succeed, there may be a glimmer of hope of mitigating our own ecological overshoot, and the potential Malthusian nightmares of the future.


I like the creative ideas offered here by Mills and wish we would try them. Unfortunately it seems we must first find a way to break through our denial of overshoot reality before we can obtain the consent of citizens to be manipulated.

On the other hand, we allow ourselves to be manipulated every day without consent by the commercial advertisements and agenda driven media messages that crowd our daily lives. There’s a clear precedent here to proceed without consent.

Perhaps all we need is a wise government to get on with hacking our behavior to have fewer children and consume less.

But then we’d need a government that was not in denial, which means we’d have to elect genetic mutants, which I’ve proposed in the past.

Which brings us full circle to the core problem discussed many times on this blog:

Finding a way to pick our genetic reality denial lock is the key to any progress, and possibly the survival of our species. This is a hard lock to pick because denial of denial is the strongest form of denial.

I wish Mills would study Varki’s MORT theory and write another essay.

As an aside, check out the comments left by the readers of Mill’s essay. They offer a nice snapshot of the human belief system. Several intelligent people attempt to poke holes in Mill’s thesis, and Mills then calmly and rationally responds with the facts on why they are wrong. Not one reader changes their views. Not one reader stands up and says “great ideas, let’s try them”.


On Meaning

What Gives You Meaning?

I’m an atheist without a supernatural bone in my body. When I die my “spirit” will extinguish into nothing forever.

This reality does not trouble me or cause me to wish that I denied death with some form of religion or spirituality, as do most of my 8 billion close cousins.

Given that I’m a mutant with defective reality denial genes, and therefore have nothing to look forward to beyond my brief life, how do I find meaning?

I find meaning by studying the origin of life on a rare planet, with its improbable evolution of complex life, and the singular emergence of a species with an extended theory of mind, and the improbability of being a member of that species alive at the peak of a brief 200 year period (out of 4,000,000,000) when we leveraged an improbable store of photosynthetically generated hydrocarbons to advance scientific knowledge and technology.

The fact that I’m writing this, and you’re reading this, is cause for awe and thankfulness.

Meaning comes from understanding why we can understand there is no meaning.

On Sexual Selection and Extinction


Here is a very interesting interview of biologist and Pulitzer Prize finalist Richard Prum by Rob Reid on sexual selection and the evolution of beauty.

One of the fundamental reasons birds are so beautiful is that most of them do not have penises and this creates an opportunity for female freedom of choice.

After-On Podcast Episode 33: Richard Prum – The Evolution of Beauty

Bird of Paradise

Sexual selection is not a form of natural selection as most biologists currently believe.

Sexual selection and natural selection are distinct evolutionary forces, as originally envisioned by Charles Darwin.

It’s possible for sexual selection to work in the opposite direction of natural selection which can lead to the extinction of a species. Some interesting examples are given for birds.

I’m thinking about how human females tend to be indifferent to male IQ, but strongly prefer high status males that contribute the most to overshoot and CO2 via mansions, yachts, long distance vacations, and Veblan goods.

Human male preferences tend to be benign as it’s unlikely extinction will be caused by big boobs, which Prum points out, are not an honest signal of fertility.

Donald and Melania Trump

By Ajit Varki: Did Human Reality Denial Breach the Evolutionary Psychological Barrier of Mortality Salience?

Here is the latest talk by Dr. Ajit Varki on his MORT theory given April 18, 2018 at a conference on The Evolutionary Perspectives on Death held at Oakland University.

This talk repeats some content presented in previous talks, but also adds some important new ideas. There is evidence here that Varki, despite a large important unrelated day job, is still thinking about and developing his theory. That’s great news because, as I’ve said many times, MORT is the most important new idea since Darwin.

This slide depicts the emergence of the unique behaviorally modern human mind.

Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT)


This slide shows that most behaviors unique to humans no longer exist (grayed out) if you remove the adaptations for an extended theory of mind and reality denial.

Unique Human Cognittive Features


This slide explains the implications of the Mind Over Reality Transition theory.

Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) Implications

Varki introduces a new idea that incomplete suppression of mortality salience may explain the need for Terror Management.  I wonder if Varki might be trying to get Sheldon Solomon, who has to date been juveniley dismissive of MORT, on board?

Mortality Salience Incomplete Supression

I found this slide on ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny interesting because I’m reading Michael Pollan’s new book on psychedelics in which the human brain’s Default Mode Network is explained to be the seat of self and theory of mind, and which is suppressed by psychedelic drugs thus re-creating what may be the tripping mind of a baby. I wonder if our adaptations for an extended theory of mind and reality denial somehow affected or created the Default Mode Network? I’m hoping a neuroscience expert will weigh in here.

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny


This new idea from Varki on sex differences resulting from MORT is, I suspect, important, but I need to digest it more before commenting.

MORT Gender Phenotype


At the 23 minute mark Varki addresses climate change with a quote from his co-author Danny Brower which is a very nice summary of why I created this blog. If we do not acknowledge and manage our tendency to deny reality we are doomed as a species.

Brower on Denial of Climate Change

Aside 1: The video at 15:15 that Varki took on traffic from the window of his hotel room in India is hilarious.

Aside 2: The Q&A begins at 25:00 and I observe that, as with previous talks, no one in the audience seems to get the profundity of his theory.

Aside 3: I observe that the most important new idea in science, and the idea whose broad awareness may offer the only hope for our species, has 12 views on YouTube. Apparently, the only topic more unpleasant than human overshoot is our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities.




By Nate Hagens: Contrasts and Continuums of the Human Predicament

Here is this year’s annual Earth Day talk by Nate Hagens.

My introduction to last year’s talk by Nate is still valid:

I used to preface Nate’s talks by saying he provides the best big picture view of our predicament available anywhere.

While still true, I think Nate may now be the only person discussing these issues in public forums.

Everyone else seems to have retired to their bunkers and gone quiet.

If you only have an hour this year to devote to understanding the human predicament and what needs to be done, this may be the best way to spend it.


On Superior Pattern Processing, Magical Thinking, and Human Success

Cerebral Cortex

A friend brought to my attention an interesting paper by Mark P. Mattson titled “Superior pattern processing is the essence of the evolved human brain“. It discusses the uniquely powerful capabilities of the human brain, and provides a partial theory for why these capabilities evolved.

Here is summary of what I consider to be the paper’s key points:

  • Humans have a uniquely powerful brain.
  • The human brain has the same structure and components as the brains of other mammals; what distinguishes the human brain is a higher quantity of neurons and synapses that enable superior pattern processing (SPP).
  • SPP is sufficient to explain unique human capabilities such as creativity, imagination, language, and magical thinking.
  • The human brain began to enlarge about 5-8 million years ago via a self-reinforcing feedback loop created by the synergy of increased brain power in a social species with an upright posture able to forage longer distances.
  • Human survival depended on social cooperation which created another self-reinforcing relationship between social interactions and SPP ability, and which led to an extended theory of mind with which humans understand that others have thoughts and emotions very similar to their own.
  • SPP led to language emerging about 100,000 years ago, and language is likely a major reason for the current dominance of Homo sapiens.
  • The ability to draw came after language about 30,000 years ago and enhanced the ability to communicate important spatial information like maps.
  • SPP enabled human imagination and invention which enhanced the success of humans via tool making, but also created a human tendency for magical thinking such as religious beliefs.
  • Gods were fabricated as explanations for phenomena that were not understood. As those phenomena were later explained by science those Gods were abandoned. With one exception, there is exceptional resistance to the science of human evolution and magical thinking persists on the origin of humans.
  • Psychiatric disorders result from abnormal SPP that blurs the boundaries between reality and imagination.
  • Homo sapiens is the only hominid to survive from an original pool of from 8 to 27 species. This suggests that only Homo sapiens evolved superior pattern processing which it used to outcompete its cousins.

So far so good, but then Mattson veers off into what feels like just so stories for his SPP theory:

  • Mattson thinks differences in SPP between populations today explains why some groups prosper and others struggle. For example, Africans must have a low SPP because they are poor, and Americans, Europeans, and Asians must have high SPP because they are affluent. Mattson might be right here, but I think it more likely that the self-reinforcing relationship between early access to low-cost energy, wealth creation, and wealth multiplication via growth enabled debt is a more likely explanation.
  • Mattson thinks differences in SPP between groups today is likely explained by epigenetics. For (my) example, malnourished mothers may have babies will less powerful brains.
  • Mattson concludes with a cheery prediction that humans will continue to evolve SPP which they will use to make better decisions and to invent technologies that eliminate suffering and ensure long-term survival. This sounds to me like a grade 12 valedictorian speech.
  • Mattson also concludes that we should educate everyone about how SPP works so that we can once and for all end our silly beliefs in god and the suffering this causes.  Here he seems almost as delusional as my earlier hope that awareness of genetic reality deny might help mitigate our impending overshoot collapse.
  • Finally he suggests further research into SPP might help us design better AI computers.

Setting aside Mattson’s concluding unicorns and rainbows, I agree with his earlier points. Unfortunately he spends a lot of time discussing the obvious bits and ignores the interesting bits:

  • After 8 million years of slowly improving brain power in many hominids species, there was a dramatic jump about 100,000 years ago in one of the species that enabled language and enhanced tools making, and that species used its unique skills to outcompete all the others.  That species also simultaneously began to believe in life after death which was later elaborated into religions, something no other species does. Using Mattson’s reasoning, brain power should have simultaneously improved for all hominids with no unusual discontinuity.
  • Mattson is mistaken about the adaptive value of religion. He thinks that the magical thinking associated with religion has some adaptive value. I think the evidence is clear that humans apply magical thinking to many aspects of their lives, including religion. The adaptive value of religions is not magical thinking, rather it is that religions serve to define, unite, govern, motivate, and entertain tribes, and (especially in times of scarcity) define outside tribes as enemies. In other words, religions improve survival via enhanced social cooperation.
  • Mattson acknowledges that magical thinking about human divinity is a unique and fascinating persistent behavior but does not offer an explanation. I think the explanation is clear. Given the human brain’s tendency for magical thinking we should expect religious beliefs to include every conceivable wacky story, as they do, and we should statistically expect a few of those wacky stories to involve life after death, but they don’t, instead every one of the thousands of human religions has a life after death story which suggests there must be a separate genetic reason for the universal belief in life after death.
  • Mattson thinks the primary cause of anxiety disorders and depression is defective SPP resulting in a blurring of reality, self-doubt, and hopelessness. While no doubt true in some cases, Mattson does not consider that a defective ability to deny unpleasant realities can be the cause of mental illness. For example, fully accepting the science of human overshoot, climate change, and net energy decline coupled with an understanding that an individual cannot influence the outcome is a plenty strong reason for depression. In other words, magical thinking likely improves mental health.

All of these interesting bits, and more, are explained by Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

Following are a few excerpts from Mattson’s paper that highlight ideas I thought were noteworthy, but I recommend you read the entire paper for proper context.

The cognitive repertoire of humans far exceeds that of all other animals, and understanding the neurobiological basis of this superiority is therefore of interest not only to scientists, but also to society. As humans evolved from their anthropoid ancestors, and the size of their cerebral cortex expanded, novel pattern processing capabilities emerged.

The main purposes of the present article are to describe the superior pattern processing (SPP) capabilities of the human brain, to forward the hypothesis that SPP is the neurobiological foundation of human sociocultural evolution, and to describe the roles of aberrant SPP in some major neurological disorders.

The types of pattern processing that appear to occur robustly, if not uniquely in the human brain and are therefore considered as SPP include:

  1. Creativity and invention, which have resulted in the development of tools, processes and protocols for solving problems and saving time, and the arts (Goel, 2014; Orban and Caruana, 2014; Zaidel, 2014). Examples include all aspects of agriculture, transportation, science, commerce defense/security, and music;
  2. Spoken and written languages that enable rapid communication of highly specific information about all aspects of the physical universe and human experiences;
  3. Reasoning and rapid decision-making;
  4. Imagination and mental time travel which enables the formulation and rehearsal of potential future scenarios; and
  5. Magical thinking/fantasy, cognitive process that involves beliefs in entities and processes that defy accepted laws of causality including telepathy, spirits, and gods (Einstein and Menzies, 2004).

A major purpose of the present article is to forward the proposal that not only is pattern processing necessary for higher brain functions of humans, but SPP is sufficient to explain many such higher brain functions including creativity, imagination, language, and magical thinking.


The human brain has retained many features of brain structure and cellular organization of the brains of birds and lower mammals, but has greatly elaborated upon them by developing more robust cortical neuronal networks involved in the processing of visual and auditory patterns. As in lower mammals, being aware of one’s position in the environment, and remembering the locations of resources (food, shelter, etc.) and hazards (predators, cliffs, etc.) is of fundamental importance for the survival of humans. However, the encoding of visual inputs into “cognitive maps” of spatial relationships between objects in the environment (spatial pattern separation), and the encoding of auditory inputs, is necessary but not sufficient for the advanced pattern processing  abilities of humans including imagination, invention, and pattern transfer (language). The evidence suggests that expansion of the visual cortex, prefrontal cortex, and parietal—temporal—occipital (PTO) association area enabled the SPP that defines the human intellect capacity and all of its manifestations, including consciousness, language and mental fabrication and time travel. The remainder of this article describes some of the salient evidence for SPP as the basis of most, if not all, higher cortical functions in humans.


Thus, findings from neuroscience research has confirmed the general conclusion of Charles Darwin who proposed in The Descent of Man that the minds of humans and related species are fundamentally similar (Darwin, 1871).

Neuroanatomical and neurochemical considerations… section suggest that the superior intellectual capabilities of humans are solely or largely the result of the increase in the number of neurons and synapses that mediate enhanced encoding, integration and inter-individual transfer of patterns. There is little or no uniqueness in the structural or functional properties of the neuronal circuits that mediate intelligence in humans. Moreover, the intellectual capability of any individual requires the integrated function of pattern-processing networks distributed throughout the cerebral cortex, indicating that there is no single brain structure responsible for the mental superiority of humans.


One prominent phenotypic change that is believed to have occurred during the evolutionary transition from the Genus Pan (chimpanzees) to the Genus Homo (approximately 5–8 million years ago), was the acquisition of an upright bipedal endurance/distance runner phenotype (Bramble and Lieberman, 2004; Lieberman and Bramble, 2007; Mattson, 2012). Bipedalism also enabled the evolution of the shoulder in ways that allowed humans to throw objects accurately at a high velocity, greatly improving their ability as hunters (Roach et al., 2013). This was also the period in the evolution of our species when the size of the cerebral cortex increased relatively rapidly, which suggests that the expansion of the territory covered by individuals and groups of humans (enabled by endurance running) played a role in the expansion of the cerebral cortex. Coverage of a larger territory during the great human expansion (Henn et al., 2012) would have provided the opportunity to access more resources (food, water, and shelter), and required a greater pattern processing capacity to remember details of the location and nature of the resources. Importantly, humans evolved the ability to transfer the information acquired and processed in their brains during their journeys to other individuals via gestures, map drawing, and language. Visual and auditory patterns were likely the most commonly processed and transferred because of the ability to readily and accurately reproduce sights and sounds. Accordingly, the regions of the brain that expanded in humans are mostly involved in pattern processing of sights and sounds, and their codification as written and spoken languages. Very interestingly, specialized motor training (sports) enhances language understanding by a mechanism involving recruitment of the left dorsal lateral premotor cortex, suggesting that the language system is functionally connected to motor skill-related areas outside of the core language networks (Beilock et al., 2008). The latter findings suggest that the language SPP capabilities of the human brain co-evolved with development of organized “teamwork,” which may have bolstered functional interactions between brain regions involved in language and those responsible for specialized sensory-motor skills.


Emotions such as fear, anger, pleasure, and love are elevated states of arousal that enhance memory and recall of the events occurring during those emotional states (Bergado et al., 2011; Maren et al., 2013). This is a major, if not singular, function of emotions. Emotions evolved to reinforce memories of patterns of particular significance vis-à-vis survival and reproduction. Remembering the details of the events of an attack by a predator or intra-species rival will increase the probability of avoidance of such potentially deadly encounters in the future. Memories of the pleasurable experience of intercourse with fertile individuals of the opposite sex provides motivation for additional bouts of intercourse, and so increases the probability of passing one’s genes on to future generations.


Humans have evolved as highly social animals (Chang et al., 2013) with close emotional ties to mates, offspring, parents and close friends that enhance their survival and reproductive success (Damasio and Carvalho, 2013). As with other emotions, those associated with social interactions may have evolved to enhance SPP. In this view, there is a self-amplifying reciprocal relationship between social interactions and SPP ability. Thus, advanced PP abilities enable the development of social bonds and networks and, conversely, social interactions stimulate SPP. Success in social interactions requires that one recognize others, remember their past experiences with those individuals, and communicate their intentions. Dunbar’s social brain hypothesis of evolution of the primate brain includes the possible role of emotional attachments to mates and friends in complex social networks in the expansion of the cerebral cortex during anthropoid evolution (Dunbar, 2009; Sutcliffe et al., 2012). Because the memories of specific patterns (faces, places, conversations, etc.) can be reinforced or even embellished by emotions (Holland and Kensinger, 2010), it is reasonable to consider that evolution of the social brain was bolstered by emotional relationships. In addition to their use of complex language (see next Section), humans have added another dimension to social interactions—they are aware that others have thoughts and emotions very similar to their own. Humans therefore not only encode and process patterns representing their own experiences, but also the experiences of their family, friends and workmates. Social interactions require processing of information regarding the histories, behaviors and thoughts of many other individuals. Whether family members, employees or competitors, there are clear advantages to being able to know what others have done in the past, and to predict their future behaviors. Thus, inter-personal SPP is critical for success in most aspects of life, including acquiring and retaining friends, a job and a mate. Emotions reinforce inter-personal SPP, such that interactions involving anger, pleasure, sadness, etc. are retained, recalled and processed more thoroughly than interactions occurring in a neutral emotional context.


Language is the quintessential example of the evolved SPP capabilities of the human brain as it involves (once learned) the instantaneous conversion of sounds to visual symbols, and vice-versa. Language is a complex behavior in which auditory and/or visual patterns learned from other individuals or perceived in the environment are encoded, processed and modified for the purpose of transfer of information to other individuals. Language involves the use of patterns (symbols, words, and sounds) to code for objects and events encountered either via direct experience or communication from other individuals. Language-related SPP can create new patterns (stories, paintings, songs, etc.) of “things” that may (reality) or may not (fiction) exist. Language-mediated encoding and transfer of auditory and visual patterns enabled the rapid evolution of the human brain and is likely a major reason for the current dominance of Homo sapiens. (Aboitiz et al., 2006; Berwick et al., 2013).


While birds and non-human primates exhibit auditory communication, their vocalizations convey general information such as danger, rather than detailed instructions. It has been proposed by Tomasello (2008) that the kinds of gestures used by great apes is an evolutionary precursor of language. Studies of infant humans further support the notion that pointing and gestures are an ontogenic precursor to language (Goldin-Meadow, 2007; Liszkowski et al., 2009). Languages involving complex vocabularies and written symbols and words are believed to have arisen in Homo sapiens beginning approximately 100,000 years ago (Berwick et al., 2013). The rapid evolution of language skills, and the underlying neural circuits that mediate language processes, is fully consistent with its fundamental role in the rapid advancement of human societies. Language provides powerful reproductive and survival advantages. A man who engages a woman in stimulating conversation is more likely to attract her as a mate than is an inarticulate man. An army whose soldiers use detailed maps and advanced communication skills is more likely to win a battle than is an army that charges forward “blindly.”


The importance of imagination and invention for the rapid advancement of the human species cannot be overstated. The invention of tools and technologies have dominated the recent development of civilizations throughout the world. The earliest evidence for the invention of tools by our human ancestors dates to approximately 2.5 million years ago in Ethiopia and Kenya where stones were fashioned into cutting tools (Plummer, 2004). At that time hominid brains were about the same size as those of apes (approximately 500 grams), whereas the brain of modern humans is nearly three times larger.


A fascinating aspect of human SPP is the ability to fabricate mental entities that do not exist in the real world, including magical thinking. Magical thinking can be defined as “beliefs that defy culturally accepted laws of causality. In Western culture magical thinking refers to beliefs in, among other things, clairvoyance, astrology, spirit influences, and telepathy.” (Einstein and Menzies, 2004). Superstitions and rituals are examples of types of magical thinking. The cognitive fabrication of imaginary patterns is prominently illustrated in religious beliefs which have presumably provided an adaptive advantage to many societies. Magical thinking is at the core of all major religions wherein specific life events are believed to be controlled by “God,” and the “believers” behavior is designed to please “God” and avoid “his” wrath (Bloom, 2012). Figure 3 illustrates how a type of SPP, magical thinking, has had a major influence on cultural evolution. A recent functional MRI study suggests that religious belief involves neural networks that process information regarding intent and emotion, abstract semantics and imagery (Kapogiannis et al., 2009a). Transcranial magnetic stimulation focused on the left lateral temporal lobe, but not the right lateral temporal lobe or vertex, reduced magical thinking (Bell et al., 2007) providing further insight into the neural networks involved in magical thinking. Interestingly, structural differences between religious and non-religious subjects have been demonstrated including increased volume of right middle temporal cortex and reduced volumes of left precuneus and orbitofrontal cortex in religious subjects (Kapogiannis et al., 2009b). These findings are consistent with psychological theories of the evolution of religious belief which posit adaptive cognitive functions of such magical thinking (Culotta, 2009).


In general, psychiatric disorders result from an abnormal skewing of SPP in ways that dissolve the neural circuit-based boundaries between reality and imagination, between the realms of possibilities and probabilities. There are likely evolution-based reasons that anxiety and depression, and “paranoia spectrum disorders” are so common. Everyone experiences anxiety transiently in situations that involve real threats to oneself or loved ones; this heightened state of arousal is an adaptive response that provides motivation toward actions that can mitigate the danger. However, individuals with an anxiety disorder react to perceived threats that either do not in fact exist or are highly unlikely to occur. Depression is a state of self-doubt and hopelessness that often follows a period of chronic anxiety or a catastrophic life event. It involves a pervasive distortion of reality and an unrealistic catastrophic view of the future.


If SPP has played a fundamental role in the evolution of the human brain, then this should be evident in both the historical record and trajectories of different human populations throughout the world. The SPP theory predicts that populations that more rapidly develop SPP capabilities will experience accelerated accrual of resources and prosperity. The examples of major SPP abilities acquired during human evolution that were considered above (language, invention, imagination, reasoning, and planning for the future) should have each provided a survival and resource-accumulating advantage. The SPP theory therefore predicts that populations that did not develop each of these SPP capabilities would have been outcompeted by those populations with brains that did acquire, through evolution, those SPP capabilities. This prediction is supported by the fact that all surviving populations of H. sapiens use language, invent tools and exhibit imagination and complex reasoning. Hominin populations lacking, or with relatively poorer, SPP capabilities presumably failed to compete successfully, and so no longer exist.


The SPP theory predicts that variability in SPP capabilities among current human populations will be associated with variations in resources, health and welfare (indicators of fitness) of the different populations. Studies have documented positive associations of brain size with greater intelligence, faster decision making and greater cultural achievements between and within genetically differentiated populations of modern humans (Rushton and Jensen, 2008). This suggests that variability in SPP among existing groups of humans may be sufficiently robust to influence their relative fitness and so the future evolution of the human brain. The differential SPP-mediated development of technologies to improve transportation, manufacturing, scientific discovery and health care have resulted in the advancement of some populations above others. Individuals in populations that have most heavily utilized the SPP capabilities of their brains currently enjoy the greatest levels of prosperity, better health and longer lives. The disparities between and within countries are in some cases quite striking, with African countries exhibiting considerably less propensity for SPP, as reflected in poverty, low levels of education, high infant mortality and short lifespans. In contrast, the United States, and many countries in Europe and Asia are experiencing economic growth that is arguably resulting, in large part, from development of SPP-based technologies, with computer-based systems being a prominent example of a human invention that enables processing of information at rates many orders of magnitude beyond the capability of the human brain. Clearly, humans have recognized the central importance of SPP for their advancement as a species.


Finally, the SPP theory predicts that human evolution will continue to involve expansion of the prefrontal cortex and functionally associated brain regions, with resulting improvements in the brain’s ability to rapidly process information and make (good) decisions. The specific outcomes of advanced SPP for future generations remain to be determined, but may (hopefully) include the invention of technologies that eliminate suffering and help ensure the long-term survival of our species.