The Brain Needs to “Wander and Wonder”
Visual spatial thinking is facilitated most readily through the development of art, imagination, and exploration. Art and visual imagery have been key contributors to the human experience considerably longer than the printed word has. Nearly 2.5 million years ago, hand tools surfaced as an integral part of the daily life for primitive mankind.
The first evidence of prehistoric art forms did not appear until roughly 80,000 years ago.
There is an abundance of signs that the earliest art forms were “manuports.” These naturally-formed or man-made portable artifacts were valued for having an appearance that was similar to any well-known object, particular those that were personally important or appealing. These visually attractive objects were saved and carried about, due to their striking likeness to a fertile woman (e.g., the Venus of Wilendorf), a horse or a bison.
A massive cognitive leap took place with the introduction of tools, language, art, and large-groups living. Coincidentally, a threefold increase in hominid braincase also occurred during this same time period. Each of these new human competencies appears to have significantly impacted the fast-paced evolution of the others. The milestones highlighting man’s evolution include the rapid and sudden advances in human intelligence.
The survival imperatives of 2 million years ago dictated that our ancestors cultivate a keen ability to distinguish a potential opportunity from an impending danger, which meant developing visual memory systems coupled with an awareness of the broad categories that could be used to classify objects in the environment. Upon encountering an object or animal, (1) it could be an animal or object that clearly falls into a particular category, (2) it could concurrently enjoy membership in more than one category, and (3) at first glance, its initial identification could be in error. Being cognizant of the three possibilities prompted the evolution of flexibility in one’s responses, which contributed to our ancestors’ survival.
Our startled reaction to a snake-like vine on the walkway has the precautionary benefit of alerting us to a potentially fatal encounter with a poisonous reptile. In 1915, Edgar Rubin gave the above “is-it-a-face-or-is-it-a-vase?” conundrum a permanent place in visual perception research. Mother Nature can be most unforgiving allowing us only one life-ending miscalculation of this type. Cases of fortuitous multiple identifications of this sort determined if one lived to see another day, and reveals how the mind developed a propensity to look for glaringly conspicuous characteristics in objects, which allows us to place them into one category or another.