Saturday, April 25, 2009


Notorious, fabled “Beat” writer and author of “Naked Lunch”, William S. Burroughs, once defined “paranoia” as “just the state of having all the facts.” Now maybe I’m suffering a little bit from being overwhelmed by facts, but the smiley face has always made me suspicious that it can’t be all that good. At first, Evolutionary biology may not be the most likely refuge of the paranoid, but in the case of the smiley face, it’s brought me nothing less than religion.

The next time your better half, best friend, boss, helpful sales person or gleaming white toothed celebrity smiles at you, think on this—according to Evolutionary biology, the origin of the smile is the reflex that predators make when bearing their teeth at the sight of prospective food. Clearly, there is something we can learn from considering our animal ancestry and in particular, a lot it can teach us about behaviors that we either take for granted, assume we know all about or don’t even question at all. It doesn’t require lifting the veil of time and scrying into the mists of history—it only takes a glimpse at the new gods of sex, drugs, and rock and roll to recognize that we are creatures of biology, first and foremost. Maybe it’s time to use this fact to our advantage once again, given that there are predators like religious fanatics, evil bankers, credit card, and loan sharks on the loose.

I’ve always believed that there’s a lot we can learn from the Upper Paleolithic, a time period when many of our ancestors were retreating from the ice and snow into the solace of fire lit caves. “What can we learn from The Flintstones?” you might ask, besides the fact that all animated shows of yesteryear will at one time or another suffer from being turned into live action features as Hollywood studios trawl the depths of television for recycling purposes. Consider also a trend that Faith Popcorn described in her 1991 book, “The Popcorn Report” which she labeled “cocooning,” whereupon Yuppies are seen as retreating into the new cave of their media centric homes as a way to find relief from the modern rat race. There’s a reason that the root of the word “hearth” is easily found by dropping its final letter “h”. The fireside was once the “heart” of the home and may be again in the form of the postmodern, Green kitchen, if Kevin Henry is right in his latest post on his blog, “The Connected Kitchen”.

My bias is that art usually holds the key to human consciousness at any given time in history and looking at so-called “Prehistoric Art” probably possesses the veritable Keys to the Kingdom. Take for example, the 1879 discovery of the famous cave at Altamira in Spain, which has been called “the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic Art.” One summer day, a Spanish nobleman and amateur archeologist named Don Marcelino de Sautuola was joined by his young daughter, Maria, in a cave on his estate which he had explored for artifacts many times before. Called by John E. Pfeiffer in his book, "The Creative Explosion: An Inquiry Into the Origins of Art and Religion," “one of the great tales in the annals of prehistory,” this episode can be seen as having something to teach us almost like an Upper Paleolithic OS about the powers of common sense and seeing to through the obvious.

Now the stuff of legend, his daughter (whose age varies according the particular account from five and seven to twelve), had wandered into a small, side chamber that was three-to-five feet high in most places. Don Marcelino had traversed it numerous times without noticing what made his daughter cry out loud, “Toros, toros, toros!” Interesting was that in his search for stone artifacts, he was always scouring the floor of the cave and had never actually looked up at the ceiling. As Pfeiffer describes it, “Nothing had prepared Sautuola for the shock of such a discovery. He had explored the chamber and thought he knew what was in it.” While he had used his lantern to avoid being bumped on the head by the protuberances that were covered with vivid paintings in black, red, pinks, and browns, it was by the lantern light that his child made the discovery simply by looking up. Little did she realize that in doing so and revealing the hidden prehistoric art that it would turn her father into an advocate tied to evolutionary theory and to his grave be much maligned as a crank and charlatan by the then protectionist, doubting world of traditional archeology.

An inspiration for his courage in facing harsh criticism that saw the cave paintings as forgeries, his story provides us with OS Principle Number One from the Upper Paleolithic:


In other words, always Look Up in addition to staring at your feet! This is also known as OVER, UNDER, SIDEWAYS, DOWN or the Yardbirds’ Principle since it’s named after their 1965 hit.

Many of the famous caves in Western Europe from the Upper Paleolithic were discovered by children. This includes the most celebrated one of all, France’s Lascaux Cave, discovered in 1940 by four youths who were chasing a pet dog named Robot, who had disappeared into a hole in the ground that turned out to lead to the great subterranean galleries below. Some are even named after their youthful discoverers like “Les Trois Freres” after the three young brothers who first crawled its lengths.

As Pfeiffer says about Maria, the discoverer of the Altamira cave, “…she was too young to have acquired a bias against looking up rather than looking down.” He continues that her father, “…had no real interest in the walls or ceiling of the cave. He was an excavator interested above all in what he could find at his feet, on the floor, such things as flint artifacts and bones and remains of hearths. The low ceiling of the side chamber was only a hazard to him, something to avoid.” The point is that life is at the very least, three-dimensional and we need to see ourselves both inside and out of the box in order to be creative and truly “think outside the box”.

This leads us inevitably to OS Principle Number Two from the Upper Paleolithic:


When in doubt, don’t let age or experience be a factor. I remember once when my daughter was four and she asked me, “Daddy, why does infinity never stop?” For the first time as a parent, I had the survival instinct to ask her instead of trying to come up with any sort of reasonable answer. “What do you think, honey?” I asked her. Without losing a beat she replied, “Because they ran out of numbers!” You might be astounded by the insights offered by the unbiased eyes of the culturally agnostic and the brains of young souls who are closer to the tabula rasa.

Pfeiffer says, “Archeological records include many cases of art overlooked. The eye never comes innocent to its subject. Everything seen is a blend of what actually exists out there, the “real” object, and the viewer’s expectations, upbringing, and current state of mind. It is amazing what you can miss when you do not expect to see anything or, given a strong enough motive, what you can see that is not there. Unless the mind is properly adjusted or set, anticipating a revelation of a particular sort, nothing happens.”

Principle three, therefore, follows this theme of perception:


Otherwise known as the “Up From The Skies” Principle after the lyrics from Jimi Hendrix. Or better yet, it could be called “Anticipate Revelation.”

Why do the Aboriginal people of Australia believe that our world is the dream and that the true world is the Dreamtime beyond our consensus reality? With 40,000 to 50,000 years of experience to draw upon, one has to ask the question. Like the San people of South Africa, the Aborigines are one of the only cultures who still have an ongoing tradition of painting caves.

You don’t have to get tribal to appreciate the Other Side of the Sky. There is a story about visionary English poet, William Blake, that is a case in point. Upon hearing a knock on the door, his wife once answered the caller’s inquiry as to whether Mr. Blake was at home, by responding: “No. He spends most of his time in heaven.”

Shamanic cultures tend not to throw out anything that works. In other words, if you are bent on survival, why dispose of the practical. This is just one factor that supports the efficacy of shamanism as an alternative medical practice as well as a way of seeing that there are many more worlds than ordinary “9 to 5” reality. Chief Seattle took this to its logical conclusion when he said, “There is no death, only a change of worlds.”

Like quantum physicists, cave dwellers and modern tribal peoples believe that the stone walls of caves are more like membranes between this world and that of the ancestors. So, placing a painting of one’s own handprint on top of an ancestor’s creates a link where one is able to touch and pass through to a kind of historic continuum to the ancestral chain of being. Drawing an animal is believed to have been an appeal on the part of hunters to ask permission of their quarry’s spirit prior to hunting for food.

The representations of animals in the Upper Paleolithic caves are so realistic that they seem to breathe, especially in torchlight and placed as they often are on outcrops that enhance their shape—the artists were obviously very familiar at close range to their subject and their depictions are in many cases without peer in the millennia that have transpired since. No less than the like of Picasso testified to this when, after seeing the extinct Altamira bison created 15,000 thousand years previously, remarked: “ None of us could paint like that.”

This raises how art enters the picture, which brings us to principle number four:


In his illuminating book on cognitive archeology, “Shamanism and the Ancient Mind”, James L. Pearson says: “From the first discovery of prehistoric painting at Altamira to the stunning finds at Grotte Cosquer and Chauvet Cave in the 1990’s, researchers have tried to uncover the meaning of this Ice Age art and the function of the painted caves.” The field of study that undertakes to explore the caves and other sites associated with such decoration is called “Rock Art,” a label that, while helpful for academics, presents some semantic problems when looked at with the tribal eye.

The basic issue is not only how to define art—a challenge we’ll leave to the experts for now—but according to Steven Mithen in “The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art and Science”: “…the definition of art is culturally specific. Indeed many societies who create splendid rock paintings do not have a word for art in their language.”

Is “rock art” art if the producers didn’t think so? For most of the 20th century, prevailing wisdom associated cave art with hunting magic. Others scholars and researchers like Mircea Eliade, Joan Halifax, Weston La Barre, Andreas Lommel, and David Whitley suggested that Lascaux, Les Trois Freres and other rock art sites depicted shamans and supernatural helpers.

World-renowned authorities Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams expanded on a preceding neuropsychological model and combined it with ethnography in their 1998 book “The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves”: “The way in which each individual cave was structured and decorated was a unique result of the interaction of four elements: the topography of the cave, its passages, and chambers; the universal functioning of the human nervous system and in particular, how it behaves in altered states; the social conditions, cosmologies, and religious beliefs of the different times at which a cave was used; and lastly, the catalyst—the ways in which individual people and groups of people exploited and manipulated all of these elements for their own purposes.”

The most fascinating connection that is made in the neuropsychological model is between the actual symbolic elements in rock art and phosphene action that takes place in the human eye, whether during altered or natural states. Just rub your eyes and you’ll see these shapes and signs that are created by the firing of the optic nerve. Many are universal forms like jigsaws, dots, rakes, and spirals that appear throughout rock art sites across millennia and all over the world. The question then becomes how much of what we see is conscious and how much is not?

In this view, what is considered as representational art has a connection to the ability to create symbols with intention, and turns creative expression into an index as to the level of consciousness of a specific culture at a particular time and space. Cognitive archeology says that the production of representational art requires a certain brain capacity that sees outside itself. When I’ve taken tribal people from different cultures to see the rock art sites in the local Santa Monica Mountains, they are always careful to offer interpretations circumscribed by their own culture. “To us,” they start with a disclaimer, “these paintings represent clan symbols.” But, they are always deferential about the meaning, intent or purpose for the tribe who created them. This perspective leads to our next principle:


As Freud famously said. The bottom line in terms of my own experience at rock art sites is that you can’t dismiss that some of paintings and petroglyphs were just doodling and a sort of tribal version of “Kilroy Was Here” message. Maybe it was just a fine day around the water hole where hunter-gatherers had the luxury of some extra time on their hands and thought to memorialize their afternoon with their mark. So, we have to consider that some of the “art” may have not been conceived of as representational or symbolic at all, but just as either functional—as with hunting magic—or doodles that were pleasing to the eye but meant nothing more. But, one of the manias of our scientific age is to attempt to find a rational way to explain everything.

One of the difficulties in rock art research is that there is no Rosetta Stone handy to decipher pictographs and petroglyphs. Outside of cultures with living traditions of rock art like the Aborigine and San people, it is not straight forward to interpret what they mean. Instead, we are often left with the beautiful problem of confronting meaning ourselves as a primary experience without interpretation—with nothing between us and the original maker of the markings—and a rare occurrence that we should treasure in this media immersive world that interprets our experience of the world to death for us in over three thousand advertisements, logos, and consumer messages a day.

So, what may be art to us with historical distance from the circumstances and cultural context in which cave paintings were created, they may have had quite a functional purpose to those who originally produced it, whether it was to evoke the ancestors, supernatural or animal powers or clan territory. My take is that even though the scientific method and was born out of the Age of Reason and out of rejection of religious belief, it still is based in part on fear of the Unknown. The search for meaning is one way to moderate fear, leading naturally to our next precept:


Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is not a train. One of the most impressive thing about caves is the kind of absolute darkness that we ordinarily never experience. To enter one, you often have to deal with fear. On some primordial level, you feel as if you are leaving the lighted world to say nothing of carrying along the cultural baggage of the collective unconscious associated with the netherworld.

Imagine what it must have been like to descend into one of these places as a twelve-year-old initiate in Upper Paleolithic society, led by the most frightening person in the tribe—the shaman—and making your way by hook and by crook, on your hands and knees, in the mud and underground streams, listening to the drip-drip-drip of water seeping from the land above mixed with the strange sounds of nether dwelling life forms and suddenly seeing forms of animals and other strange shapes come alive with lighting of the shaman’s lamp. It probably was an experience that would give religion to any one of us.

A recent book by Martin Lindstrom called “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy” features excellent material relating to the use of fMRI technology, but one finding, in particular, is quite surprising. The results of fMRI scans have demonstrated a connection between religion and consumer behavior. Apparently, experiments showed that the part of the brain activated during religious ceremonies and experiences is the same as the region which is active during shopping, watching commercials, and gazing at corporate logos.

Ad Age reported on April 6 about findings from the New York Buyology Symposium that presented brain scanning data making correlations between “cult-like brands” such as Harley Davidson and Ferrari and the emotional drivers associated with believers in the world’s largest religion, Christianity.

Dr. Gregory Berns is a psychiatrist who is also a leading authority on neuroeconomics, and biomedical engineering. Neuroeconomics is a study that combines neurology, psychology and economics and looks at understanding how individuals and groups make decisions, take risks, and experience rewards. One of the primary tools that they use is fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) which studies brain response by correlating specific neuron firing in the brain with the decision making process.

Berns’ new book, "Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How To Think Differently," reveals the limitations that the fear response places on creativity and innovation. In an extended interview in the current edition of Super Consciousness magazine, he says, “The importance of the distinctions in how each of us sees the world cannot be underestimated…perception is not something that is immutably hardwired into the brain.” He profiles recent findings that show how we are capable of transforming the way we perceive life and can redirect neurological firing. It’s not an easy feat, requiring extraordinary mental training and energy, but the idea stands as one of the fundamental principles of neuroeconomics.

According to Berns: “…one of the brain’s primary survival mechanisms is conserving energy. The brain does this by limiting energy expenditure during normal everyday awareness…for most people, though, breaking out of the comfort zone of their energy conservative perceptions is often a fearful proposition.”

He goes on to say that fear limits our ability to be creative and is a huge impediment to innovation. Similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s recent treatment in “Outliers”, Berns sees the great innovators as outsiders and iconoclasts who are able to face risk, “but cognitively reframe (such situations) so as to estimate some kind of likelihood of success or failure to make a decision.” He calls it “the optimism bias,” which allows them to “downplay negative scenarios” as opposed to buy into the uncertainty or ambiguity that are at the root of primal fear. It’s interesting that structural ambiguity is a feature of many video game design as described, for example, by Jim Gasperini in “Structural Ambiguity: An Emerging Interactive Aesthetic” in “Information Design” edited by Robert Jacobsen.

Economists call one kind of uncertainty risk where there is a possibility of success or failure, but one can estimate the odds and determine some likelihood of the outcome. Neuroscience indicates that the fear response is generated when we don’t have a complete picture or a state of ambiguity. The current financial crisis has inspired fear, according to Berns, because we don’t have all the facts about how deep it is and how far it’s going to go.

In a May Atlantic article about the financial crisis, Cody Lundin says, “Risk-taking went over the edge. We are inventing something new. We’re very afraid. We know from the Depression that people who lived through it didn’t change their mentality for the rest of their lives. They were sewing socks. They refused to take a lot of chances. My sense is that it will take 10 or 20 years to find that spark of risk-taking in people again.”

The way that we approach risk is at the basis of strategy. One of the things that our hunter-gatherer ancestors learned from animals is low risk behavior. Berns describes it as, “…head in the sand, everyone in the bunker, cut back spending, hoard what I have, and wait for the storm to pass. That is a very instinctual response and again, goes back to the survival instinct. When you are afraid, you tend to retreat and hoard what you have. Animals that have the capacity to think through the situation just wait it out. That is a low risk strategy and will probably work to maintain your status quo, which is fine if that is what you want. The innovator sees everyone else doing that, and it is precisely in those circumstances that it makes the most sense for them to take risks.”

Fear is, therefore, not the optimal operating system. In “The Science of Fear”, Daniel Gardner demonstrates how many irrational fears are based on the way that humans miscalculate risks. To be creative, perhaps innovate, and ultimately, to succeed, we need to transcend fear of the cave of the mind. In one of his notebooks, Leonardo Da Vinci wrote: “Drawn by my eager wish, desirous of seeing the great confusion of the various strange forms created by ingenious nature, I wandered for some time among the shadowed cliffs and came to the entrance of a great cavern. I remained before it for a while stupefied and ignorant of the existence of such a thing. With my back bent and my left hand resting on my knee, and shading my eyes with my right, with lids lowered and closed, and often bending this way and that to see whether I could discern anything within. But this was denied me by the great darkness inside and after I stayed a while, there arose in me two things: fear and desire. Fear, because of the menacing dark cave, and desire to see whether there were any miraculous thing within.”

Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending argue in their new book, “The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution” that recent genetic change has been far more expansive than the traditional “great leap forward” that scientists believed defined human beings some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. This was the period which also gave us the birth of artistic expression with examples of the so-called Venus sculptures appearing 40,000 to 60,000 years ago and a flute dated at some 54,000 years. The actual beginnings of art are the subject of much debate and estimates can range up to 100,000 years ago. What is agreed on is that a creative explosion took place around 30,000 years ago, the date of the Chauvet Cave and amazingly, in full development. Whether Cochran and Harpending’s theory has validity or not, I still think that the invention of fire is pretty hard to top with language and art a close second and third. The nature of images, whether art or otherwise, leads to our final principle:


Maybe it all comes down to what Fred Barnard once said in 1921 when he coined the expression, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” He was speaking about the signs on the sides of streetcars. No matter, if the cave mind operating system has a purpose for us today, it’s because it drives us with mysterious images to think beyond words, to face our fears, and find consciousness in the stars that light up our brains.


Silvanus Slaughter said...

Cave Mind and Caves...

Well, a plethora of take-off points, as usual, Mr. Stein. First off, if I dare say, is the tidbit from Blake's wife, which is what my friend Dee says to people when they remark that I seem to spend half of my day/night staring at the sky with a cigarette and espresso, and the other half at the piano playing and singing. Earth is beloved, but becomes Hell if you can't levitate above it, at least for me.

As per the 'cave mind', I have a question (and I have found some others who share this): why do I stare at infinite deep space and stars when I close my eyes at night oftenttimes? It's beyond 3-D. If anyone knows, you must. Moreover, sometimes I fall into it, or it appears to whiz by, and on occassion these unknown and ancient faces with very intimidating eyes stare back at me. Any experience of this?

As per Dreamtime, have you heard Steve Roach's incredible sonic 2 CD masterpiece, "Dreamtime Return" from a 1988 Australian TV special on the Aboriginals's?

It seems to me the idea of dreamtime is in line with a lot of statements from other thought systems.

Personally, I found this 'place' once - outside of time - while living in San Francisco that I call the 'Upper Northwest Corner'. Why, I don't know(!) but that is the only way I make words of it: a "position of awareness" I'd term it, outside of time, occupying some kind of weightless space in which I am able to retain my sense of an appearance with faculties, and nothing much to do there but sit in awe alonsgide Bliss. Maybe your extensive background in so much has some revelation as to why I am compelled to call this "the Upper Northwest Corner." I don't know -- it just came to me.

You see what your columns do to me!

Kevin M Henry said...

Over the last hundred years or so the “Futurist” have predicted that our future would bring jetpacks, mile-high cities, vacations on Mars and the kitchen of this brave new world would be laid out and function much like a medical laboratory. A place where actual food and food preparation would be banned and we would pop “food-pills” and consume “radar-ranged” freeze-dried dinners. Thankfully these visions are still the stuff of science fiction. As we enter this brave new world, we realize that the kitchen of the new millennium hasn’t really evolved that far from the kitchen of the last century or the century before that.

Today, for all our technological advances, we still face many of the same quandaries that plagued our predecessors in ancient times. Ever since Og brought home his first mastodon kill and invited the clan over for Sunday brunch, leaving Mrs. Og to wonder…Were there enough rocks for all the guests to sit on? What about this new thing called fire? And where was she going to store two tons of leftover hairy elephant meat?

We find that the kitchen is one of those rare universals truths that can be found around the world. The kitchen you find in Los Angeles is almost identical to one in Venice or Bangladesh. As a matter of fact you will find that the traditional layout of any kitchen can be found from a mud-hut in the Amazon to a 5th Avenue penthouse.

We find the same pattern in archeological excavations from Taos, New Mexico to the ruins of Pompeii. At the core of the “primal” kitchen we find three basic elements; fire, water and storage.

The only real evolution that we find is in the appearance and technology. From the “hearth” to the “wood-burning” stove to the “induction cook top”. From the water-bucket to the hand-pump to the integrated dishwasher. From the “apple-cellar” to the “icebox” to the “Sub Zero Refrigerator”. It is not about how the kitchen has changed, but more how we have changed the usage of this once purely functional space.

Kevin M Henry said...

In the late seventies and early eighties, I was a graphic designer, specializing in a new art form of corporate identity called "logo" design. In those days I was a student of symbolic art and was moved by the power that these simple gliphs could have on an individual, or group or even a nation…I am thinking of the swastika and NAZI Germany. I can remember my barely 2 year old son and his ability to recognize the McDONALDS “Golden Arches” from his car seat. I once believed that our written language would one day evolve into a system of symbols and glyphs to tell our stories as our brains filled in the gaps with our communal memory. Your post moved me to think what cave painters must have been thinking…what drove them to leave their mark on the cave wall…be it a handprint or a detailed buffalo hunt…was someone passing time or was their magic in the paint…or just a caveman version of a “Kodak” moment. I was thinking that we over think these things to give them meaning when I saw my son on the floor with paper and crayons and it struck me that they did it for the best reason of all…for the love of doing it.

Kevin Stein said...

Thank you for your comments, Silvanus. I think that there are a number of clues buried in the Cave Mind post (especially last paragraph) that speak to your experiences of the astral. As Pete Townshend said in "Naked Eye": "The stars are all connected to the brain." The Mind is the Sky is the Cave is the Mind is the Sky. It's all available to us in the akasha whether it's ancient faces of ancestral spirit guides calling from the Upper World or the stars whose language we once spoke--now denuded as "astrology."

The upper northwest is half way to death in the First Nations compass of sacred directions. My guess is that you're experience is proof positive of why the worthies of yore have generally described sleep as "a rehearsal for death."

Don Juan characterized the deal once by saying that we have 24 hours of consciousness, so why shouldn't we be awake when we're dreaming. Music like Steve Roach helps I find...

Kevin Stein said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin Stein said...

Kevin, thank you for your inspiring comment. When I consider the advances we've made as a species since the Upper Paleolithic, I truly wonder how far we’ve come--some of the basics like language, fire, and art are pretty hard to top. Perhaps the current economic downturn is dialing up the Archaic Revival and we will see basic survival--i.e. function--starting to dominate form, once again—especially if we consider how most of the world still lives.

The cave paintings of the Western European sites pose the same question as the modern hearth—what is the balance between form vs. function?

Kevin Stein said...

Kevin, the following poem really puts it all into focus for me:

Hands by Robinson Jeffers

Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara
The vault of rock is painted with hands,
A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men's palms, no more,
No other picture.
There's no one to say
Whether the brown shy quiet people who are dead intended
Religion or magic, or made their tracings
In the idleness of art, but over the division of years these careful Signs-manual are now like a sealed message
Saying: "Look: we also are human; we had hands, not paws. All hail
You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters
In the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down
And be supplanted; for you also are human.

Anonymous said...

Access to the cave, to create and to view was limited by access to fire. Was fire in those days a controlled commodity or one that was unregulated? Could any kid grab a torch and head inside, or only the shaman or other tribal head? Petroglyphs in a desert were probably more democratic as done in the light, but likely the cave represented the highest communications of the tribe because they involved access to a presumably regulated resource (fire and torches). When the oil lamp was invented, that would have changed as light was more freely available for night work, but at that point in civilization, caves were probably more for hiding scrolls and copulating than for worship. Thanks for a great blog, but I will never be able to see anyone smile again without wondering if they have the subconscious urge to gnaw my carotid.

Liz Gebhardt said...

Kevin -

I think a post with your take of 'form v function' would be great.