How did our brains develop to understand the world as we know it today, and how did religion come of it?
This is a question that Steven Mithen, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading in the U.K., explored by studying how our nervous systems evolved, and included in his book, "The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion, and Science," according to Big Think.
Essentially, Mithen said there were three phases of cognitive development. During the first phase, our ancestors developed basic comprehension. For example, they could understand why deer migrate at a certain time of year.
Phase two involved specialized intelligence, like how to build tools that could help with survival. In phase three, language was developed. Humans could create and communicate abstract thoughts.
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That type of abstract understanding is why we were able to develop a complex communication system, one that has never been developed by any other species on Earth.
Mithen said, "When thoughts originating in different domains can engage together, the result is an almost limitless capacity for imagination."
Beginning about 40,000 years ago, in the Upper Paleolithic era,our ancestors began creating art, which served as a record for future generations. A lot of art from this period depicted animals, indicating that humans were beginning to think deeply about their place in nature and the world as a whole, he said.
It was that type of thinking that led to religion, Mithen said. Highlighting the main ideologies that developed during that time, Mithen noted:
The process of perceiving the world through the eyes of religion has been embedded in our genes for approximately 50,000 years.
This is why religion just "makes sense" to some people, factual evidence aside. But whatever your views on religion might be, it can serve the purpose of helping us understand a main component of our ancestors' cognitive abilities.