News FocusEVOLUTION OF BEHAVIOR

Did Working Memory Spark Creative Culture?

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Science  09 Apr 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5975, pp. 160-163
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5975.160

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Summary

According to a pair of researchers, a stepwise increase in working memory capacity was central to the evolution of advanced human cognition. They argue that the final steps, consisting of one or more genetic mutations that led to "enhanced working memory," happened sometime after our species appeared nearly 200,000 years ago, and perhaps as recently as 40,000 years ago. With enhanced working memory, modern humans could do what their ancestors could not: express themselves in art and other symbolic behavior, speak in fully grammatical language, plan ahead, and make highly complex tools. This special focus package on the evolution of behavior also discusses the proposition that the first archaeological signs of art and symbolism mark new heights of social interaction rather than a cognitive leap (see p. 164) and a computer tournament that reveals the benefit of copying someone else's actions over solving a problem solo, a finding that has implications for cultural evolution (see p. 165).