From a world without words

In Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud, Peter Watson counts the smaller and bigger steps in human development that have had a long-term influence on the way we live and think.

The modern mind evolved through several stages during the period between 400’000-50’000 years ago. Peter Watson refers to Merlin Donald, professor of psychology at Queen’s University in Toronto, who has identified four stages with three transitions. First, there was ‘episodic’ thinking where behaviour consists of short-term responses to the environment, the early humans lived entirely in the here and now, as in a series of episodes. Episodic thinking and behaviour evolved into ‘mimetic’.  We had started walking on two feet (H.Erectus) which had a great effect on our behaviour and development but speech had still not evolved yet. For a long time we had no words to rely on, we only had sounds and visuals.

Erectus lived in a ‘society where cooperation and social coordination of action were central to the species’ survival strategy’. Without language, Erectus nonetheless slowly developed a culture based on mimetics – intentional mime and imitation, facial expression, mimicry of sounds, gestures etc. This was a qualitative change because it allowed for intentionality, creativity, reference, co-ordination and, perhaps above all, says Donald, pedagogy, the acculturation of the young. It was a momentous change also because minds/individuals were no longer isolated. (Ideas)

The reason we can enjoy films and stories in general lies in that stage of development. First, there’s creativity and reference (a drawing or film refers to something that exists; we’re able to understand the meaning of even just a few lines scribbled on the page), but there’s also the ability to mimic and understand mimicry. In order to be able to mimic (or learn) you have to understand the sound or gesture, and to get it emotionally right requires empathy (exposing teeth with anger is different from exposing teeth with joy – a smile). This also applies to creating stories as well as understanding them. The qualities in us that had their beginning such a long time ago are deeply ingrained in us. People were able to read actions, facial expressions and gestures far earlier than they were able to speak which is why this aspect also needs attention in storytelling. Stories are not just about doing and saying things, they’re also about how those things are done and said. So, if I were to mimic a character in your scene, what would there be for me to mimic? Is there enough on the page for me to understand the character without the character’s words?

(c)Warner Bros.

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