Cognitive Evolution

Getting an autistic child to point is often a breakthrough.


S o far we have talked about a working definition of praxis. We've described some of the characteristics of praxis, We've talked about the relationship between praxis and language, what the have in common etc. We've talked about the role that ideation plays in both praxis and language. Next I'd like to explore the role of Praxis in Cognitive Evolution. This will shed some light on the comprehensive influence of praxis on communication even before the evolution of language.


M erlin Donald, in his book Origins of the Modern Mind, talks about stages of cognitive evolution that were involved in the transition from primate mind to modern mind. Some of these stages are especially relevant in helping to understand the link between praxis and language. With a better understanding of these stages I think we can start to see a map of some of the functions that go array in autism.

Apes have many cognitive skills that are pre-linguistic in nature. They can imitate signs, they can learn solutions to a problem through observation and imitation, they can use tools, and they can self- identify in front of a mirror. They have many behaviors that attempt to communicate information. For example Apes will attempt to lead an examiner by the hand, climb into a high chair when they are hungry, and remove a bib to indicate being finished with a meal (see Donald p123-149) These behaviors are much like the pre-linguistic child yet they seem to lack intentionality that is evident in a child's gesturing. This is emphasized by the absence of spontaneous pointing behavior. Donald notes that lack of pointing is also characteristic of autistic children. The autistic child frequently can climb on the counter top to get what they want to eat, yet they more often than not, don't point. Simon Baron Cohen in his study of the perceptual features of autism found absence of pointing behavior to be significant attribute of the disorder. Getting an autistic child to point is often a breakthrough. Apes do not use intentional gestural signals in the wild. Apes are capable of using signs however the idea of inventing a signing system never occurred to them.


T his emphasis on invention is a key piece of the puzzle (134) and invention fits nicely with the concept of ideation we've talked about in praxis. The organizing and executing portion of praxis may also be involved but it is the invention out of nothing, or the ideation, which seems to be particularly compromised in Autism and PDD. Apes lack language but they also lack much of the non-verbal communication evident in humans who have been stripped of language. Their behavior is concrete, unreflective, and situation-bound (p149). They live entirely in the present. The highest level in their system of memory is event representation where as humans have abstract symbolic memory. Therefore Apes are bound to concrete situation or episodes.

Representation Action and the Development of Symbolic Thought

In Merlin Donald's 1991 book Origins of the Modern Mind he talks about the transition from primate cognition, to human cognition without language, and to the emergence of language and human culture 'The modern human mind evolved from the primate mind through a series of major adaptations each of which led to the emergence of a new representational system.' Each successive new representational system has remained intact within our current mental architecture, so that the modern mind is a mosaic structure of cognitive vestiges from earlier stages of human emergence. The modern representation structure of the human mind encompasses the gains of all our hominid ancestors, as well as those of certain apes, however the cognitive distance from apes to humans is extraordinarily great, much greater than might be imagined just from comparative anatomy. The key word is REPRESENTATION. Humans did not simply evolve a larger brain, an expanded memory, a lexicon, or a special speech apparatus; rather we evolved new systems for representing reality.


D evelopment of Symbolic Thought: During this process, our representation apparatus some how perceived the utility of symbols, and invented them from whole cloth; in other words no symbolic environment preceded them. Most animals cannot use symbols at all, and no animal except humans has ever invented a symbolic device in its natural environment. 'The question is how did humans, given their non-symbolic mammalian heritage come to represent their knowledge in symbolic form?'

'How did humans bridge the tremendous gap between symbolic thought and the non-symbolic forms of intelligence that still dominate the rest of the animal kingdom?'

I believe that in understanding what happened in evolution, in understanding what bridged the gap between the primate mind to the representational mind present today, we can understand where some of this fails to develop in the autistic child and the population we treat and some of what is under the control of the Cochlea Integrator Because during the relatively short time of human emergence, the structure of the primate mind was radically altered, or rather, it was gradually surrounded by new representational systems and absorbed into a larger cognitive apparatus. (see Merlin Donald Origins of the Modern Mind p2-4, 150-160) If we look at cognitive evolution with the perspective of symbolic representation, we will see the role praxis has played in language, cognitive, and communicative development.

Episodic Thought: EPISODIC CULTURE

Donald talks about stages of cognitive evolution that lead to modern symbolic communication The first stage is episodic thought. Episodic thought is memory system for specific episodes in life. For events with a specific time-space locus. The feature of this type of memory is its concrete, perceptual nature and it is the retention of specific episodic details. A Dog can be taught to sit by a command Episodic memory is present in a variety of animals including mammals and birds' thought is more evolved in apes however. In episodic memory the event can only be remembered in a literal, situation specific manner. In episodic memory it is not possible to re-present a situation, not possible to reflect upon it so my cat is not probably dreaming about the mouse she caught. The dog doesn't think about sitting. It would not seem that episodic thought is the level of cognition that is most compromised in Autism and PDD and this may explain why a discrete trial format approach to intervention can be so success ful. These techniques are using this type of memory to develop large repertoires of skills.

However this is also one of the drawbacks in only using this sy stem, because unless the next levels of mimetic and symbolic representation are functioning in the child, they can't necessarily generalize the information. This is where we have something to offer with the Tomatis Method I believe that we have techniques that bring in the other levels of thought that can allow for that generalization.

Mimetic Culture

There was a major breakthrough in the culture of Homo erectus. It was the intermediate between the episodic mind of primates and the symbolic representation systems that characterize modern humanity. Somehow Homo erectus broke free of some of the constraints of episodic thought and made a major cognitive step forward: the bridge to symbolic representation. Donald proposes that in Homo erectus an archaic yet distinctly human culture that served several important functions in the chain of evolutionary reasoning, and we shall see that these characteristics are relevant to our discussion on praxis. There are still vestiges of mimetic culture embedded with our modern culture, and a mimetic mind embedded within the overall architecture of the modern human mind. The properties of cognition that evolved in Homo erectus would then go on to serve as the basis for the later arrival of human language. It is evident that symbolic language was preceded by a culture of some intellectual power. So there was a transition period of a type of cognitive evolution that was pre-linguistic.

We can see remnant of this cognition in situations such as the illiterate deaf-mutes of past societies, and the intentional skills of the pre-linguistic child. (Remember the intentional skills that were lacking in the ape that I am arguing is the equivalent to praxis.) With the illiterate deaf mutes of the past century, prior to the development of standardized sign language, we can see glimpses of the human mind without symbolic language and even without language; the human mind is still far superior to that of the ape. Also these people were not incomplete, they do not appear as though they are missing a cognitive part in that they are able to cope with the demands of the world, provided that symbolic language is not required. (In other words they functioned with praxis, as Ayres would define it as 'a kind of intelligence that enables us to deal effectively with the every day demands of life. Different from general intelligence or I would say linguistically based intelligence')

So the deaf people of the past century who were not taught to speak or write were cognitively intact as is the pre-linguistic child. They weren't autistic simply because they couldn't speak. This is simplistic but so often we equate autism with a language problem, particularly an auditory processing problem which it is, but it is also so much more, because it is equally a problem of praxis, but a different type of praxis than we usually consider. Illiterate deaf-mutes, who were studied intensively in the 19th century, were fully aware in every sense of the word. They could invent gestures on the spot, and demonstrated excellent intentional communicative skill. They could operate machinery, invent solutions to practical problems, and they were able to teach and communicate skills, and manage complex social situations. Donald proposes that for a million year, Homo Erectus operated like this. The type of thought that characterized Homo Erectus is called mimetic thought.

Characteristic of Mimetic Thought

Mimetic thought is the ability to produce conscious self-initiated representational acts that are intentional but not linguistic. (see Donald p165-168). Mimesis is fundamentally different from imitation in that it involves the invention of intentional representations. It is this ability to generate or the invention of a representational symbol that account for the break from the episodic mind to mimetic thought. Mimesis can incorporate a wide variety of actions and modalities. Tones of voice, facial expression, eye movements, manual signs and gestures, postural attitudes, patterned whole-body movements. All of this was the beginning of modern cognition without language. We can see that a pre-linguistic toddler has all this above-mentioned abilities. These are characteristics of the modern human, which are isolatable from language. These abilities are the intermediate between the episodic and symbolic thought. We can also see that this type of non-linguistic communication is seriously compromised in the autistic/PDD child. We don't see the kind of gesturing that is present in mimetic thought structure. This is a major difference. Mime is intentional - it's objective is to represent an event.

So intentional communication in modern humans is not restricted to language: it proceeded language in ontogenesis and had possibly a million year history. Intention pointing first emerges at 14 months in children. (It does not exist in chimpanzees or any of the apes.) You have to be able to break out of the egocentricity of your episodic mind to call someone else's attention to an external object, and then to point out to him what it is that you see; what you are thinking about. Donald proposes that intentional pointing this must have been the beginning of the shift into intentional communication. And those archaic mimetic skills must have started on this level. It is interesting that lack of intentional pointing is such a hallmark feature of Autism. From what I have described so far it would appear that Praxis is very much like what Donald refers to as Mimetic abilities. There are similarities but there are also differences, which I will allude to later. Therefore it would appear that praxis is an earlier evolutionary skill from language and provided a bridge to later achieve language - and if the Autistic PDD individual is lacking this mimic ability they may also have difficulty in language development. (Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny) Remember that Ayres referred to praxis as a kind of intelligence and according to Donald it was this kind of intelligence that was the intermediate between the episodic mind and the symbolic representation systems. We need to consider this in working with individuals with Autism and PDD. As consultant for the Tomatis Method we need to have the skills to explain and address this large area of cognitive development that underlies language. The parents of the children I work with are often so involved in waiting for speech that they need to be guided to observe and support the pre-linguistic period that may be emerging in the child.

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