All posts by rjelse

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Cognition, learning, and evolution in human and non-human primates

Primate Social Cognition, Human Evolution, and Niche Construction
Evolution of a student

The old image of a human evolving from an ape by gradually getting more upright is a common way to portray the concept of evolution, even though the imagery portrays a slightly incorrect concept: humans did not evolve “from apes,” modern day humans and modern day non-human primates evolved from a common ancestor. While this distinction may seem semantic, it’s important to note because the study of modern non-human primates is not quite exactly the same as peering back into our own evolutionary history. It can, however, still offer incredible insights into the overall evolution of our species, especially when it comes to cognition and learning, and offers clues as to how our species’ brain evolved the way it did. That is, studying cognition across the Primate order can provide a framework for understanding cognitive functioning and evolution.

One of the key commonalities all primates share is a dependence on close social relationships for support with security, food resources, and child rearing (MacKinnon and Fuentes 2012). Living in stable social groups allowed early primates to be able to deal with threats more efficiently. This lead to changes in the environment, such as, among other things, predators deciding to go after other pray. As threats lessened as a result of the adaptation of social groups, primates were then able to spend more time and energy in building social relationships, exploring territory, and experimenting with different foraging strategies (MacKinnon and Fuentes 2012). All of this lead to primates both requiring and having the opportunity to increase cognitive functioning. In this way, primates shaped their environment and were in turn shaped by the changing environment. This concept is called niche construction—primates created a niche for themselves in their environment that shaped both the environment and their evolution. This concept illuminates some of the intricacies involved in understanding evolution: the model of organisms merely adapting to their environments for the purpose of survival doesn’t quite capture the complexity involved.

Human niche construction and evolution, specifically, depended upon an increasingly sophisticated way of interacting with the environment. With the use of more tools, better survivability rates for infants, and increasingly complex methods of communication, early humans were able to efficiently increase their territory and cooperate within and among groups. The success of these adaptations meant more resources, and the conditions were fertile for the evolution of human cognition.

This chapter gives a good, easy to understand overview of the evolution of primate cognition, and makes a good case for the purpose of studying primate cognition in neuroanthropology. Of course, as an overview it ends up lacking in some specificity of the concepts covered, but the following articles address some of the more important areas more in-depth.

Understanding Primate Brain Evolution

The increasingly social nature of primates, as well as the increasing complexity of interactions with the environment, lead to an increase in the types of interactions and concepts that needed to be exchanged. To put it another way, the complexity of interactions increased. This is the basic idea behind the social brain hypothesis, which says that brain size, specifically the neocortex, is correlated with not just group size but the complexity of relationships within a social group (Dunbar and Shultz 2007). Some examples of complex social interactions necessary for survival in large groups that primates exhibit that require higher cognitive functioning include tactical deception, social play, and the use of subtle social strategies (Dunbar and Shultz 2007). The increase in neocortex size does not come without some tradeoffs, however: diet, infant care, and development have all shifted to account for the change in brain size necessitated by and necessary for increasingly complex social interactions.

This article is a thorough examination of the variables at stake in understanding the evolution of primate cognition. However, the statistical analyses and language used make it unapproachable for a casual reader. The previous piece covers the subject material in a more approachable way, though certainly doesn’t go into the depth of what’s involved in the social brain hypothesis.

Play, Social Learning, and Teaching

Complex social interactions like the ones required for primate survival, and that lead to the evolved human brain, needed to have been passed down from generation to generation in order to be evolutionary. One primary way learning of this kind takes place is through social play. Play is, in terms of survival, both costly and risky, which means that it likely has significant adaptive value (Konner 2010). As it turns out, the smartest animals are the ones that play the most, and it’s likely these two things co-evolved (Konner 2010). Interestingly, while the size of the neocortex is associated with intelligence and social complexity, the capacity for play appears to be housed in the limbic system, an older and more primitive part of the brain; however, animals with larger brains do play more and the animals with the largest brains play the most (Konner 2010), perhaps reflecting the increased complexity of the learning that needs to occur. For more information on the regions of the brain, see Kalat (2012).

While the process is not fully understood, social learning, unlike basic learning processes, likely takes place due imitative learning, assisted by the mirror-neuron system (MNS; Konner 2010). The MNS activates not only when one observes an action, but also right before an action is taken, which suggests that there is a link to the ability to perceive the intentions of others (Konner 2010).

This chapter comes from a book on childhood and development, so this chapter on social play doesn’t quite go into the specific depth that we might be interested in as neuroanthropologists, especially the neurobiology of social learning. While the mirror-neuron system is interesting and an exciting step toward understanding, its treatment is rather shallow and other systems aren’t included in the explanation.

Primate Cognition

While the above articles explain in varying degrees of accessibility the arguments for the evolutionary path of human cognition, they don’t go into much detail about the cognitive capabilities of our primate ancestors. Understanding the extent of primate cognition could help to understand the capabilities that primates had, prehistorically, that could contribute to and be shaped by their social complexity. According to Beran et al. (2016), controlled attention, episodic and prospective memory, metacognition, and delay of gratification have all been observed in chimpanzees. Non-human primates don’t match the cognitive abilities of humans in these areas, but their presence sheds light on the potential cognitive capabilities of our primate ancestors. Of course, it needs to be kept in mind that their study was done in a controlled laboratory setting with a modern chimpanzee, so the results would be different than a wild primate ancestor.

The scope of research included in this paper is impressive. Each component of cognition is tested well, with good results. While it is a psychology-oriented paper, more discussion of the implications for the understanding of primate evolution would have been welcome. Additionally, there isn’t any discussion of how these cognitive capabilities would be expressed in natural settings.

Questions for consideration:

What is niche construction, and how does it relate to our understanding of evolution? Can you think of any other examples of it?

What is the social brain hypothesis, and how does it relate to the evolution of the brain? What lines of evidence do we have that support this hypothesis?

How do modern advancements in technology alter the way we think about “play” as it relates to social learning?

What do you think about the understanding of gender in play relationships described in Konner’s article?


Beran, Michael J., Charles R. Menzel, Audrey E. Parrish, et al.
2016   Primate Cognition: Attention, Episodic Memory, Prospective Memory, Self-Control, and Metacognition as Examples of Cognitive Control in Nonhuman Primates. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science 7(5): 294–316.

Dunbar, R.I.M, and S. Shultz
2007   Understanding Primate Brain Evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 362(1480): 649–658.

Kalat, James W.
2012   Biological Psychology. Cengage Learning.

Konner, Melvin
2010   The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind. Harvard University Press.

Lende, Daniel H., and Greg Downey, eds.
2012   The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.


Flowing Down Mountains

I grew up in Durango, Colorado, and completed my bachelor’s degree in Boulder, CO, and master’s degree in Fort Collins, CO. Snow and mountains are in my blood. My parents joke that I’ve been skiing since I was three months old, when my dad would ski with me tucked into the front of his jacket. Alpine skiing, telemark skiing, and backcountry skiing have been some of my main hobbies throughout my life. Some of the reasons for this include community, being in nature, and enjoyable exercise, but the main reason that I enjoy skiing is because it puts me in a state of “flow.”

The concept of flow, pioneered by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is a state in which an individual is focused and fully absorbed in some task, generally one that is both challenging and rewarding (2014). Organized by Tinbergen’s four questions, there are a number of reasons why behaviors leading to a flow experience are important for humans.

Author telemark skiing in Crested Butte, Colorado

Modern life has multifarious forms of stress–physical, environmental,  psychological, and social–that bombard the individual constantly. As Robert Sapolsky discusses in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (2004), modern stressors might even cause a higher burden of stress than our ancestors may have had. In the face of these stressors, we need ways to help deal. Flow, and other states that take us out of our normal patterns of thinking, can help to alleviate some of the burden associated with constant stressors (see Lynn 2005). During a flow experience, like flying down a snowy mountain at 50mph, the mind is focused only on the immediate. Stress falls away, and is lessened after the experience as well.


What is now an adaptive trait for helping to deal with the stresses of the modern world has a long evolutionary history as well. The “living in the moment” feeling associated with flow, and the hyper-focus and skill that comes from it, would have been necessary for hunting and fighting. Those able to “turn off” their brains to focus fully on the task at hand, especially in dangerous, self- and community-threatening situations, would have been selected for over those who weren’t.


Flow experiences likely occur through cognitive mechanisms that help to stem the tide of an otherwise overwhelming amount of information in dangerous or threatening situations. Energy and attention go only to the absolutely necessary functions required for action in the moment: it’s not helpful to be worried about that thing your girlfriend said when an enemy is swinging a club at your head.


While the exact biomechanics of flow (and other dissociative states) are not fully understood, a gene, designated catechol O-methyltransferase, or COMT, has been identified that is a candidate for contributing to an individual’s propensity for absorption–a necessary component of flow. The presence of a gene that contributes to one’s ability to enter and maintain a state of flow suggests that this is a crucial aspect of the human experience that has been consistently selected for.

You can flow down mountains in whatever manner suits you (or accidents force you to).


For more information, check out:

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly
2014   Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Lichtenberg, Pesach, Rachel Bachner-Melman, Richard P. Ebstein, and Helen J. Crawford
2004   Hypnotic Susceptibility: Multidimensional Relationships with Cloninger’s Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire, COMT Polymorphisms, Absorption, and Attentional Characteristics. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis 52(1): 47–72.

Lynn, Christopher Dana
2005   Adaptive and Maladaptive Dissociation: An Epidemiological and Anthropological Comparison and Proposition for an Expanded Dissociation Model. Anthropology of Consciousness 16(2): 16–49.

Sapolsky, Robert M.
2004   Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers / Robert M. Sapolsky. 3rd ed. New York: Times Books.