man sitting in chair 2048 x 1366

The short answer: by simplifying pictures. The longer answer is more interesting.

Cave drawings

The urge to communicate through pictures was with us since the very early days of our species migration out of Africa. Who hasn’t heard about the 32,000 year old drawings of Chauvet cave in France? See, for instance the drawing of the spotted hyena. Like all animal depictions in cave art, the animal is easily recognizable. But depiction of humans and animals as stick figures are just as easily recognizable. In other words, as early as the 40th millennium B.C.E. humans used abstraction to depict complex subjects. What’s the big deal about that? Can’t we all readily recognize stick figures by the representation of a head, torso and limbs? Sure, but if you think of it –it represents quite a jump from the “literal” picture to its symbolic representation. More on that later.

From Pictographs to Alphabet

For 36 millennia we got along quite nicely without writing –painting and drawing were all we needed. But what happened during this time is that the hunters-gatherers, most likely the gatherers of the band (which were probably the women), learned that cultivation of the plants they were gathering improved their yield and reduced the time and energy expended in collecting them. And thus was agriculture born, 10,000 years ago, in what is today Anatolia in Turkey. The accumulation of excess food led to increased wealth, an increase in the population (better diet), development of villages that with time grew into cities, and development of commerce. All this, of course, required increasingly higher levels of organization –hence the development of central authorities in the form of tribal chiefs, kings and emperors. This, in turn, required written communication, initially for bookkeeping and taxation purposes, but later for recording events, edicts, laws as well as oral history and folklore.

Hieroglyphic writing originated from pre-literate Egyptian art. The earliest hieroglyph was discovered in Abydos, Egypt, and dates to about 3500 B.C.E. It consisted of pictographs that were quite literal (called logograms): a picture of a bird represented just that –a bird. But the picture could also have a phonetic value as well. Unwieldy, to say the least.

1700 years later, in mid- 19th century B.C.E., some Semitic turquoise-miners in the Sinai desert left graffiti and inscriptions near their mines and an adjoining temple to the Egyptian goddess Hathor. These people’s language was not Egyptian, it was Canaanite. But there was no written script in their language, so they adopted the Egyptian one. How did they do it? They picked a hieroglyphic pictogram, and used the first  letter of the word as a consonant. For instance, “ox” is “aleph” in Canaanite, so for A they used the pictogram of an ox’s head. “House” is “Beit” in Canaanite, so for B they used a representation of a house. This new script is called proto Sinaitic or proto Canaanite, and was pretty “naturalistic”, or descriptive. During the ensuing 700 years it  underwent progressively greater simplification and abstraction, evolving into Phoenician and Hebrew, and from there to classical Greek, with its familiar α (alpha), and β (beta). Can you see an even faint resemblance to the original “ox” or “house”? And that’s the key: the explosion and proliferation of written languages is rooted in simplification and abstraction.

The question: How could it be done?

If you noticed, we described how written languages evolved, but we did not answer the more basic question: how could they evolve? We take simplification and abstraction for granted; after all, anybody can recognize a human figure, even if it is schematically drawn as a stick figure. But think about it: the visual cortex in the brain sees the natural world in “naturalistic” form, so to speak. So how did it make the jump to recognition of abstract forms as symbolic for the “real thing”?

A step toward answering this question came in the form of a paper titled “Simple line drawing suffice for functional MRI decoding of natural scene categories”, Published May 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The authors, from the Universities of Ohio, Stanford and Illinois, devised an ingenious way of identifying any brain structures that participate in recognition of simplified pictures. Participants viewed photographs and line drawings of beaches, city streets, forests, highways, mountains, and offices, while their brain activity was monitored by fMRI. Two areas in the so-called primary visual cortex, PPA and RSC (for the detail oriented, it stands for Parahippocampal Place Area and RetroSpinal Cortex) became activated during scene recognition, not only when presented with the full-color photographs, but also with line drawings of these scenes. But most remarkably, when the investigators began systematically removing lines from the drawings, the recognition held as long as the global shape was recognizable: removing short lines hardly resulted in increased error rate, but when long lines were removed, error rate increased in parallel to the loss of overall shape. In other words, as long as the bare outline of the scene was intact –the signal was sufficient for the brain to recognize.

The investigators intended the study to help in understanding how the brain sees the world, which could be important in devising new treatments for the visually impaired. But in the process, they identified the brain area that allows us to recognize bare outlines of a picture, paving the way to understanding how we made the jump from pictures to the invention of the alphabet.

I find it remarkable that an area of the brain designed to serve basic, almost mundane functions such as recognition of familiar scenes, ends up enabling and catalyzing such a profound social and cultural development as the written language

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.