What is it about?

The ensemble hypothesis of human origins proposes that language is but one of five cognitive capacities that separate our cognition qualitatively from other animal cognition as a result of their interactions. The ensemble consists of an ability to travel in time mentally, to mentalize or understand the minds of others, to use language for overt communication, to control short-term or working memory through executive attention, and to think through the interpreter of the brain’s left-hemisphere employing inner speech and causal inference. Numerous studies in contemporary psychology and neuroscience document all five ensemble components.

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Why is it important?

Evidence of cognitive and behavioral modernity, such as cave art, in anatomically modern Homo sapiens greatly expanded during the Upper Paleolithic about 40,000 years ago. The emergence of symbolic thinking and language is the traditional explanation proposed in cognitive archaeology, despite some indicators of symbolic artifacts among earlier hominins, including Neanderthals. The ensemble hypothesis offers a novel explanation for the pattern of archaeological evidence. The flourishing of symbolic artifacts during the Upper Paleolithic occurred because, for the first time, mental time travel, mentalizing, language, the left-hemisphere interpreter, and executive attention were at last in place and interacting in Homo sapiens. Experiments assessing how these components interact offer a way to test the viability of the hypothesis.


Questions surrounding the origin of the kind of mind found in all human populations today are intensely debated in archaeology, paleoanthropology, and paleontology. I wrote this article in the belief that contemporary research in cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and the neurosciences can make important contributions to these human origin questions.

Ronald Kellogg
Saint Louis University

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This page is a summary of: More than language: Mental time travel, mentalizing, executive attention, and the left-hemisphere interpreter in human origins., Psychological Review, August 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/rev0000390.
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