Merlin Donald

Merlin Donald

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Merlin Wilfred Donald is a Canadian
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

 and cognitive
Cognitive psychology
Cognitive psychology is a subdiscipline of psychology exploring internal mental processes.It is the study of how people perceive, remember, think, speak, and solve problems.Cognitive psychology differs from previous psychological approaches in two key ways....

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. Traditionally, neuroscience has been seen as a branch of biology. However, it is currently an interdisciplinary science that collaborates with other fields such as chemistry, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics,...

, and a researcher, educator, and author in the corresponding fields.


He received his degrees
Academic degree
An academic degree is a position and title within a college or university that is usually awarded in recognition of the recipient having either satisfactorily completed a prescribed course of study or having conducted a scholarly endeavour deemed worthy of his or her admission to the degree...

 in Canada, culminating in his Ph.D. in neuropsychology
Neuropsychology studies the structure and function of the brain related to specific psychological processes and behaviors. The term neuropsychology has been applied to lesion studies in humans and animals. It has also been applied to efforts to record electrical activity from individual cells in...

 from McGill University
McGill University
Mohammed Fathy is a public research university located in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The university bears the name of James McGill, a prominent Montreal merchant from Glasgow, Scotland, whose bequest formed the beginning of the university...

 in 1968. Following three years on the faculty of Yale
Yale University
Yale University is a private, Ivy League university located in New Haven, Connecticut, United States. Founded in 1701 in the Colony of Connecticut, the university is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the United States...

 School of Medicine
Yale School of Medicine
The Yale School of Medicine at Yale University is a private medical school located in New Haven, Connecticut, U.S. It was founded in 1810 as The Medical Institution of Yale College, and formally opened its doors in 1813....

, he joined the faculty of Queen's University
Queen's University
Queen's University, , is a public research university located in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Founded on 16 October 1841, the university pre-dates the founding of Canada by 26 years. Queen's holds more more than of land throughout Ontario as well as Herstmonceux Castle in East Sussex, England...

 at Kingston
Kingston, Ontario
Kingston, Ontario is a Canadian city located in Eastern Ontario where the St. Lawrence River flows out of Lake Ontario. Originally a First Nations settlement called "Katarowki," , growing European exploration in the 17th Century made it an important trading post...

 in 1972 and is still professor emeritus at Queen's. In the fall of 2005, Donald became the founding chair of the cognitive science
Cognitive science
Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary scientific study of mind and its processes. It examines what cognition is, what it does and how it works. It includes research on how information is processed , represented, and transformed in behaviour, nervous system or machine...

 department at Case Western Reserve University
Case Western Reserve University
Case Western Reserve University is a private research university located in Cleveland, Ohio, USA...

. He has since retired as the chair of that department and is currently an adjunct professor within the university.


Merlin Donald is widely known as the author of two books on human cognition, Origins of the Modern Mind and A Mind So Rare.

His central thesis across these works is that the human capacity for symbolic thought arises not from the evolution of a language-specific mental module
Modularity of mind
Modularity of mind is the notion that a mind may, at least in part, be composed of separate innate structures which have established evolutionarily developed functional purposes...

, but out of evolutionary changes to the prefrontal cortex
Prefrontal cortex
The prefrontal cortex is the anterior part of the frontal lobes of the brain, lying in front of the motor and premotor areas.This brain region has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, decision making and moderating correct social behavior...

 affecting the executive function of the primate brain. The enhanced attentional, metacognitive, and retrieval capacities that resulted from these changes made hominids immensely more capable of dealing with social
The term social refers to a characteristic of living organisms...

 complexity than their ancestors. He concludes that what drove brain expansion was not the cognitive demands of toolmaking or spatial mapping of the environment, but the growth in the size of the social group, that imposed greater demands on memory.

In Donald's account, these changes amounted to the evolution of a completely novel cognitive strategy: a symbiosis
Symbiosis is close and often long-term interaction between different biological species. In 1877 Bennett used the word symbiosis to describe the mutualistic relationship in lichens...

 between brain and culture. The human brain, he argues, is adapted to function expressly in a complex symbolic culture; it cannot realize its potential unless it is immersed in a complex network of communication and symbolic representation. This inextricable relationship between biology and culture also, he proposes, has interesting ramifications for the future of human cognitive development in light of the continuing development of technologies that support and change our relationship with symbolic thought and culture.

Origins of the Modern Mind proposes a three-stage development of human symbolic capacity through culture:
  • Mimetic culture: The watershed adaptation allowing humans to function as symbolic and cultural beings was a revolutionary improvement in motor control, the "mimetic
    Mimesis , from μιμεῖσθαι , "to imitate," from μῖμος , "imitator, actor") is a critical and philosophical term that carries a wide range of meanings, which include imitation, representation, mimicry, imitatio, receptivity, nonsensuous similarity, the act of resembling, the act of expression, and the...

     skill" required to rehearse and refine the body's movements in a voluntary and systematic way, to remember those rehearsals, and to reproduce them on command. Following this development, Homo erectus assimilated and reconceptualized events to create various prelinguistic symbolic traditions such as rituals, dance, and craft.
  • Mythic cultures arose as a result of the acquisition of speech and the invention of symbols. Mimetic representation serves as a preadaptation to this development.
  • Technology-supported culture: Finally, the cognitive ecology dominated by ephemeral face-to-face communication has changed for most of us as a result of the external memory-store that reading and writing permit. Computer technology intensifies these changes by offering even more extensive capacities for external storage and retrieval of information.

Donald suggests that the increasing reliance on external memory media in this third stage, which applies in varying degrees to most people in the developed world, may have profound effects on our cognitive development and behavior:
The externalization of memory was initially very gradual, with the invention of the first permanent external symbols. But then it accelerated, and the numbers of external prepresentational devices now available has altered how humans use their biologically given cognitive resources, what they can know, where that knowledge is stored, and what kinds of codes are needed to decipher what is stored.... When we study literate English-speaking adults living in a technologically advanced society, we are looking at a subtype that is not any more typical of the whole human species, than, say, the members of a hunter-gatherer group. What would our science look like if it had been based on a very different type of culture? The truth is, we don't know, but it would profit us greatly to find out, because the human cognitive system, down to the level of its internal modular organization, is affected not only by its genetic inheritance, but also by its own peculiar cultural history. (Donald 1997, pp. 362-363)

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