Driven to abstraction

Our amazing ability to learn and reason is enhanced by the natural human affinity for abstraction. We can generalize; we understand that what happens to us once may happen again, and we can apply what we observe of others to ourselves. A chimpanzee might see several people struggling with a heavy object, and he won’t understand that it will be heavy for him:

But a human child will immediately understand that what appears to be heavy for others will probably be heavy for her too. Watch:

Both the chimp and the kids are attempting to solve a problem, but the kids are able to generalize, allowing them to reach the correct solution.

What’s more, we don’t just learn from what we’ve seen happen, we can learn from what hasn’t happened yet. We can imagine possible future scenarios.

Our affinity for abstraction also appears in the way we relate to one another. We have developed the tendency to look for similarities and common characteristics in things that may not even appear like us.

We understand how someone or something is like us even when there’s no physical similarity. As we grow, the distinctions become more complicated—we look for shared values and beliefs more complex than a taste for crackers—but the tendency remains a basis for the way we form groups and relationships.

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A head for language