Patterns, Puzzles, Paradoxes: the Hunter-Mindset

Ani and Bani were closely observing all the patterns around them. Based on the familiar patterns they pieced together the bigger picture of a puzzle. They had made considerable progress in doing so, when Bani suddenly saw a pattern that didn’t make sense. He told Ani that they may have gotten the picture completely wrong. Ani, despite initially finding the thought amusing and laughing about it, looks at what Ani has found and realises that Ani must be right.

Who are Ani and Bani and what are they doing? Ani and Bani are archaeologists digging up an ancient Greek settlement and trying to piece together information about the structure they are unearthing (which use, what kind of room, how and why was it destroyed, etc.). Or Ani and Bani could be scientists interpreting digital data they have just received. Or Ani and Bani are two gamers taking part in an online game. Or Ani and Bani are Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers tracking an animal.

Whoever they are, they love patterns, puzzles and paradoxes, and whoever they are they have “hunter minds”. These minds get into a flow state when they are on the hunt, not because they enjoy killing, but because they enjoy solving the puzzle. A persistence hunt does not require a lot of physical strength as the animal is an easy kill once it is exhausted, but it does require a lot of endurance and hyperfocus because it can easily take up to five hours or more.

Louis Liebenberg’s book The Origin of Science (2021) does a fantastic job of explaining how the origins of scientific investigation can be found in hunter-gatherer tracking and persistence hunt. Liebenberg concludes that these skills are the origin of scientific thinking.

The evolution of persistence hunting would have involved the evolution of Homo erectus, shifted to a hunting and gathering lifestyle, with morphological evidence showing adaptations for increased long-distance trekking and the adoption of endurance running. […] The evolution of persistence hunting would have involved the evolution of tracking skills. The evolution of tracking would have involved the evolution of the cognitive abilities to engage in scientific reasoning.

There is something else that is interesting about the hunter-mindset. As each hunter in a persistence hunt has different pieces of information, they love sharing this information. Ani is the more experienced hunter, so Bani would follow Ani’s intuition when he is in doubt. However, when Bani finds evidence to the contrary the more prestigious hunter does not insist on his version of reality and he does not see his status threatened by the younger hunter as hunter-gatherers are egalitarian. The objective is not proving your side right, the objective is building a model of reality that most accurately corresponds to the truth.

Are we hunting a bunny or a duck? Of course, this is an exaggerated example, no hunter would be in doubt about that, but there is a lot of other information that can only be inferred with certain accuracy: sex, age, state of exhaustion, possible trajectory of the prey. The higher the accuracy of the hunters, the likelier they will be successful. Survival depends on it, it’s not rare that the hunters return empty-handed.

Julia Galef called the hunter mindset the “scout mindset” and contrasted it to the “soldier mindset” for which accuracy and truth are only part of the reasoning, with status games and group alliances making up a considerable second part. Galef claims that most of us often switch between a scout (hunter) mindset and a soldier mindset, and that is certainly true. However, there is a group of people, who don’t get the soldier mindset:

In The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention (2020) Simon Baron-Cohen tells a very impressive story about an autistic man that illustrates how a pattern-seeking mind is helpful to hunters. Jonah is a young man, who loves observing patterns on the surface of the ocean. He is so good at “reading” these patterns that he can predict where the fishermen can find fish:

Often he says nothing and simply points. The fishermen have learned to trust him, and they throw their nets where he points. They still marvel at how easily Jonah spots patterns they miss. And they say his predictions are always right.

Even though the fishermen admire Jonah’s skills, Jonah never managed to make friends with any of them. In fact, like many neurodiverse people, Jonah does not only struggle with the soldier mindset but also with making friends. Could the two struggles be related? Absolutely. Neurotypicals expect you to stick with them, even when they are wrong, they expect you to side with them, to lie for them when they are in need of an ally. All of this is not part of a hunter’s world and a hunter’s mindset. I have argued that most neurotypicals are likely to have a farmer or herder (food producer) mindset, which does not only require different social and communication skills, but also different ways of thinking, learning and different interests.

One dichotomy that captures the hunter vs farmer difference is mapping (learning by making connections) vs packaging (learning by memorising discrete sets of information and skills). It is clear that hunters are mappers. Mappers may require a certain threshold amount of information to become interested and may get more and more excited the more information they have collected. Packers, on the other hand, have an upper threshold, beyond which additional information becomes irrelevant. What’s more, packers are most likely to ignore contradictory information (paradoxes) as long as packages work sufficiently well, whereas mappers may be on the lookout for contradictory information as it could prevent wrong directions in mapping early on. Once we understand these differences it becomes clear why neurodiverse (hunter) people have difficulties communicating with neurotypicals. A lot of neurotypical communication has no informational relevance for them whatsoever. Neurotypicals, on the other hand, find it hard to understand why neurodiverse people get so excited about seemingly uninteresting “special interests”. It’s like radios sending and receiving on different wavelengths.

Patterns, puzzles and paradoxes are the domain of the right brain. I am aware that the left-right brain distinction has been overdone, however, there is interesting evidence. V. S. Ramachandran has suggested that the right hemisphere, which tends to be specialised for the analysis of global-level information, serves as an anomaly detector. Its role is to judge whether a given percept is possible and whether there are elements of that percept that seem incongruent with the other elements. There has been some empirical evidence for his suggestions. Of course, we are all a genetic mix between foragers and farmers, however, how our brains deal with cognitive dissonance (hyperfocus or trivialization) may be an indication of our evolutionary heritage.

Of course, not only autistic people are interested in patterns, puzzles and paradoxes. Interest in puzzles is commonly cited as a typical trait of gifted children. And so is high curiosity. These are the kind of children who keep nagging their parents with endless “why?” questions. Curiosity has many sources, but in hunter type children it may be precisely cognitive dissonance or anomaly detection that incites their curiosity.

A highly curious kid is something everybody finds wonderful, but in truth, our society does everything to suppress curiosity in children. Curious children aren’t the obedient kind of children, who love packing. The first thing curious children learn in school is how not to be curious. We tend to think of the kids who raise their hands all the time as curious kids, but those are the kids who want to please their teacher. The curious kids are the ones the teachers suspect least of being curious: it’s the kids who don’t pay attention and look out of the window, waiting for the school day to finish, the kids who get diagnosed with ADHD. Minds that love patterns, puzzles and paradoxes aren’t easily taught, they love discovery, and teaching themselves much more, on their own terms.

The more I have learned about hunter minds, the more I have begun to understand why gifted programs in schools have been failing (if there are any left at all). I am not claiming that packer minds are less intelligent, after all, ASD and ADHD aren’t exactly associated with high IQ. However, gifted programs are bound to fail if they consistently select gifted kids with packing (farmer) minds and when gifted kids can be found more often in the group of kids with mapping (hunter) minds. Schools unconsciously may not choose to pick hunter minds, after all, they are harder to teach. This is not an empirically untestable assertion. American Indian Residential Schools are testimony of the difficulties teaching hunter-gatherers.

For more on the hunter-gatherer neurotribe hypothesis check out my book

Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on May 18, 2022.

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