Eve’s Apple Was A Fatty Sheath


In a strange turn, towards the end of his life Johnson became interested in human’s ability to “objectify” or “reify” reality — i.e. to see things and objects where one might otherwise see systems and processes. Johnson linked this ability to the peculiar nature of our brain structure. This was also the main focus of the book that he was working on at the time of his death.

You come home from a week away and listen to your recorded telephone messages, but none of them contains a reference to the time at which the call was made. It occurs to you that all of them could have arrived the very day that you left—or they might have been recorded within the past hour. I conjecture that the consequent sense of “timelessness” and the missing (but until “recently” unmissed) temporality of sequence is similar to what was the everyday experience of primitive mankind.

In yet another realm: you and your mechanic listen to your car’s engine idling roughly and not responding well to your working of the gas pedal. In his internal experience he is reviewing specific parts along with their movements and relationships and probable maladjustments. He can also visualize and name and anticipate the size and feel of the tools he will need to effect a remedy for you. But you are aware only of the amorphous irritation brought on by a recalcitrant car, your time lost and the bill that will come in the mail—all felt simultaneously as an unwelcome intrusion on a smooth routine. Again I conjecture a comparison: that you are experiencing something similar to primitive man’s outlook on the material surroundings of his immediate world, the world that we see as objects and events, categories and sequences, particularizations and groupings, figure and ground, cause and effect.

We who have been taught that the fundamental element of grammar is the noun and, of experience, the object to which the noun gives a name, are instead only recently descended from ancestors who respected a long and very different oral tradition originating millions of years earlier in cave and on savannah and likely even in the tree. To be sure, central nervous systems had evolved their complexities and their associating interconnected­ness sufficient to support a 1anguage of relationship in Ho»o enectus. Geschwind (1965) has indicated within the structures of the human cortex ^the necessary and sufficient conditions for an elaborate oral-aural system for the expression of experiencial metaphor. The calls of birds are examples of simpler precur­sors, but the exchanges of early hominids may be likened to the lively, transient callings of a modern basketball team at play. The utterances are largely prepositional (“Over here!” “Behind you.” “You’re clear.” “Go for it*”). They make no reference to times or places other than the here-and—now and do not refer to things as such, nor have they any useful role in the crafting of description or explanation. All of the latter applications of language have been made possible by one almost insignificant alteration of our newest patch of gray matter. All of our tools and toys, arts and technologies, invoices and encyclopedias, religions and neuroses arise from a simple circuit enhancement.

Neurons in the hand or in the brain or even in a mol­lusk share a universal property. As excitable tissue that can transmit a message from others and thence to others of its kind, a neuron transducing an impulse (or the absence of an impulse) can relay only one kind of statement: that a particular logical relationship existed milliseconds earlier “upstream” between the signals arriving upon it — no more, and perhaps even less inasmuch as fluctuating thresholds and other sources of “noise” can impose an ambiguity upon the message. As systems of these labile components, all engaged in a multivalued logic with a staggering variety of propositional and relational content, increased in complexity, the behaviors they could control through the peripheral musculature expanded commensurately. As brains evolved to afford the association of behavioral elements within a central message exchange, the social interaction of species with their own kind that were made possible by that increased inner complexity enhanced their survival as a species through social exchanges. And so evolution proceeded to the primates and to the one primate in particular that evolved an association area of association areas within its parietal cortex. That piece of cortex had the further novel distinction of being virtually free from direct connection to the limbic structures in the lower brain, thereby obviating concurrent body-movement or emotional reinforcement in the learning of some new kinds of relationship. Furthermore, that learning could be expressed in verbal language.

But still the elements of that language were those of relationship and of immediacy. The ambiguities of messages, even within a structure as closely packed and potentially redundant as the cortex, can be such as to render difficult holding fixed a complex set of perceptual relationships such that they will be repeatable for comparison with others in spatial, temporal, kinesthetic or haptic qualities. If we are to attempt to have for ourselves an experience similar to that of primitive mankind, we must remove ourselves to what is for us a somewhat trance-like state in which things and events “just ARE” (as in the anecdotes of tape recorder or automobile suggested above).

The evolution by natural selection of complex structures proceeds very slowly, requiring millions of years to shape the behavior of ape or dolphin and yet more millions to fashion a hominid. But quite abruptly another natural sequence added its effects and the rest is history (literally). Myelin sheaths cover neuron fibers on most of the longer tracts of brain and spinal cord and periphery. It serves a number of functions, all quite salutary to the purposes of the nervous system. A myelinated fiber conducts faster and in a saltatory manner because of the segmentation of the sheath. It insulates the fiber somewhat, thereby reducing the influence from the passage of signals on neighboring fibers—in short, it reduces the confusion and errors caused by “cross-talk.” In a number of ways myelin serves to make more pronounced and reliable the activity on a given fiber, thereby improving the overall performance of the system.

The myelination of the cortex appears to have proceeded in an unexceptional way: spreading gradually and essentially “after-the-fact” of the evolution of each new area. Inasmuch as brains are not preserved in archeological specimens and as there is no evidence by imprint on the skull to indicate the presence or lack of myelin in ancient people phylogenically ancestral to us, we can only infer from the ontogenic sequence of its development in our own young just what was the order in which each region received its sheath. As long ago as the turn of this century Flecshig (1960)perfmored extensive histological studies and established sequences which are still being confirmed.

As we might have anticipated, the last cortical area to myelinate in humans is the parietal “meta-association area” which evolved last and which, among other services to us, supports our choice of words. It develops in us at about age four and one half years—the age when, for example, children acquire the ability to name colors correctly (N.B.: all three words are equally important here). At that age also, a sense of humor develops which is not just somesthetically dependent but is such that the child can now respond in a pseudo-adult manner to punch lines: specifically, utterances which change the meaning of a story by imposing a shift of context upon it. There are other observable clues, but they all bear a similar relation to the child’s expanding consciousness.


The kind of awakening experienced by primitive mankind as myelin spread over that newest patch of cortex was of a different sort. Our children are, after all, surrounded by sophisticated adult behavior and language whereas Homo sapiens sapiens had to invent it; and so, s/he did. The myelination of the meta-association area of the cortex afforded for the first time a sufficiently stable and repeatable quality to non-limbic experience that objects could now be recognized independently of the background in which they were seen and therefore names could be affixed to them by common (social) consent. Spoken language, which had earlier been only connotative, now became also denotative. Apes and chimps apparently can learn names for things, given a learning milieu that has significance for the limbic system, and can later even apply those names in novel presentations—but they do not generate any such names spontaneously in social consensuality as we do.

More especially, however, whether or not the act of naming becomes involved, it was the ability to fragment experience that was acquired: to perceive it as having separable qualities. As the curators of such a gift, humans became the inventors of “thingness” and therefor emerged all tools and toys: technologies and representational arts. One of the earliest applications of the new talent was the simple counting of inventories and the making of lists: whether of troops in armies or fields in ownership or amphorae of wine and among the most famous of lists was Noah’s. His unique inspiration was to write down a taxonomy of all the known species in his part of the world and thereafter to keep it safe in an ark as the Torah also was kept. Julian Jaynes (1967) points out the pervasive quality of “listedness” in ancient texts such as Gilgamesh or The Iliad. Similarly, Genesis is little more than a genealogy.

But the earliest examples of listings that have been found are tally sticks, which were invented to record an accounting of items by means of lines or notches. The identity of the items so counted, however, was carried in the memory of the bearer of the stick—until crude pictures or their hieroglyphic shorthand were added. Hieroglyphs gave way in some places to the further shorthand of cuneiform, shaped in part by the exigencies of the drying clay on which they were impressed.

One problem that pictorial representations presented was that of expressing words or concepts that were themselves not things and it was solved temporarily in the West and permanently in the East through the use of rebuses: pictures of things whose names sound like the word intended. A later brilliant stroke was the introduction of the alphabet, which is a complete set of rebuses for the common sounds of speech, thereby making it possible to write down anything that could be spoken. An oral tradition could at last be recorded.

Much later than the first crude fragmenting and naming came the perception of ever subtler differences between objects and events of ostensibly the “same kind.” The practice of agriculture originated in the noticing of differences in growth patterns and in the resulting seed production and fruiting of edible plants. Astronomy began with the observation that the bright objects in the sky were arranged in consistent patterns, some of which changed from night to night and season to season.


Of even greater significance to our experience of being human is the acquired ability to fragment time in measures large and small and to perceive events as having recognizable sequences within them. An immediate result is the performing arts and what Eliade (1954) describes as the distinction of “profane time”—a time frame of personal and unique daily experiences which contrasted with “sacred time,” the experiential oneness which makes every year’s passage seem the same as all repetitions of human actions recognizable only if they have rendered an archetypal form. With a new tool in hand, humans turned their attention obsessively to discovering patterns of “cause and effect” even when there might actually be little or no connection between the events observed.

It is the sensitivity to sequence in its subtler aspects that enables us to ascribe intention to our acts or to those of others, and therein starts all kinds of trouble: for we are not as skilled at verifying such observations as at discerning the physical qualities of “real objects.” N.B.: Other animals are capable of intentional acts, but they do not perceive the intention itself as a separable quality as we do. If we were to define neurosis and psychosis in their most general aspects, we might see the former as a pathology of the interpretation of intention and the latter as a pathology of its expression.

If there is one characteristic of humankind that is universal, it is the proclivity for searching out universals: generalizing from the particulars of experience. As the human ability to infer intention unfolded, it was soon applied in all directions to every event that affected anyone. Lacking a formal natural science as a matrix for explanation, primitive people invented their many household gods, each to be invested with a different kind of intention. But as experience led to the understanding that some events were explainable naturally, the numbers of effective gods attenuated so that only those events which had significant emotional content, such as death or crop failure or meteorological violence, remained under the rubric of “One God” as their universal source of intention. We are left today with this unquestioned explanation for the source of relationships that many would continue to accept as mysterious or as unquestionably meaningful. It is unfortunate that “God” or “Allah” or “Yahweh” is so often the justification offered for a failure to question, perceive clearly or verify.


It has been pointed out above that the evolution of brain complexity is very slow. But the effects of the myelination of this one important region occurred relatively “abruptly” and thereafter some of the fallout from our evolved ability to fragment event time and material experience has been less than beneficial, but we scarcely notice it. We invented clocks, thereafter to live by their profane markings. We also often fail to recognize that we ourselves and others are not “things” in the same sense as the objects that take up our attention. Every child seems to come equipped with eidetic memory, which for most is later lost as language develops and the thinking “about” things becomes more important than direct experience of the things themselves. I believe that prior to the acquisition of an awareness of internal experience our brains were virtually symmetrical in their control over perception and behavior, as they are in other animals. However, with the demands brought on by having to deal with the relationships of both internal and external experience the advantages of bilateral redundancy were forfeited and the brain lateralized into Left and Right. The behavioral asymmetry of our brains is therefore of relatively recent vintage. We are also still alert at the limbic level to the dangers inherent in having given up the more primitive forms of awareness and we can switch back at times of extreme stress. But we are also victims of the mild stress that we impose upon ourselves daily by remaining in our reifying, nominating mode.

The ability to share and concur upon experience in space or time is the cornerstone of what we glibly term “consciousness.” The word signifies “knowing together” and as such is what the Adam-and-Eve story is all about. Consciousness came along in the last few hundred thousand years or so by way of the myelination of a piece of brain that had already been very useful to humankind. Let us hope that the products of that fatty sheath will ultimately be of benefit to our survival.


Eliade, Mircea (1954) The Myth of the Eternal Return, Princeton University Press

Flechsig, P. (1901) Lancet, 2, 1027

Geschwind, Norman (1965) “Disconnexion Syndromes in Animals and Man, Part I”, BRAIN, Vol.88, Part II, Pp.237-294

Jaynes, Julian (1976) The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Boston/Houghton Mifflin