Looking Up

Our predilection to look to the sky, to feel what we feel and to find fascination where we treasure it, is a curiosity.

Published by Tony Darnell on 5th Mar, 2018

First, we stood up.

We began to use our hands more, and protein in our diet increased, the seeds were planted for what was to follow. We still needed to survive drought, disease and constant predation. Ever the less the watcher had awakened. The consequences of our evolution would tilt our eye skyward to marvel at the mysteries in the night sky.

Our predilection to look to the sky, to feel what we feel and to find fascination where we treasure it is a curiosity. The implications of why we are inexorably drawn to the night sky speak to the fundamentals of both our physical and mental realities.

We start with our physical morphology and the fact as we stood up the social nature of our assisters coupled with the freeing of forelimbs exaggerated the partner processing capabilities of the primate brain. The paper “Superior Pattern Processing is the Essence of the Evolved Human Brain” by Mark Mattson takes and long evolutionary and neuroscience look at what happened to the human brain once we stood up.

Humans have long thought we are unique in some way that separates us from the rest of life on Earth and while this concussion is fundamentally flawed, there is at least some basis to say we are better at doing certain things. Dr. Mattson in his paper “Superior Pattern Processing” writes “superior pattern processing as the fundamental basis of most, if not all, unique features of the human brain including intelligence, language, imagination, invention, and the belief in imaginary entities such as ghosts and gods.” Others in the animal kingdom might come close to us, but cognition is not horseshoes or hand grenades, in the case of fascination with the stars, no creature on Earth comes close to humans.

Where and why did we get these powers? Part of our understanding behind our gifts is an evolutionary feedback loop. Our emotions and indeed emotions of all feeling animals confer better recollection of events. This, in turn, means social ties are strengthened, and more emotions mean better pattern recognition.

This opens the door to more.

Our imagination may be a consequence of a number of factors from the social reinforcement of patterns, the survival needs for introspection and the resulting gap between the here and now needs and extraneous but not superfluous stimuli. In other wors the latter is investigation into the unknown.

Areas of the brain evolved together as imagination was reinforced. “For example, functional brain imaging studies suggest that the superior pattern processing capability of creativity is associated with strong functional coupling between the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus” states Mattson.

Our brains find patters because we have a tribe to get along with and a dangerous world we need to navigate. Anything we might imagine that helps us survive if not prosper natural selection will in its brutally decisive manner rule in its favor. Thus, our active and sometime overactive imagination is born.

“The invention of tools and technologies have dominated the recent development of civilizations throughout the world. The earliest evidence for the invention of tools by our human ancestors’ dates to approximately 2.5 million years ago in Ethiopia and Kenya.” “The neural substrates of imagination and invention enable the brain to formulate and construct tangible objects that provide future survival advantages to the individual, tribe or country.”

Finally, the rub.

Our imaginative pattern seeking nature might be called curiosity. We looked everywhere, and eventually, we looked up. We saw a great mystery that evoked a tapestry of emotions now referred to as awe. We started close, at what was almost always there. The moon got smaller and bigger but only for a short time would it abandon its place in the night sky completely. This very simple pattern likely one of the first we latched on to. With so much emphasis on the moon from so long ago, it is easy to see why it might have been the first pattern in the night sky we latched on to. It even was given human quality’s, the “man in the moon” pattern.

We quickly move further afield from our silver neighbor. The planets and their retrograde patterns seen and mapped by Ptolemy, later refined and understood by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and many more.

Pattern seekers all.

Then there are the constellations and myths of old and new. The gaps in our patterns are field by our imagination, and our imagination allows us to see the gaps in the first place. We anthropomorphize to feel a great connection with the sky. Now we know we could not be more right to do so. At the most fundamental level, we are the sky. The emotional ties to memory and pattern conferred a survival benefit. We used our knowledge of the night sky’s predictable mystery to guide our actions in seeking food and settlement.

That is why we look up and will always keep looking up. Imagination leads to the invention which leads to new capabilities which leads to the examination of the next mystery. The sky offers this endlessly to us, and as humans whose survival has rested on finding predictable mysteries, there is on one greater than the night sky


The Places of Astronomy in Early-Modern Culture
Nicholas Jardine Journal for the History of Astronomy Vol 29, Issue 1, pp. 49 – 62
First Published February 1, 1998

The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture
By Francesca Rochberg, University of California, Riverside; Cambridge University Press Syndicate 2004

Myths of Europe
Edited by Richard Littlejohns, Sara Soncini, John Russell The Face of the Moon; Netherlands 2007

Mattson, M. P. (2014). Superior pattern processing is the essence of the evolved human brain. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 8, 265.

Published by Tony Darnell

Tony Darnell Profile Picture

Tony Darnell is the creator of Deep Astronomy, LLC, a company dedicated to sharing the wonders of the universe and providing perspective of our place in the cosmos. For most of his life, Tony has been interested in science communication and education and has dedicated the best part of his life towards that interest. While embarked on that mission, for 30 years Tony has also worked as a software engineer and worked on writing code for telescopes, astronomy data pipelines, image processing and data analysis. His last gig was the goal of a lifetime: working on data from the Hubble Space Telescope.