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HOME > PAST ISSUE > May-June 2007 > Article Detail

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The Uniqueness of Human Recursive Thinking

The ability to think about thinking may be the critical attribute that distinguishes us from all other species

Michael Corballis

Figure 4. Chimpanzees are as likely to beg...Click to Enlarge Image

A dog chasing his tail has nothing on the human race. Recursion—a process that calls itself, or calls a similar process—may be a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. In the human mind, recursion is actually much more complex than the notion of returning to the same place over and over. We put phrases within phrases because we hold thoughts in memory; thus we have language and a sense of a past self. We are aware that we are thinking about what someone else is thinking; on this awareness we build a sense of self and the ability to be deceptive or to act on shared belief. Recursion gives us the ability to mentally travel in time. It is fundamental to the evolution of technology: Human beings are the only animals that have been observed to use a tool to make a tool. Looking at human language and thought, psychologist Corballis finds recursion within recursion.


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