Our humanness is then tied up with our sociality. To understand how our mind evolved we need to understand human social cooperation. Indeed, standard evolutionary models do not seem to predict the high degree of altruism we observe in people. No explanation of human cooperation is possible without an appreciation of human culture and psychology. To understand our sociality we must comprehend how cultural change has shaped the mind.
Now, if the Vygostskian view is correct, then we can expect that people living a premodern life would think about the world in a radically different way than modern people. The dramatic transformations that took place in Soviet Uzbekistan during the 1930s, where illiterate people living a traditional life style, resided in proximity to people receiving modern education and taking employment in schools, factories or on collective farms, provided an opportunity to test this proposition.
The people Luria interviewed included illiterate villagers “not involved in any modern social activities,” as well as people who had “access to a technological culture and mastery of mechanisms such as literacy and other new forms of knowledge.”
Luria’s research consisted of lengthy interviews where he presented “specially developed tests that the subjects found meaningful and open to several solutions, each indicating some aspect of cognitive activity.” Luria was particularly skilled at neuropsychological diagnosis. A number of tests he developed are still used by physicians today.
In this case, the tests Luria used consisted of deductive reasoning problems where “the solution could be either graphic-functional and situational, or abstract and categorical.” He borrowed this functional-situational versus categorical-abstract distinction from the work of psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein.
Goldstein described these two orientations as concrete and abstract and wrote “in the concrete attitude we are given over passively and bound to the immediate experience of unique objects or situations.” In the abstract orientation, he claimed that “we transcend the immediate given specific aspect of sense impressions, we detach ourselves from the latter and consider the situation from a conceptual point of view.”
In a typical interview Luria would ask participants to classify and name geometric figures such as circles, triangles, and squares. Only the most educated, students in the teacher training program, identified the figures with their geometric names. Indeed when, given an incomplete figure they would say it was “something like a circle,” or “something like a triangle.”
In contrast individuals with less formal education tended to describe the shapes with names of everyday objects. For example, they would describe a circle as a plate, a bucket, or the moon. A square might be called a door, a house, or an apricot drying board. When shown an incomplete circle, Luria would receive responses such as a bracelet or an earring. For Luria, such response confirmed his view “that the perception of geometrical shapes varies from one culture to another,”
Prior to Luria’s work, most psychologists assumed that basic syllogistic reasoning is a universal feature of the human mind. But when Luria asked unschooled and illiterate peasants to reason syllogistically, he received surprising responses.
For example, when presented with this problem:
“In the far north, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the far north. What color are the bears there?”
Luria found that “as a rule, many refused to accept the major premise, declaring, ‘I’ve never been in the north and never seen bears.’” The interviews revealed that while people could reason well about their direct experience, they were unable to abstract the process to events and objects outside of the particularities of their lives.
From these observations, Luria concluded “the facts show convincingly that the structure of cognitive activity does not remain static during different stages of historical development.”