In the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is a work that’s simply a list of names: every person the artist, Douglas Gordon, can remember meeting in his life. The list pours on and on in interminable columns, down a corridor and across walls that are multiple storeys high. It’s dizzying, yet far from complete, since Gordon is only 52 years old.
The list is an abstract idea about humans made concrete in black paint: we are an intensely, bewilderingly social species. Our brains somehow have a vast vault for storing details about other humans, even when those details entail little more than face or name recognition.
It’s possible that this vast vault, along with a host of our brains’ other cognitive abilities, are there precisely because of the intense sociality of our species. One of the most prominent explanations for the evolution of big brains is that large social groups lead to problem-solving challenges, which in turn create an evolutionary pressure for smart, big-brained individuals capable of navigating social situations.