What Changed During the Axial Age: Cognitive Styles or Reward Systems?

The ‘Axial Age’ (500-300 BCE) refers to the period during which most of the main religious and spiritual traditions emerged in Eurasian societies. Although the Axial Age has recently been the focus of increasing interest,1–5 its existence is still very much in dispute. The main reason for questioning the existence of the Axial Age is that its nature, as well as its spatial and temporal boundaries, remain very much unclear. The standard approach to the Axial Age defines it as a change of cognitive style, from a narrative and analogical style to a more analytical and reflective style, probably due to the increasing use of external memory tools. Our recent research suggests an alternative hypothesis, namely a change in reward orientation, from a short-term materialistic orientation to a long-term spiritual one. Here, we briefly present these two alternative definitions of the Axial Age.

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