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George Holevas

Student in Chemical Engineering, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

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Do you believe the human brain will continue to increase its capabilities?

According to neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran's TED talk, "The neurons that shaped civilization", a sudden emergence and rapid spread of a number of skills that are unique to human beings occurred 75k to 100k years ago. These defining skills include the use of tools, fire, shelter, language, and the ability to interpret a person's behavior.

He attributes the rapid development of these skills to a sudden emergence of a sophisticated mirror neuron system. Mirror nuerons are a relatively recent discovered set of neurons that fire when an animal either performs an action or observes that same action performed by another, essentially allowing us to emulate and imitate each other's actions.

Ramachandran speculates that this brain development was incredibly beneficial to the progression of mankind because it allowed an accidental discovery by one member of the group, such as use of fire or a particular kind of tool, to spread horizontally across the population and then transmit vertically down the generations. This temporarily made evolution Lamarckian instead of Darwinian, meaning that acquired traits over a lifetime could be passed down to offspring via emulation instead of relying on Darwinian evolution which could take hundreds of thousands of years.

The question I would like to pose is, might our brains (collectively as a species) soon experience such a new type of development once again? If so, what new skills could this more sophisticated neuron system facilitate our ability to perform, considering trends in globalization, collaboration etc (e.g. collaborative tasks across geographies, learning multiple languages more quickly etc )? Has the brain's full potential already been unleashed? Or will it perpetually continue to develop more complex neural permutations?

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  • Mar 10 2013: An interesting book I read recently had the title BIg Brain. It discusses other humans than Neanderthals and Cro Mag...which had larger brains in their groups than modern man. From undergrad days I remember the first "cave man' cited beat us by 100cc's The second wins by 250. The village idiot doesn't get eaten by a big furry varmit now. The "N" man - Many of us know he really didn't disappear when we rub the back of our head above our necks and feel that ridge. Just because some scientists don't want to think Don't believe that structure developed twice in the development of man. Think. Read Big Brain and decide on your own. But if intelligence is not rewarded - Why would we continue to evolve? When you look at the world's condition do you really believe that the current generation of fat cats are an evolutionary advance? Also, the Knowledge Based Revolution by Taki Sakiya is helpful. Okay, he is Japanese, and I don't do conji. It is available in English, and he contended last millinium that knowledge would become more common and be rewarded less.
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      Mar 12 2013: Hi,
      You bring up an interesting point, and I also think that with the convenience of technology, the human brain requires less work, and it sees little incentives to evolve. As much as the human brain has come closer to excellence, I feel that the brain evolves less now that the technology allows the brain to work less.
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        Mar 12 2013: I tend to agree with you Kyung.

        The evolution of technology has been exponentially faster in the recent centuries than it has in the past.. as far as I know. I truly believe that technology has almost replaced the inventive to evolve the human brain when computer brains can evolve at a much faster rate.

        However, I think as humans with lifespans that last a short time when compared to time humans have been around, it is hard for us to speculate how and when human brains will evolve. If there really was a huge sudden evolution 75-100k years ago, how do we know how sudden these evolutions actually were? Has the human brain not evolved much since then? I think this is a subject that is truly hard to tell. With technological advancements going at the rate they have been, I think human brain evolution will not come anytime soon.
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    Mar 7 2013: "...it allowed an accidental discovery by one member of the group, such as use of fire or a particular kind of tool, to spread horizontally across the population and then transmit vertically down the generations."

    The kind of attention we give to the world you describe only exists in the present and the past - what is known - and is thus not creative and speculative. In other words, 'what is' exists predominantly in one part of the brain, while the creative, speculative 'what could be' exists predominantly in another. It is open to question therefore, whether such discoveries as fire and the use of tools were accidents, or whether an element of creative input was present.

    Creativity is the key to increasing capability, in my humble opinion. The more we confuse knowledge retention and 'what is already known' with intelligence - and go on to prime our children through education on that basis, the less we are likely to increase our capability.

    The plasticity of the brain is such that it will develop in the direction of the information that feeds it. If we feed it certainties only, then we will all develop into stagnation. If we feed it 'possibility' and 'what could be', we are more likely to make significant leaps forward.

    The brain is potentially a balanced organ of thought, and so our development should reflect a similar balance, and logic and creativity should both be present. Crucially though, knowledge and logic should be the servant of creativity - not the other way around, as it appears to be so in the modern mind.
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    Mar 7 2013: I do not believe the human brain has increased its capability, so my answer is "NO".
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      Mar 7 2013: Hi Edward,
      To clarify, you do not believe the human brain has increased its capability since when? Do you believe that the human brain's capabilities have remained the same since our primal ancestors and the differences in behavior are solely due to environmental influence? If that's the case would a caveman baby be able to function harmoniously in today's society if the baby was somehow raised in modern environmental and societal conditions? It is an interesting point, that I did not originally consider, to ponder whether our primal ancestors were just as smart as us, however, not given the same opportunities to flourish as we are now given. Thank you for your input!

      -George
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        Mar 7 2013: I consider it a justified true belief that the first healthy human brain, the last healthy human brain, and all healthy human brains in between share identical capability. I do not accept that variations in human behavior are attributable to changes in healthy brain capability.Based on archaeological evidence we know that some humans who came long before us accomplished feats of engineering which we cannot explain, or duplicate, today. The "opportunities to flourish" you mention are no more abundant today than at any time in the past. Putting a man on the Moon is no more impressive, capability wise, than adapting to local environmental conditions, or learning to communicate thoughts and ideas.
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    Mar 10 2013: From a purely biological evolution point of view, I think the question of brain increasing it's capabilities as a whole is unimportant. It's rather a question of brain adapting to new environments, just like the whole organism. For example modern human brains possibly have lost capabilities of reading weather, hunting or night vision. But it has increased capabilities for reading, memorizing more data and abstract reasoning. Human brain to body mass ratio has increased over evolutionary time scales but whether that increase is a true expression of excellence as a social animal is debatable.
    Moreover, human brain is undergoing a more rapid change in the horizontal direction as we are increasing the sensory inputs to brain aided by technology. Consider how vastly neural networks of human brain will change if we implant a chip inside human brain that can enable us to see in the infrared or ultraviolet.
    There is another important development taking place in the realm of human brain capabilities. Just like we can download data in extended hard drives to free up memory for a processor to run better in a computer - we have created huge repositories of information that can be accessed almost instantaneously now relieving the human brain to expend more power in the critical analyses or abstract thinking. So a social brain has certainly increased its capabilities in modern times.
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    Mar 10 2013: I believe that the Brain can develop even further. It is part of evolution and that's the progression... leading to even more development of mankind.

    To quote an example, when I look at my 12-year old son's school books, they are being taught (and they get to know) way more knowledge, insights and skills than us at the same age. What we were knowing at, probably, 16, they already know at 12.

    Technology, communication, language and many other factors are responsible for even more brain development.
  • Mar 10 2013: So apparently finding the brain is not the sole holding vessel for information. On cellular level in fact each and every one holds variables and cross related bits indicating yes another mirror neuron like discovery OR evolution is at a cusp in time. Environmentally significant perhaps is a stalling of the expansion of the universe allocating easier perception (to scale) of information or absorption at that cellular level.? A strange reach probably yet cosmology demands a connection to physics and brain mapping shows the aforementioned as the reality. So why?
    We also come to understand more with the machine we have and recognize it as having biological origins from 3 different places. reptile, animal and a modern dual hemisphere structure all doing different things primary tasks are bodily operation. The modern brain will confound us with its own analysis of itself.
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    Mar 8 2013: Every brain keeps improving its capabilities as long as it learns new things. Though, I do not mean that learned skills of former generations are automatically integrated into latter generations.

    Imagine the act of painting for an instance. If a new painting is painted on a canvas with some predrawn image, it would introduce limitations to what the painting could become. On the contrary, if started with a blank canvas, a painting could take any form, without any limitations.

    The brain is analogous to a multidimensional bio-chemical canvas that draws on itself continuously. Where every "brush stroke" is a newly formed or destroyed connection/structure, corresponding to a learned skill. Thus, the brain with less embedded knowledge has less restrictions to what it may become and has more potencial to become greater, than a brain that already has a embedded framework of ancestoral knowledge.

    Therefore, if a brain was intelligent enough to realize the above, and if its goal was to become more intelligent, it would not chose to evolve into something with restrictons upon its existence.
  • Mar 7 2013: There are some physical limitations involved in this question.
    First of all, the brain is about as big as the human birth canal allows unless there is some evolution in this area.
    The complexity in the brain structure (number of folds etc) can probably increase although I expect there is a reciprocity issue here.
    The amount of energy the brain takes about 20% of our oxygen and glucose to run
    Also, where are the evolutionary pressures that would force the brain to function "better" than it currently does.
    Some people say that our exposure to technology and the quick pace of change is changing us.
    Other people say that our exposure to technology is giving us shorted attention spans and smaller memories.
    It is also not clear that intelligence was the primary goal that evolution had in mind when the brain project was started. Certainly cleverness in dealing with our environment surviving when surrounded by predators but not having much in the way of built in weaponry. Intelligence may just be an emergent behavour.
    Is this mirror system unique to mankind or has it been in the brain design for many species?
    If there is a jump in neuron evolution, it probably will not be a straight line advancement on the current structure.
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    Mar 7 2013: Hi George!

    Your question is quite complicated and definitely raises mixed responses from me.

    On the one hand, I think that, as Edward Long has stated, our brains have always had the same capabilities. The product of what our brains can achieve is dependent on the time we live in and how well we uncover our subconscious minds. But not on our brain development. The more knowledge and ideas that are fed to it, the more advanced our creations will be.

    However, on the other hand, I am drawn to the idea that our brains are constantly evolving. Which raises the question, when will this stop? Will our brains ever reach an ideal state of being or rather are they capable of infinite development? I do like to think that our world is limited, which would mean that our brain advancement is also limited.

    So this is my long way of responding that I am don't know. Though if we did know the future of our brains, wouldn't it diminish the challenge of exploring the powers of them?
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      Mar 11 2013: Hi Hadar,
      I liked the point you brought up about the abilities of our brain depending on the time we live in. I feel there are two ways to look at this situation. Our brain definitely has evolved over the last couple centuries in terms of the knowledge we have gathered. We learn more in school now than people may have a generation above us. As our society, and scientific community develops, there are constantly new ideas being brought forward, new innovations, new data. The time we live in is more advanced than say 50 years ago, and the fact that we can understand more could be viewed as our brain's development and progress. The other way of interpreting this question is to think about the actual biological processes that show that our brains are changing. The emergence of a mirror neuron system was a very significant, physical change that can be measured and understood. Whether another visual development like that will occur is difficult to predict. But I personally believe it could happen. We simply do not have the capability to imagine it or understand it until it does.
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        Mar 12 2013: Nicely said,

        I agree on both counts. I think there is much evidence and reasoning to support the biological and cultural evolution that you just mentioned. That seems to be the path of history, always evolving and developing. If it did not happen in this way I do not think we would know what we know now.

        As for the human brain, I think it will continue you to grow and I think this is evident by the examples Nemma pointed out
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    Mar 7 2013: What I feel is that our collective brain is living in 'the present' it continues to absorb and grow depending upon the time it is in. 3000 years in the past it acquired and evolved to absorb all that was needed for its growth and grappling with the than realities of living. 3000 years in to the future, it will be performing in the same manner. We as humans are mere 'observers' of a wondrous phenomena.
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    Mar 7 2013: Not necessarily increase but change it function. I think that the human capabilities have adapted for relying on computers.

    For example instead of your brain memorizing 20 phone numbers, your brain keep the knowledge of how to access it in a cell phone, and does not keep that data. If we continue this trend it the brain will adapt to using it functions for more hands on and analytical task, and let the computer store data.

    (Pictures of the Mind: What the New Neuroscience Tells Us about Who We Are by:Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald)
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      Mar 12 2013: Hi Kelly,
      you bring up an interesting point about our brain learning new functions based on the technologies. I would like to expand this to include even making discoveries. One can ask why didn't our brain discover the internet, electricity and all of the other common technologies we have today thousands of years ago - what took so long? I believe a big part of it could be the fact that man started learning more. We started using the parts of the our brain that store memory and that can think of creative ideas and formulate expression. Utilizing this part of the brain allowed us to make new discoveries and develop new technologies. I think that as we continue to learn and experience different parts of our world, our brain will continue to develop and we'll continue to learn new tasks. Other tasks can get weaker as well. I bet that our brain's ability to control our farming abilities and survival skills on a lost island are much weaker than they were thousands of years ago. It all comes down to our environments and how man decides to spend his time, which determines the underlying circuitry and strengths of the brain.
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      Mar 7 2013: Hi Chris,

      I'm not sure if I completely agree with you when you say the physical brain is no more able to generate thought than the physical heart generates emotions. In brain activity studies, certain neural networks in deferent parts of the brain were observed to be more active during a particular thought or emotional experience, suggesting that the brain does play a role in generating thought, or at least processing it.

      Many people believe that the brain is the source of our consciousness because it is the least understood organ of our body. Every other organ can be identified as performing some mechanical function crucial to the proper function of our bodies. The brain has been said to contain more possible neural permutations than elementary particles in the universe so its complexity may never truly be understood. If our consciousness does not live in and originate from our brain, then where does it originate from?
  • Mar 6 2013: There is absolutely zero reason to believe that natural human evolution has stopped and a few reasons to believe it is continuing and possibly accelerating.

    On the other hand, genetic manipulation might take over and essentially end natural human evolution.

    Either naturally or artificially, there is every reason to believe our brain functions will eventually improve.

    An outside factor that could bring human brain evolution to a halt would be the development of super human artificial intelligence. If artificial intelligence becomes vastly superior to human intelligence, we might rely solely on artificial intelligence for decision making. If you don't use it, you lose it.
  • Mar 13 2013: I'm not a specialist in neurobiology but I'm afraid that apart from the contribution of the sophisticated mirror neuron system to spread civilisation and its usefulness related to skills developing and sharing for the progression of Mankind, explained in such a wonderful way by Ramachandran, I thinks that there must be many others sorts of neurons which can explain not the spreading of knowledge but our own mind discovery itself. How can we access to this discovery is the first step before spreadin it to the rest of the human beings .
  • Mar 12 2013: What I think is that human brain is getting lazy .
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    Mar 12 2013: Hey George!

    I was actually just having a similar conversation with one of my friends the other week. He claimed that, in the future, humans will evolve to seek fulfillment rather than happiness, allowing humankind to be a more productive species. (I argued that fulfillment and happiness are abstract concepts that don't necessarily exist in mutually exclusive planes, but that's another argument for another time.)

    I think that evolution in general is an inevitability. The world around us is constantly changing (Moore's law postulates that technology doubles in power every 18 months), and those that cannot adapt will have a lesser chance of furthering their genes. Our brains are adapting to this new technologically-based world, and we don't yet know the true impact. For example, apparently reading text on a computer screen and reading text on a piece of paper is a completely different experience for a brain (even more so for a developing brain), and we don't yet know the effect that will have on the minds of children that are growing up reading on devices like the Kindle.
    (A series of really interesting essays/debates on this concept: http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/14/does-the-brain-like-e-books/ )

    There's obviously no way in knowing with any accuracy how our brains will evolve in the future, but I do believe that the evolution will happen, and that technology will play a role in it in some form.
  • Mar 12 2013: Singularity has the POTENTIAL to increase brain capacity. Though, like TV, it may drastically and insanely REDUCE brain capacity.........we can see this phenomenon in our world today.....on a daily basis...sometimes in ourselves.
  • Mar 12 2013: Yes,, if the brain is healthy.
  • Mar 12 2013: our brain capacity is very much that we still cant understand it .but I dont think our brain can increase its capability ,increasing refer to more using. for example if someone miss a part of his or her brain the other parts try to work more and more until can use more capacity, same if you dont use of your hand for some days,it will be weakness.

    so if use it more, earn more, if you use it less, you earn nothing also you lose prefer capability.
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    Mar 12 2013: I suggest how we use the brain we has and will continue to improve as we understand it's evolutionary weak points such as hyperactive agency assumption etc.

    This is potentially a greater benefit or change in the medium term than further evolutionary changes.

    How we use the brain also reinforces certain neural pathways, so the raw material may not change much, but the wired network and associated behaviours may.

    I'm not sure how natural selection is working these days given low mortality rates. Gene frequency may be impacted more by which groups have the higher birth rates and I doubt this has much to do with brain advantages.
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    Mar 12 2013: Question: (and correct me if I'm wrong)

    Isn't the existence of mirror-neruon's speculative? I remember reading something that the neurophilosopher Patrica Chruchland said about its possible functions. Being that I am no scientist there is no way for me to articulate this but I found the reading interesting. She states that complex mental activities, such as having intentions, would be hard would have to have the right functionality and be in the right place to produce complex mental thoughts.

    As for the this evolution and brain development I would say yes but there is perhaps no way of knowing when. I like to relate evolution and development to sports. You learn from the players before your time and develop your own path. That's how anyone improves and get better. You have to learn from somewhere. I guess its all amazing how our brain does this naturally.
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    Mar 10 2013: Joke as part of my preceding post;
    A man appeared in court facing charges for bicycle theft claiming it to be his own. When asked how long he had the bicycle he replied. “Your honor, I had this bicycle from the days when it was still only a tricycle. Fortunately for him the judge was an avid believer in evolution and the man was set free to go despite the lack of evidence to justify his acquittal.
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    Mar 10 2013: Brains are there to emulate the perceived realities across the different levels of existence of the species. Every perceived reality can only be achieved within specific constraints of our environment. It’s not the species that evolve across the different levels of evolution but rather consciousness that evolves through the different levels of evolution. All matter across all levels has been created to be specie specific, successively upholding the pillars of creation. As such each level has been designed with its set limitations having boundaries that cannot be crossed. Once the boundaries are reached it cannot be crossed and will self destruct to once more fall back to its lower limitations.
    The Lost city of Atlantis which I would like to refer to as “The lost civilization of Atlantis” is a perfect example thereof. What is was and will be again, now where did I read that. A tricycle can no more become a bicycle than a bicycle can become a motorcycle. All levels of evolution is just that, being there as the supporting pillars to uphold and sustain the different levels for the manifestation of unified consciousness working its way up through the levels to eventually attain the highest level of consciousness. The only way to escape this eternal loop called humanity is to attain and become part of the unification of a higher level of consciousness. This is only possible through the realization that you have to give up your egocentric individualistic self.

    To answer your question.
    The human brain has once again almost reached the limitations it was intended for.
    No more than an eagle can become a rabbit, than a rabbit can become a fox will mankind be allowed to become something else. It would defy the whole purpose of upholding the different impassable levels of evolution by means of purposeful creation. No link ever was nor ever will be found to link the different cycles of evolution.
  • Mar 9 2013: No,evolution takes time and we have run out of it.