TED Conversations

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 7 2013: Well my answer depends on if you mean within the current framework of the brain or outside it via natural or artificial evolution.

    If the question is inside the current framework, I don't think so because that locks our brains down into basically their current capacity. While we may develop a higher ability with a particular skill or something similar, the way the average brain develops precludes anything fundamentally new I think. With that said, if something freaky happened while a brain was being formed, it might actually do something useful instead of causing death or migraines, seizures, etc. But that's one case and is also in a sense outside the current framework.

    If we're taking artificial or natural evolution into account, I think that the brain could emulate anything that can be represented purely with circuits or programming. Bio-control could be done too. Other technology like radios could be emulated if organs formed to make up the hardware parts.

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