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: 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!

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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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