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 6 2013: The old saw that Einstein only used a quarter of his brain power, while most of us are lucky to get half of that, springs instantly to mind, but I have no idea if that is true or not...

    But I do not see how it could be otherwise. Has evolution stopped suddenly?
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      Mar 7 2013: Hi Scott,
      I agree with you that evolution has most likely not suddenly stopped in the Darwinian sense. Do you think it is possible, however, for another rapid development in our brain capabilities to occur, that is so powerful that it would allow us to essentially "jumpstart" our evolution, just as the skills of empathy and emulation allowed our ancestors long ago? Something to ponder... Thank you for your comment!

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